Sermon for Advent IV
St. John’s – Moultrie, GA
December 20, 2009
All of our themes, all of our focus during the Season of Advent point to the most miraculous event in all of human history – The Incarnation of the Messiah. We will hear on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day those glorious words from John’s Prologue, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Those words have such a sacred character to them that it is appropriate to genuflect at that point in the reading out of profound reverence for the miracle that is our Lord’s birth.
God actually became a creature, for a finite period of time, and a full part of the creation He made, in order that the chasm that exists between Man and God might be bridged for all eternity. The only bridge capable of supporting the weight of sin is God Himself, and that is what we are preparing to celebrate later this week.
However, as we ponder and meditate on these eternal mysteries that are the centerpieces of our Faith, I think on this final Sunday in Advent we should look at some of the people who played equally important roles in this story of Christmas – the supporting cast if you will.
The entire first chapter of Luke’s Gospel is spent looking at the lives of three people – Zechariah, his wife Elizabeth, and Our Lady, Blessed Mary. This long chapter, 80 verses in length, is critical for us to hear before we hear again the words of Luke chapter 2 on Thursday evening.
Luke chapter 1 finds its grounding in first century Judaism. As a time marker we are told that Herod is on the throne as king, and Luke gives some very interesting details about Zechariah and Elizabeth. He says that Zechariah is a priest, and is of the division of Abijah. According to I Chronicles, twenty-four different divisions were established from the sons of Aaron, Eleazar or Ithamar, in order to carry out the duties and functions of the sacred priesthood. Luke is also careful to mention that Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of a daughter of Aaron. John the Baptist’s lineage links him back to the priestly tribe of Israel, and how appropriate that the last of the prophets would come from an Aaronic family. The one who prepare the way for our great High Priest would come from a priestly family himself.
When Zechariah’s lot was chosen and he was appointed to enter into the temple of the Lord and burn incense, an angel appeared to him and told him that his wife would conceive a son. His natural response was to comment on the natural state of both he and his wife. They were both well advanced in years and well beyond the normal childbearing age.
What’s amazing about this and so many other stories is how quickly the events of the past are forgotten. If we go back to the Book of Genesis the exact same sequence of events happens to the great Patriarch of Israel. When God appeared to Abram and told him that he would be the father of a great nation, he laughed. Abram actually laughed at God. When Sarah overheard the news from the three mysterious visitors that she would get pregnant, she too laughed to herself. I’m sure that her heart sunk into the pit of her stomach when the Lord confronts Abraham and asks him why Sarah laughed when she heard that news. I know I’ve found myself in that same situation where I’m searching mightily for that trapdoor in the floor, praying that it will miraculously open for me when I’ve been caught and know it.
You can see what I mean when I mention that the events of the past somehow become foreign to us and we forget the graces that have been bestowed upon us before. Zechariah did just that when the angel Gabriel appeared to him in the temple with news that the same miracle that happened to Sarah was going to take place with his wife Elizabeth as well. And just as Gabriel had said, Elizabeth conceived that long awaited son who would go before the face of the Lord to prepare His way.
Gabriel’s next visit is to a young virgin girl in Nazareth who is betrothed, or legally pledged to be married. It is incorrect to simply say that Joseph and Mary were engaged because betrothal carried legal rights, and could not simply be “called off” in the event of problems. And yes, the Angel Gabriel is about to bring Mary news that could be a very big problem.
Yet somehow Mary is able to grasp at some level the significance of the news that the angel brings to her. Really, her big question of doubt is a matter of practicality, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” I’m sure the thought, “I wonder what Joseph is going to say,” ran through her mind, but it’s never recorded in the pages of scripture. Instead, we hear the following, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word.” She is able to respond with the greatest YES to God that has ever been given. She is about to become the Theotokos, the God bearer, the Mother of God. How about that for your, “how am I going to live up to these expectations!?!?”
We then come to one of the most tender of exchanges between Mary and Elizabeth. Scripture says that Mary left shortly after Gabriel’s message and headed off to visit her cousin. As soon as Mary entered the house and Elizabeth merely heard her voice Luke records that the “baby leaped in her womb and she was filled with the Holy Ghost.” I can only wonder with awe what that must have felt like, and what Elizabeth experienced at that time. Elizabeth knew that her son would play a role in the life of the Messiah, and would take somewhat of a backseat position in comparison. And yet, she is still able to declare with the utmost of humility, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
Mary then responds with the words that we hear every time we pray the Daily Office of Evening Prayer the Magnificat or Song of Mary. I hope those words are familiar to us all as they are a response to grace in the midst of uncertainty. The miracle of our Lord’s birth is also a testimony to the miracle of his mother. One young girl, chosen to be the Mother of the Messiah. Just like God chose one race of people to bring about the redemption of mankind, so to does He choose one woman to bear His Son. I read just the other day on the blogsite of a former Anglican priest and now convert to the Roman Catholic Church that there was no more holy a place on earth than within the womb of Mary. The more I think about that statement, the more I agree with him. God told Moses to remove his shoes before the burning bush because the ground on which he was standing was holy ground. Moses was standing in the presence of the Spirit of God; within Mary’s body dwelt both the full humanity and full divinity of God. The Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies was no longer an object, but now was a person.
One more shift takes place as Mary departs after a three month visit. It is now time for Elizabeth to give birth, and as she does, the family and friends that surround her naturally assume that she will name the boy after his father. Yet she does something rather odd and declares to the people that the child’s name will be John. No one in the family bore that name, and yet she is adamant that this will be the name he is to receive. They question it such that they give a writing tablet to Zachariah, who had been struck dumb during Elizabeth’s pregnancy, and he confirms what his wife said. With those words Zachariah is able to speak again as if nothing had happened. The first words out of his mouth after nine months are words of praise to God – words that sound allot like his wife’s and allot like Mary’s.
He breaks out into praise, and then into a foreshadowing of his son’s future vocation. He prophesies about his newborn son in the words of the Benedictus, one of the canticles for Morning Prayer and most suitable during this Season of Advent.
68Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people,
69And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David;
70As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began:
71That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us;
72To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant;
73The oath which he sware to our father Abraham,
74That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear,
75In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.
76And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
77To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins,
78Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
79To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
A critical part of Advent is hearing the stories again of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary. We hear again their stories because we know deep down inside they had to have asked the same questions we ask all the time – How and Why? Mary asks, “how is this possible?” Zechariah asks the same question. Elizabeth cannot figure out why the mother of her Lord would come and visit her.
We too want to know the answers to questions that begin with the words how or why.
How am I going to deal with my son?
Why are things going this way in my marriage?
How are we going to manage with less money this year?
Why am I having to deal with this now?
I leave you with these and other questions that I’m sure confront you and your faith. Yet, at the same time I leave you with three people who wrestled with questions of an equally significant importance. I leave with the stories of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and the Mother of our Lord, Mary. Three people who somehow turned to the only source of light in the darkness that seemed to be creeping in around them. Three people who turned to the Lord of life when chaos and death surrounded them. Three people who knew that the Messiah of the world was coming, and that He was coming to save them from every fear that confronted them.
O come thou Dayspring from on High, and cheer us by thy drawing nigh; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadow put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!