Sunday, December 21, 2003

Fourth Sunday in Advent
Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:47-55 or Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)

Turn us again, O God; And cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved.

It is amazing that our Advent journey is nearly complete. We have reached the last Sunday and the birth of Christ is just days away. The light is growing brighter and the expectation deepens with every passing moment. Like children anxiously awaiting the coming of Santa, the excitement is growing as each new sign of Christmas appears. For them, it is a new present under the tree or another batch of cookies out of the oven. For us, another verse of "O Come O Come Emmanuel" and the light of the final candle signal the coming of the Christ child.

Like the children waiting for Santa, we wonder when the day for which we long will come. Oh, we know Christmas Day is on December 25th, but we are looking forward to another a day - the day when Christ will come in glory. We cry out in our prayers, "How long O Lord?" The hope and expectation we have for the day are especially strong at this time in the church year because we have been hearing the promises for these past few weeks. In a month or next summer we'll be focused on some other aspect of the Christian life. But right now, the promises of God are burned on our hearts and in our minds. "How long O Lord?"

In the reading from the Psalms for today, the writer asked God to save Israel from her enemies and from His wrath for their sin. Between these petitions, the writer repeats the most important petition. "Turn us again, O God; And cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved." There is no salvation apart from God's presence. When God's face is shining on His people, they prosper in all things, but when He turns they suffer. Yet, God is never far. We are the ones who turn, who walk away from our God. We turn to others for our help; we sin against God's Word. The wrath we suffer is deserved.

Try as we might, we can't restore ourselves to God. We can't make ourselves righteous enough. We can't redeem our lives. We can't do anything to make ourselves worthy of God's grace, to gain His forgiveness. We can't make God come any closer, even through prayer, because our God is never far. Our petition is not for God to change anything about Himself, but for God to turn us back to Him. "Turn us again, O God."

During Advent and Christmas we are very aware of the presence of God. Our entire lives are focused on some aspect of our Christian faith - even at work and school we see signs of the coming of Christ. Many of those signs are secular, but for those of us who wait for more than the coming of Santa Claus even those signs point to the baby in the manger. Yet, as the twinkle of Christmas fades and the tinsel disappears, we easily forget the presence of God in our daily lives. We leave God at the church door and go about our business as usual. This is why we meet together weekly to confess our sins and pray for God's mercy. Though our words might be different, we cry out, "Turn us again, O God!" In response we hear the blessed words of God's promises, see His mercy manifested in Christ Jesus and receive His forgiveness in the Sacraments.

Mary saw the answer to this prayer in the promise of a Son.

Micah also knew the prayer would be heard, the Shepherd of Israel would come to care for His people. In today's Old Testament lesson, Micah writes, "Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she who travaileth hath brought forth: then the residue of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel." Have you ever wondered what happened between Malachi and Matthew? There is about four hundred years of history during which God appears to be missing from the lives of His people. The abandonment was to be temporary, God would return to His people. Micah uses the imagery of a woman giving birth, yet it is not just an image. The Savior would be born out of Israel through the body of a young girl.

When God came it was in a most unusual way - as a child born in humble circumstances. He could have come in flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder. He could have taken any throne on earth to be His own and cast out all the rulers from the land. He could have saved His people from their enemies with a word. But the salvation they needed was not from the Romans or any other nation. They needed Him to turn them to Him once again, to bring them peace of heart and renew their spirits. They needed to be saved from themselves, from sin and from death. It would take more than a few special effects. It would take sacrifice.

So, God chose a young virgin named Mary to bear His Son. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary conceived the baby who would save the world. When she wonders how it will happen, the angel messenger tells her that nothing is impossible with God. She learns that her relative Elizabeth is also pregnant. Elizabeth is elderly, far beyond childbearing years. Yet, God chose her to carry the one who would prepare the way of the Lord - John the Baptist.

It must have been most incredible news for this young girl to hear. She was chosen to bear the Messiah. She was nobody - a woman, barely more than a child. She had no wealth, no husband though she was promised to Joseph. A pregnancy would be scandalous. How could Elizabeth be pregnant? Yet, Mary believed. "And Mary said, Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." Joseph was ready to break off the engagement quietly for the sake of Mary, but God revealed the truth about Mary's child and told Joseph to marry her. He also believed and did as God commanded.

Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth for a time. In today's story, when Mary arrived and greeted Elizabeth, the child in her womb leapt for joy. Elizabeth cried, "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb." She could not contain her joy at seeing Mary, the mother of her Lord.

There is so much about the Christmas story that is miraculous and unbelievable - the virgin birth, the star in the east, the visit of the wise men. So many prophecies were fulfilled. The child was born in Bethlehem. Rachel cried out as children in Bethlehem were slaughtered at the hands of Herod. Yet, despite all these incredible things, the most miraculous part of the entire Nativity is the faith of the people whom God chose to participate. Mary believed. Joseph believed. Elizabeth and Zechariah believed. The wise men believed. The shepherds believed. God spoke and they went forth in faith to do whatever it was He sent them to do.

Elizabeth recognized this great miracle and exclaimed, "And blessed is she that believed; for there shall be a fulfilment of the things which have been spoken to her from the Lord." Mary was overwhelmed with joy; she began to sing God's praises for hearing their prayers.

"And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath looked upon the low estate of his handmaid: for behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. And his mercy is unto generations and generations on them that fear him. He hath showed strength with his arm; He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart. He hath put down princes from their thrones, and hath exalted them of low degree. The hungry he hath filled with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath given help to Israel his servant, that he might remember mercy (as he spake unto our fathers) toward Abraham and his seed for ever."

Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, the wise men, the shepherds were not chosen because they were holy. They were made holy because they were chosen and they believed. It had been four hundred years since God had last spoken to His people. They forgot the prayer of the psalmist and tried to turn to God on their own. They tried to make themselves righteous through obedience to a bunch of rules, to cleanse themselves with the sacrifice of animals. The temple priests were busy day and night slaughtering birds, sheep, goats and bulls, begging for God's mercy. The people gave generously to the temple - oil, incense, grain - all in the hopes that God will be pleased with their offerings and shine His face on them once again.

Yet, the writer of Hebrews tells us that God was not happy with those sacrifices. When Christ came into the world in the body that God had prepared for Him, He offered Himself to do the will of God. Born of flesh and blood, the Christ would not rule on a throne made of gold and the finest wood. The Christ was born to die. Through Him we are all made holy, not by our good works or our righteousness, but by His sacrifice.

This fourth Sunday of Advent we remember the life and faith of Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we look at the stories of Mary and Elizabeth, we see how God is able to use even the perishable flesh of man to bring forth great things. Yet, even greater than the miracle of the birth of Christ is the reason for His coming. With the birth of Jesus Christ, God brought forth the Savior whose blood would restore us to our God. "By which will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." He fulfilled the hope found in the psalm, "Turn us again, O God; And cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved."

Christ died once for the sake of those He loves. As Christmas day approaches quickly, with the birth of Christ only moments away, we are excited and anxious for the coming of our King. We look forward to the day when He will come in glory to take us forever into His presence. Yet, in a few days or weeks, as Christmas fades and the tinsel disappears, we will forget the hope we have known throughout this Advent season. We may even go back to living our daily lives with little notice of God's presence.

It is my prayer that after this Advent is over, we will all continue to live as if this is the day our Lord will come in glory to bring peace to the earth forever. "The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace." Thanks be to God.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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