Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 23, 2018
Blessed Before and After
With the Fourth Sunday of Advent falling as close as it possibly can to Christmas, I suppose that even the most ardent of Advent observers have already begun moving on to Christmas. So, rather than shocking you back into our state of anticipation, I’ll work you back gently.
Have your presents started to appear under the Christmas tree? I bet you have already rummaged through them to find which ones have your name on them. You’ve checked that largest package to see if maybe it is for you, and that one with the special bow, and the one that looks like it was wrapped and then dropped a few times in the puddles left over from Friday. In counting all those packages and in seeing so many with your name on them, do you feel blessed? When you image all the wonderful things that those packages could contain, is the first thing that comes to mind, how blessed you are – by God? When you consider the vast number of things those packages could be enclosing, from car keys to a new video game console, or diamonds or a trip to Grand Cayman, did you ponder how blessed you are to have all those things?
What happens when you open those packages and find that rather than car keys, you get a sponge and a chamois to keep your older clunker looking newer, or instead of new game console, you get a first generation game that won’t even work in your second generation console, or instead of diamonds, it’s a cubic zirconia, rather than a trip to some new exotic place you receive a patterned shirt too exotic for you to be seen wearing. You get the idea. Does the air quickly escape from your balloon of blessings when you receive all those things that you not only never thought about but can’t imagine that you would ever want either?
As we consider the yet unseen present wrapped in Mary’s womb, this Fourth Sunday in Advent, what anticipations do we have for that child. Are our expectations of being blessed high? Are we afraid that we might be disappointed on Christmas that the child will not be all that we had hoped for? Could it be that He will seem too ordinary, outdated, unwanted, or even unnecessary? It is unfortunate that He is unwanted by far too many, outdated by even Christians, and unnecessary for those that have chosen a different path. But how blessed are we that He was so ordinary, that apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, He was not recognized as anything other than an ordinary baby.
He was ordinary in the way that all humanity is ordinary. Here, in our reading, He is only in His first month of life in His mother’s womb. He will have the normal growth and development time of about nine months before that unusual but ordinary birth. He would undergo the ordinary process of growing fingers and toes, eyes and ears. He would get bigger and more cramped as the months wore on. He would be ordinary in that He would more than just look like us. He would be like us in every way but without sin.
Yet amid all the ordinariness; despite how much He is like us; in addition to His complete humanity; He is completely other. Elizabeth and John both recognized the glorious child wrapped in Mary’s womb. This child that weighed mere ounces was the very same Lord of creation. Elizabeth calls Mary the mother of her Lord. The Early Church developed the title Theotokos for Mary. It is a Greek word that means God bearer. It is a confession like Elizabeth’s that yes, Mary was blessed, but the reason was that she bore in her womb the living Word through whom all living things were created. He who is uncreated had become a part of His own creation. Whether wanted or not, this gift was necessary. Needed by every sinner.
It is why we observe Advent. We are eagerly looking forward to the gift that God has given at Christmas in His Son. One of our oldest hymns in the hymnal is an Advent hymn: Savior of the Nations, Come, number 332. It was written by St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the 4th century, the very same time that the term Theotokos was beginning to be widely used for it was a time that the true divinity and humanity of Jesus was hotly contested. It is why the hymn so poetically and clearly confesses the true humanity and divinity of Jesus, that which we also confess in the Nicene Creed. A few stanzas of the hymn reads:
Savior, of the nations, come,
Virgin’s Son, make here Your home!
Marvel now, O heav’n and earth,
That the Lord chose such a birth.
Not by human flesh and blood,
By the Spirit of our God,
Was the Word of God made flesh-
Woman’s offspring, pure and fresh.
Here a maid was found with child,
Yet remained a virgin mild.
In her womb this truth was shown:
God was there upon His throne.
Then stepped forth the Lord of all
From His pure and kingly hall;
God of God, yet fully man,
His heroic course began. (LSB 332:1-4)
I’m sure every one of you have received one of those gifts packaged inside several boxes by the giver in order to confuse you and increase the anticipation of what would be found inside the innermost box. Or you have received a gift that had been weighted in order to throw off your guesses. Perhaps you have received one of those gifts wrapped like my father-in-law wraps where the package is covered in tape and there is no corner of tab to grasp. The package carried by Mary was not disguised according to His humanity but His divinity was hidden to all that were not given sight by the Holy Spirit. As Jesus would tell the Pharisees seeking a sign as proof that He was Messiah, that none would be given, we see that it is not a matter of signs and wonders that any sees that Jesus is the incarnate Lord. Elizabeth sees by way of the Spirit’s revelation, for she sees that which is still wrapped. And John sees while still wrapped himself.
To call Mary, Theotokos, or the mother of our Lord, is to declare what you see by faith. It is to see the wrapping and to recognize the gift inside by revelation of the Holy Spirit. To call her blessed among women is to recognize what God has done to her, but for you as for all humanity. That He has given His only Son to be born of woman and to die at the hands of sinful men for you and the forgiveness of your sins. Yes, Mary is certainly blessed forever as she will always be known as the mother of our Lord. But so are you, forever blessed by the Son that she bore, the Gift that God has given for you, salvation in His Son.
Blessed are you among humanity for the Lord has come to Elizabeth’s house and continues come in this house and will come again to your house to save you.
In the name of Jesus. Amen