Fourth Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:39-45 (46-56)
Turn us again, God. Cause your face to shine, and we will be saved.
It is the season of parties, so I am sure we have all seen at least one invitation to some gathering such as an office party or a friend’s open house. Invitations use an abbreviated form of communication, giving only the most important information, answering only the necessary questions. Who? What? Where? When? Why? We try to make our invitations as attractive as possible, so that our guests will want to come. We promise fun, good food and fellowship, adding a bit of glitz and glamour to the invitation to guarantee that we’ll have at least a few people come to be with us.
Our scriptures for this week are like an invitation. In Micah we learn “where” the party will take place in Bethlehem. Micah also tells us the party will begin when the woman in labor gives birth. There are several people “who” are involved. Mary cordially invited us to the birth of her son; Elizabeth told us that child is Lord. God, Savior, the Mighty One is the Host, according to Mary. The psalmist recognizes the Shepherd of Israel and the Lord God of hosts. Notice how the characters, even God, are described in lowly terms. Mary is humble; Elizabeth feels unworthy to be in the presence of the mother of her Lord. God is described as the Good Shepherd, a rather unusual identity considering the shepherds were the lowest of the low in the culture of the day.
With this invitation we learn that God does not do things the way we might do them. We add glitz and glitter to everything, going bigger which we think must be better. We get caught up in the hustle and bustle, rich food and expensive presents. God turns everything upside down, choosing the lowly and humble above the grand and privileged. The psalmist recognized that the circumstances of God’s people were brought on by their disobedience to God’s word and will, but the psalmist had confidence that God would fulfill His promises to His people. He would answer them and turn His face back to them. He would raise them up and He would shine His face upon them. In their darkest hour, He would come to save them. Thus we see the “why” (because we are sinners in need of a Savior), the “what” (salvation), and the “how” (by sending Jesus.)
This week we are invited to that moment. It is not a moment of glory as we might expect, but instead it is a moment of pain in a stable in Bethlehem as a child is born. The invitation is not for the rich and the powerful, but for all who are humble and repentant. The invitation is to come before a manger, but the manger will ultimately lead us to the cross of Christ. When we cry out for salvation, it won’t be found in something glitzy, but in the shine of God’s face. It won’t be found in a palace, but in the manger. It won’t be in the glow of candlelight or Christmas lights, but in the shadow of the cross.
Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was in her sixth month heavy with child by the time Mary met with the angel Gabriel. It must have been particularly difficult for her, as she was an elderly woman. When Mary heard the words of the angel, she went immediately to see Elizabeth. Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph, had no reason to believe that she might be pregnant except for the words of the angel. She didn’t seem to doubt the words; she simply asked “How can this be, seeing I am a virgin?” The angel answered that it would happen by the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary did not question the words of the angel, but accepted what had been told to her with a willing obedience to the call of God.
Mary quickly departed and traveled to see her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s pregnancy was the sign that the angel gave her to confirm everything. Mary needed to know that Elizabeth was pregnant. It was too ridiculous to believe without seeing. If Elizabeth was indeed having a baby, then everything the angel said was true. It was real. Then Mary could deal with it all knowing that God was indeed with her. It was then that she could sing her song and praise God for this gift. Without this encounter, Mary may not have ever had the certainty or the strength to stand up against the struggles she would face with her family and friends.
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, probably to help her elderly cousin in those final months of her pregnancy. Mary could do so much for Elizabeth, to allow Elizabeth to stay off her feet and yet still provide for the care of Zechariah. It gave Mary time to pray and to grow accustomed to her situation. It also gave the baby time to grow in her womb until her pregnancy was just becoming visible to the world. Then that she returned to face her family, her friends and her betrothed.
During Advent we take a moment to remember the woman who was chosen to carry the baby Jesus in her womb and then in her arms. She is an incredible example of faith, but we should be careful to not raise Mary to too high a pedestal. There are those who make Mary almost god-like and perfect. She is equated, in some circles, with the goddess of pagan faith.
However, Mary need not be perfect to be blessed of God. Her life certainly was not pain free. She was just a child when she became pregnant and she was mistreated as a whore. She gave birth in a cold stable, and then went on the run with her husband and young child to save his life. She deeply loved her son, but at times he seemed to disregard and disrespect her. Think about the stories: He went to the temple and they could not find him, He told her that it wasn’t time at the wedding in Cana, she went with Jesus’ brothers to talk to Him because they thought he might be crazy. He told her that those listening were His mother and brothers. And then, after all this, Mary watched her son die a horrible death, executed on the cross.
Mary’s story is not one of a goddess or a woman of sinless perfection. She was a woman, chosen of God to bring the good news of salvation into the world. She had the rare, single honor of being the one to bear His body, but this is not why she is called blessed. She is called blessed because through all these trials, Mary remained humble and faithful to the God she loved.
Mary has been raised to a pedestal that is not hers. She has been made by some to be equal to Jesus in virtue claiming it is necessary for Jesus to be perfect. But this rejects the reality that Jesus is also fully human. Mary gives Him that part of His character. She gave Him the flesh and blood, the will that can be tempted and the heart that can cry out in agony on the cross. God, the divine aspect of His character, gave Him the ability to stay perfect and sinless. In this passage, Mary herself tells of her failings, crying out in thanksgiving to her Savior. If she were perfect, why would she need to be saved?
