Sermons

Fourth Sunday of Advent

One week a Sunday school teacher had just finished telling her class the Christmas story, how Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem and how Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger. After telling the story the teacher asked, “Who do you think the most important woman in the Bible is?” Of course, the teacher was expecting one of the kids to say, “Mary.” But instead, a little boy raised his hand and said, “Eve.” So the teacher asked him why he thought Eve was the most important woman in the Bible.  And the little boy replied, “Well, they named two days of the year after Eve.”  The teacher looked puzzled. The little boy said, “You know, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.”

Eve is certainly important as the mother of the human race but Mary, well Mary as the mother of Jesus is in a place by herself. She is often compared to Eve though as the woman who obeyed as compared to Eve as the woman who disobeyed. Eve is the mother of fallen humanity; Mary is the mother of the One who redeemed humanity.  She is called the Christ bearer and the God-bearer.

What we heard today is the beginning of Mary’s story. We see Gabriel the angel sent by God to Nazareth to see Mary. We are told it was in the sixth month. Luke is not talking about the sixth month of the year, like June, he is talking about the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. We are supposed to be comparing this interview that Gabriel has with Mary with the interview he had with Zechariah, John the Baptist’s dad. It is around six months after that interview. We do not know the age of Mary.  She was probably a young woman between the ages of 13 and 16. Unlike the Romans the Jews would not let their daughters get married until they had gone through puberty; they could be engaged but not married. So Mary is probably just beyond the age of puberty; she is young but not a child.

Have you ever wondered why Mary is confused or perplexed by Gabriel’s greeting?  When you and I hear it, it doesn’t sound that strange, Gabriel says “Greetings favored one, the Lord is with you.” So what is confusing about that? But the Scripture says, “But she was much perplexed by his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.”  Know first that Mary is not stupid. The mother of Jesus is not slow mentally, the reason it says that Mary was confused by his greetings is because what we read in our translation is not exactly what she heard. She heard something more like, “Hello, grace given to and highly favored one; the Lord is among you or it could be understood as the Lord is within you. That’s why Mary goes “What?” Later on we understand the nuances of what this greeting meant, but to hear this right off by someone who just walked in the door would be at the very least, confusing. And that’s what Mary was. She was confused by this greeting. It was wasn’t the regular “Hi Mary, how are things going?” type of greeting.

Gabriel smiles and says, “Oh don’t be afraid; don’t be worried because you have found favor with God. And you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” Gabriel keeps going on and on but Mary gets snagged on this first part. When Gabriel stops talking she responds with “Wait—how is this going to happen; how am I supposed to bear this son? I have not ever known a man.”  She may be young; she may not be college educated but she knows it takes a woman and a man to make a baby.

Gabriel tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her and because of that this child will be holy and called the Son of God.  And to give her the assurance that this really can happen, Gabriel tells her about the pregnancy of her old Aunt Elizabeth. And then Mary gives her wonderful response, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

In Scripture we see that God creates humanity in a number of ways. First, God created a human from the dust when he created Adam’s body. When He created Eve, he formed her from a part he takes from Adam. Then after that he created humans by using a man and woman together. But now He creates in another new way. He creates the body of Jesus from a woman. Each creation is unique.

This reminds me of another Sunday school story. A Sunday school teacher asked her class, “What was Jesus’ mother’s name?” One child answered, “Mary.” The teacher then asked, “Who knows what Jesus’ father’s name was?” A little boy raised his hand, “Ooh, ooh, I know!”  The teacher said, “Yes?” The little boy said, “Verge.” The teacher was confused and asked him, “Verge? Where did you get that?”  The little boy said, “Well, that is what they call them, Verge ‘n’ Mary.

She is called Virgin Mary. Does it matter that Jesus was born of a virgin? We affirm that Jesus was born of a virgin every week in the Nicene Creed. It does matter. It matters for several reasons. First because as the theologian J.I. Packer points out that Jesus was more than man. His earthly life, though fully human, was also fully divine. But in the early days of Christianity there were some people that began to teach that since Jesus was divine he only pretended to be a human being. But really the body that he had was only a façade. Since that was the case, Jesus never really suffered on the cross because he was only pretending to have this body. In fighting this early heresy, the early church fathers appealed to the virgin birth as proof that Jesus was really a human man. They said that since Jesus was in fact born from a woman it meant that Jesus was indeed a human being, a man. Have you ever wondered why in those paintings of baby Jesus it always shows him naked? The painters did this to show that he was really a human boy. He was a little human being.  So the virgin birth was proof of the humanity of Jesus. It was also a witness though that Jesus was more than just a good man and good teacher. Because he was born of the Holy Spirit he was divine as well. Further, the miracle of the virgin birth indicates that Jesus was born without what has been called original sin. Because he did not have a human father he did not inherit from Adam the sin of Adam. His humanity, his acts, his attitudes, his motives, and his desires were unpolluted by sin.

So the virgin birth is important. That is why it is one of the cardinal truths of our Christianity. Does it really matter to us today though? After all we do not need to fight any doctrinal battles. Does it or should it affect our lives? Yes, it does because we see in this act that God loves us, loves fallen humanity so much to enter our world, to become one of us in order to save us. He becomes a human man in order to live among us and show us who God is and to experience our humanity. You see, we believe in a God who understands us; he understands our humanity, our drives, our passions, our desires, our needs and our pains; he understands because he became one of us! That is why the virgin birth is important and that is why this matters to us even today. Our God loves us—he loves you and me beyond what we can understand. And Scripture tells us that as we understand and slowly comprehend more and more God’s love for us we are able to love God and others. So let us continue to affirm the virgin birth and through that affirmation learn to love our God in return and others more and more.

Amen