A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on December 18, 2011.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27
The birth story of Jesus stands on its own. It serves as an important prologue of Matthew and Luke’s gospels. It’s how they begin their story about Jesus mostly to provide a better understanding of the prophetic tradition that Jesus fulfilled. Yet strangely it’s ignored by Mark and John. Seems only half the gospel writers got the memo of how important Christmas is to the economy and how much children of the last century or so would depend on sweet baby Jesus to prop up their wishes for snazzy Christmas gifts.
In all honesty, we’re mesmerized by the child. We can’t take our eyes off him. Most want to hold him, to hold his innocence, and to touch his new, sweet skin. We want to watch him even if he’s asleep doing nothing at all. We want to say soothing words to him when he cries and rock him gently to sleep. Babies do almost nothing on their own except to eat, sleep, cry and poop. That’s about it, but it’s more than enough because our love of babies is based on nothing more than that.
But the mystery in this season goes beyond the baby. I think we’re in awe because we believe the baby is God. Our God has become a baby and has entered the stream of human history like every other human has done. The birth of God makes him one of us!
Just imagine if you will, the idea that “if we were in charge of religion,” we would likely base it on performance, rewarding the good and punishing the bad. We’d also likely steer it away from the material world. We would deny our bodies in favor of our souls. Our faith would deny our bodily urges and all the messiness of life contained in human bodies.
As an embarrassment to us, our bodies are often like wild monkeys running free in the jungles of a physical world. They are capable in oh so many ways of incredible feats while at the same time they hold the power to surprise us or embarrass us or disappoint us as our bodies fail us as we age.
In the making of our own religion, the divine would have a curtain separating it from the earthy physical nature of the world. There would be no blood in our religion, no passions, no sweat, no sexual anxiety about the mysterious urges we have toward one another. Passion and reproduction would be a necessary thing, not as a form of celebration. Therefore impregnation would serve a utilitarian purpose. We would be blithe spirits, always in prayer, always divinely hopeful, praying to God that we would not be rejected apologizing for our earthiness. Besides that kind of disembodied religion being a hard sell, we would find it hard to fully embrace the goodness of our bodies and to hear God say in our creation, “it is good.”
This is the point of salvation, Buechner reminds us. The “incarnation means that all ground is holy ground because God not only made it but walked on it, ate and slept and worked and died on it.” The Word became flesh, wrote John, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
There you have it then! The story of Mary is counter to our notion that God loves us or chooses us out some goodness in us, suggesting that we somehow deserve God’s divine attention. The story of Jesus is counter to our innate notion of wanting to separate from our bodies and to live as spirits and more in touch with the mystery and the unseen, divine realms of being. God went the opposite direction and entered human history through the birth canal of a young girl who was chosen for her willingness to serve God by birthing the baby she was told to name Jesus.
A young girl was visited by a divine messenger sent by God in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy to announce she would bear a child. The story of incarnation is told in the stories of Elizabeth and Mary, two unexpecting women found themselves now expecting. Their stories and their pregnancies are intertwined and there is a purpose for both stories in God’s story of salvation.
We’re not told much about the conversation Gabriel had with young Mary. We’re not told how it occurred, whether it was in a dream, or a vision, or just what. All we know is she was told that the favor of God rested upon her and she was to become the mother of the long-awaited Messiah. Obviously this came as a complete surprise to her, something she didn’t expect in a zillion years.
Good news seldom comes without its complications. Likely she was only 15 or 16 years of age (the assumed age young Jewish girls were set up for marriage). Consequently she was betrothed to Joseph, an older man in an arranged marriage. Legal documents had already been signed to seal this agreement but the marriage had not yet been performed nor had their physical union been consummated.
Mary was doubtlessly familiar with the miraculous births of Isaac and Samuel to aged and barren parents. Who knows? Perhaps she thought the Messiah would come in her marriage to Joseph. But the angel told her she would have no human partner in conception but that she would be “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that have hovered over the formless deep and called forth life out of nothingness. This same Spirit would create once again calling forth the Son of the Most High from her virgin womb. What response should be given to this news? Her answer was simple and straightforward: “I am the handmaid of the LORD, let it be to me as you have spoken.”
