The Fourth Sunday in Advent

Download or listen to the Fourth Sunday in Advent: “Inconceivable” (Luke 1:26-38)

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Well, we’ve finally made it. We’ve made it to the last Sunday in Advent. We finally get to hear a Gospel reading that has something to do with Mary and the Baby Jesus—although, if you think about it, this reading really belongs nine months before Christmas, on March 25. Nevertheless, here we are, with one week left before Christmas. And we’re asking ourselves, Am I ready? Am I ready for Christmas? Have I bought the gifts, have I baked the cookies, have I decorated the house? But Advent still asks us, not whether we’re ready for Christmas, but whether we’re ready for Christ.

Now, either of those questions might strike us as something along the lines of: Are you ready for graduation, to go find a job and be responsible for yourself? Are you ready for marriage, to be with one person for the rest of your life? Are you ready to have a baby, to be responsible for that tiny human being, who needs so much care and love? If people answer yes to those questions, I’m guessing they’re not graduated or married or having children. We’re never as ready as we think we are. And if you’d asked Mary 24 hours before the angel Gabriel visited her if she was ready to be pregnant the next day, if she was ready to have a baby, I doubt she’d have said yes. She might have looked at you as if you were a little crazy. She might have wanted children, longed for children, expected children. After all, she lived when people thought children were a blessing in which to rejoice, rather than a curse to be suffered. But I doubt she was ready or prepared or expected an angel of God to confront her with this word. I don’t think that when people saw Mary, they saw her glowing with virtue. There was no halo to mark her as the one whom God would choose to bear the Son. I don’t think that she was as that stained-glass window depicts her, kneeling piously before the Scriptures. I’m sure she was going about the business of the day, whatever that entailed for her. She wasn’t ready for Christmas, though it was nine months off.

But somehow we can’t get rid of this picture of Mary as somehow more prepared for the angel’s words than someone else. We think that God must have seen something in Mary, or that she had somehow done something, and that that’s why He chose her. But this is just our native paganism; it’s just us believing that people somehow deserve what comes to them. The good get good things and the bad get bad things. But if Mary was chosen because she was more holy or more virtuous, then we hold out hope that maybe God has seen something in us. That He’s chosen us because of something He sees in us. Otherwise, the whole thing is inconceivable to us. But how different that would be from everything we read in the Scriptures. How different that would be from how God chooses every other person in the Scriptures. God never chooses anyone because he’s more holy or more virtuous or has otherwise done something to deserve it. God is not like the antique collector, going around looking for pieces with as few flaws as possible. He is much more like the half-senile junk collector picking up trash and decorating his house and lawn with it. He’s much more like someone who picks up a bunch of broken pieces of glass and makes a beautiful mosaic out of them. Much more like the potter taking a broken jar and remaking it. God never chooses saints! He only chooses damned sinners.

But maybe we think it’s different with Mary because, after all, the Son of God was in her womb, and since we want to protect His sinlessness and holiness, we defend hers. But here’s the thing: if Mary cannot carry the Son of God because she’s a sinner; if He cannot come to her and purify what He takes from her flesh, then He cannot come to us either. And maybe it’s that that we really find inconceivable: that God saves sinners in Jesus Christ completely and absolutely apart from who they are or what they’ve done. We say the Virgin Birth is impossible. We ask, as Mary did, how can this be? Same as the Apostles when Jesus said it was only with difficulty that the rich would enter the Reign of Heaven. The disciples said, “Who, then, can be saved?” And Jesus said, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:23-26). God causes barren old women and virgin young women to be pregnant; no Word is impossible with God. It is all literally inconceivable—unless God is conceived in Mary. The virgin conception and birth of Jesus are just as impossible as your salvation. But Mary had prayed with the prophet Isaiah for the heavens to shower and the clouds to rain down righteousness; she had prayed that the earth would be open so that righteousness and salvation would bear fruit. Heaven is full and the earth is empty. The earth does not bear fruit unless it receives the seed from above; unless it receives the rain and the sun from above. Neither do empty wombs become pregnant without seed. But after 800 years, God answered the prayer of Isaiah. After 1000 years, He fulfilled His promise to David to build a house for his Descendent, a house for God’s Name. And Mary was part of the answer to that prayer. The heavens rained down righteousness and salvation, so that the empty earth of Mary’s womb might bring forth the fruit of righteousness in Jesus’ own body. He is the House of God’s Name on earth, and God chose Mary as the one through whom He would come. Inconceivable—unless God Himself is conceived.

Conceived for Mary’s salvation and yours. At the heart of the message of the Angel is the Word of God for you: “For us men and for our salvation, He came down from heaven, was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” In answer to your prayer, that He would stir up His power and come and help you by His might, that the sins which weigh you down would be quickly lifted up by His grace and mercy, He came down, and took on flesh and was made man: for you and for your salvation. And yet, here we are, still waiting, still praying for Christ to stir up His power and come back. And I wonder if not being ready for Christmas has something to do with being ready for Christ to come again. Because the joy of Christmas is only by faith, while everything we see is Advent. God made barren Elizabeth to have a child, but barrenness is still a bitter curse. God caused Zechariah to be mute in his unbelief, and still there are those who do not believe and so do not speak. Still sin and its effects surround us and weigh us down. Even as we celebrate Christ’s first Advent, we still long for His Second. But as surely as His Word was confirmed to Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary, just as surely will it be confirmed to you. He came down, and He will come down again, and the sins which He died to lift from your shoulders, He will remove completely; He will cleanse you just as He cleansed Mary’s flesh. And so we continue to speak those words: for us men and for our salvation, He came down from heaven. Rejoice in those words this last week before Christmas! Worship at those words! He has done what He said, and it will be according to His Word. Whether you are prepared for Christmas or not, by that Word, the Word made flesh, you are prepared for Christ.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/17/11

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