Mary deserves our respect, not because she is greater than you and I, but because she is just like you and I. She was specially chosen to bring the Gospel to the world in a very unique way, but her story as a sinner and saint is just like ours. There were times her actions as the mother of Jesus put her as an obstacle to His ministry. She was a sinner in need of a Savior.
When you read the scriptures, it is obvious that her son came for the poor, the sick and the humble, those who need a Savior to change their lives. He did not reject the rich and healthy, but it was those who had a real need that found refuge in the words and actions of Jesus. There are people in this world who call themselves Christian because they find something in the life of Jesus that they want to emulate. They often see Jesus as a friend, as a role model. Yet, when asked about sin and their need for a Savior, they will deny they have any such need. They do not truly understand the reason Jesus came into the world.
Mary knew. Mary knew that Jesus offered a life-changing gift, the gift of forgiveness and eternal life. If a person sees themselves as good, they have no need for forgiveness and salvation. This is why true faith comes to those with a humble heart. It comes to those who recognize their true need, the need for mercy and grace which is found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is not an example of how we are to live in this world; it is the gift of life for those who are dying from their sin. He gives us everything we truly need.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, the prophet Micah foretold the coming of the Messiah. He pointed to a rather strange place, the very small town of Bethlehem. Though Bethlehem was the birthplace of David and was the site of the tomb of Rachel, it was relatively unimportant in Jesus’ day. Bethlehem was not the seat of kings. The people expected the king to be born in a palace and Bethlehem had no palace. The seat of the king was in Jerusalem.
Someone greater would be born in Bethlehem, a ruler in Israel whose origins were of old. Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the Everlasting, the eternal One. The text from Micah gives us a clue about the One who is promised, this man who will give us peace. He would be born in Bethlehem. It was to this text that Herod’s advisors pointed when the wise men asked where to go to find the baby king who was born. They knew from the prophecy that the ruler of Israel, the Messiah, would come from this small town. Bethlehem means House of David; it also means House of Bread. Jesus is the descendant of David and He is the Bread of Life. In this promise we see that Jesus is truly Immanuel, God with us, both human descending from the House of David and the Son of God. We needed Jesus because He is the only one able to give us peace.
In the reading from the Psalm for today, the writer asked God to save Israel from her enemies and from His wrath for their sin. “Turn us again, God. Cause your face to shine, and we will 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. God is never far from us but we have this tendency to turn from Him, to walk away. 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, despite the ways we try. 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.” Mary knew this; she was a humble handmaid of the Lord singing praise to God her Savior.
By the time Jesus was born, 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 and coin) hoping that God would be pleased with their offerings and shine His face on them once again. God was not happy with those sacrifices. Instead, Jesus Christ offered Himself to do the will of His Father. Born of flesh and blood, Jesus would never rule on a throne made of gold and fine wood. Jesus was born to die. Through Him we are all made holy, not by our good works or our righteousness, but by His sacrifice.
During Advent and Christmas we are very aware of the presence of God. Many of the signs are secular, but even those signs point to the baby in the manger, for those of us who wait for the Savior. Twinkling lights remind us of the Light, the gifts under our trees remind us of the best gift, and our parties are experiences in hospitality. We are generous not only with those we love, but with strangers as we give to charities serving those in need during this season. Santa Claus might not seem very religious, but his story has a foundation in faith. We can see our God everywhere if we pay attention. God is with us in the most human ways.
The writer of Hebrews shows us that Jesus came because the ways of the world do not work. We think bigger is better, but it isn’t always. We think we can earn our way to heaven, but we can’t. We think that if we are good enough, if we do everything right, if we obey the Law, then we’ll experience the blessings of the righteous. But it is impossible for us to become righteous by obeying the Law. Jesus came to do what we cannot.
The Christmas story is sweet and wonderful until we remember why Jesus came. We love the images of Bethlehem, the manger, the starry night and the shepherds in the field. We honor Mary and Joseph, rejoice with Elizabeth and Zechariah. We follow the wise men on camels carrying gold and myrrh and frankincense. We smile at the donkey and cow and sheep surrounding the baby with golden light and soft soothing music. We love our Christmas trees and the presents, the cookies and the parties. We love everything wonderful about the holidays.
But Christmas is not all sweet and wonderful. Jesus came because there was work to do. He came to turn the world upside down, and God did it in a way that is the opposite of everything we might expect. Jesus didn’t come to be a king, but to be a humble servant. He came to be a shepherd, to take care of the deepest needs of God’s people. He came to save us, not as a conquering hero, but as the Son sent to do His Father’s work.
That work is the most shocking part of the story. The Son did not come to rule on an earthly throne or lead an army into war. Jesus came to die. We have made the Christmas story to be one of sweetness and light: a mother and a baby, the farm animals close by keeping the happy family warm on the cold night. The pictures have beautiful angels singing praises to God and kings dressed in robes of spun gold fabric. It is a beautiful moment until we realize that Jesus came to die. God turned the world upside down, using the wrong people in the wrong places to do what He knows to be right.
Bigger might be better and glitz might make us happy, but we are reminded in today’s lessons that God doesn’t choose the biggest or most perfect for this story. He chose the lowly, the humble, the littlest. He chose those who would be turned, who could be changed by His grace. He chose those who willingly obeyed His call. He still does. He chooses you. Are you ready to face the upside down world right side up? You might be among the lowly, but God is ready to bless you in ways you cannot imagine.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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