So Mary’s life was changed. She was given a job to do for God and she was willing to do it, no matter what. Barbara Brown Taylor advises us in just such a moment that we have choices whenever life changes. “If your life begins to change,” she says, “you have several options. You can be stoic. You can refuse to accept it. You can put all your energy into ignoring it. If that does not work, you can become angry, actively defending yourself against the unknown and spending all your time trying to get your life back the way it used to be. Or you can decide to say yes. You can decide to take part in a plan you did not choose, doing things you did not know how to do for reasons you do not entirely understand. You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. You can agree to smuggle God in the world inside your own body.”
One of the surprises we discover in immersing ourselves in the stories of the Bible is that those stories are often renderings of our own stories. They resonate because they shimmer with our own experiences in life. In The Sacred Journey, Buechner tells his own story and reflects, “It seemed to me then, and it seems to me still, that if God speaks at us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives that he speaks. God speaks into and out of the thick of our days. My assumption is that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.”
If that’s true, consider how exciting that can be for all of us who want to love God with all our hearts and minds and souls and our bodies. Imagine yourself in the divine encounter with God’s messenger who announces that God has favored us by choosing us for some larger-than-life assignment.
Making the right response is what we want in that moment. Novelist Pat Conroy described his readiness to life’s assignment like this: “The important thing was to be alive in the moment, open to every possibility and configuration, and make that moment (mine) only, again and again. I needed to open myself to all the possibilities around me, to hold nothing back, to live in the moment at hand with my art and my game on the line.”
Listen! Hear Gabriel’s greeting to Mary as if spoken to you, “Greetings, favored ones! The LORD is with you.”
There’s more. Gabriel says, “Now you have found favor with God.” The language is crucial to our understanding: Favored one (charisomai) + found favor (charis) are both built around the idea of grace. Put simply, Mary is the object of God’s grace.
Likewise, we too are the objects of God’s grace. That is, unless we take ourselves out of God’s intent by disqualifying ourselves and wrongly imagine Mary was favored because she was in some mysterious way a more appropriate object, somehow more deserving of God’s grace. Yet nothing in the story suggests that. She is uncommonly common and that’s the point as Walter Brueggemann reminds us. “God chooses because God chooses,” the old rabbis might say. She did not earn or deserve the honor of being the mother of Jesus any more than any other. That’s why this story is framed as God’s grace. In this story, Mary’s acceptance of God’s grace is purposeful and necessary.
Søren Kierkegaard told a story of a king who loved his people dearly, but he was dissatisfied with his relationship with them. He wanted to share more fully with his subjects and invited them to come to his palace, and even sent out messengers to encourage them to come, but the people were timid. They were naturally afraid of his power and afraid they’d overstep his invitation. So at last, to the dismay of everyone in the royal court, the king laid aside his royal robes and donned the garb of a peasant and went to live among his subjects as one of them.
At first, the people didn’t recognize him, but when at last it began to dawn on them who this was among them, they began to share with him as never before. His willingness to move toward them not only proved how the king really felt about his people, but also made possible a bond of closeness that nothing else could have achieved.
The analogy helps us understand that Christmas was God’s idea. The King with whom human beings had lost touch boldly entered human history in the garb of human flesh. All God needed was a common young girl who was willing to say yes to God. She put herself in God’s mighty hands and a child was born and God entered the world just like every other baby before or since. God-with-skin-on … Immanuel!
 Frederick Buechner, “Incarnation,” Wishful Thinking, A Theological ABC, New York: Harper and Row, 1973, 43
 John 1:14
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Mothers of God,” Gospel Medicine, Cowley Publications, 1995, 150-153
 Pat Conroy, My Losing Season, 134-135
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).