Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 24, 2017, Lectionary B
ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY IN RICHMOND HILL, GEORGIA
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, + Rector Scripture: Luke 1:26-38
Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to see the true meaning of Christmas through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
We have heard the story of Mary’s pregnancy, otherwise known as the annunciation, so many times by now that we, perhaps, have come to take it for granted despite its miraculous nature. Sure, it is not every day that we know of where an angel shows up and announces to a virgin that she will conceive a child. Some young women might like to offer that as an excuse. “Mom, I did nothing wrong. It was not Jimmy. It was God.” Several hundred years ago that excuse might have been considered plausible, but not in today’s non-believing culture.
Whether we personally believe in miracles or not, we are willing to say, “Okay, maybe this virgin Mary could have gotten pregnant when the Holy Spirit came upon her.” Notice incidentally, the Trinitarian presence, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, at the conception. So, as a matter of doctrine, a creedal tenet (by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary) we can say, “Yeah, this incredible event of a virgin conceiving in her womb without the normal process of human congress did indeed happen.”
My question to you, though, is why did it happen? Why did this girl, named Mary (she was no more than12 or 13 years old, perhaps), get pregnant by the Holy Spirit? The angel Gabriel (presumably sent by God) pays her a visit to tell her that she is favored (what could a young girl have done to be favored?) and that the Holy Spirit, the power of the Most High, will overshadow her and she will conceive; the child’s gender being revealed without even an ultrasound.
Still, the why question remains? Why did Mary have to get pregnant in this extraordinary way with a life prognosis (actually it is a prophecy, though with God there really is no prophecy because there is no question of it happening. It will) with a life prognosis that her son would “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. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
I don’t know you mothers, maybe that was a silent rumination of most of you once you learn that you were pregnant. As your waistline began to swell, did you find yourselves looking toward that new life within you and asking, “What will this child become?”
I have Jean Smith to thank for the following story. “Thomas Edison came home and gave a paper to his mother one day after school. He told her, “My teacher gave this paper to me and told me to give it only to you.” Her eyes welled with tears as she read the letter out loud to her child. “Your son is a genius. This school is too small for him and doesn’t have enough good teachers to train him. Please teach him yourself.” Many years after Edison’s mother died, he became, as most of you know, one of the greatest inventors of his century—the light bulb and phonograph, being just two of his accomplishments.
One day he happened to be going through a closet and found the folded letter that his old teacher wrote. He opened it. The message written on the letter was this: “Your son is mentally deficient. We cannot let him attend our school anymore. He is expelled.” Edison became emotional reading it, as we would imagine, and then wrote in his diary. “Thomas Edison was a mentally deficient child whose mother turned him into the genius of the century.”
Mothers, perhaps you had some secret fantasy about the child, you carried, and what he or she would become. Mary, mother of Jesus, however, was told, what her son would become, and boy was it a doozy! Who could believe such? Certainly, hers was no normal means of conception, but why should her pregnancy itself be normal? Why must this “Son of the Most High,” begin like the rest us with nine months in the womb, being born just like us?
Think about it. If God did the miraculous by Mary’s pregnancy in the first place, why not just have Jesus (that is who we are talking about) why not materialize Him full grown or as a six year old kid? God could do that, right? What do we read in Ezekiel 37?
“Again (the Lord God) said to (Ezekiel), “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.’ 5 “Thus says the Lord God to these bones, ‘Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life. 6 ‘And I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin, and put breath in you that you may come alive; and you will know that I am the LORD.'” 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 And I looked, and behold, sinews were on them, and flesh grew, and skin covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they come to life.”‘” 10 So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life, and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.”
Did Jesus really have to be born, go through the whole gestation, birth, and growing up process, with all its aches and pains, like the rest of us? God could have materialized Him as a full grown man. Have you considered that? Before we explore that question further, we need to remember that Jesus’ extraordinary means of conception did not just happen because God suddenly thought it was a good idea. Sure, Joseph, Mary, and the babe in the manger would make a pretty picture on Christmas cards—a camel here, a donkey there, a sheep over there, and angels blowing their horns. No, this virgin birth had been part of God’s plan for a long, long time. We read in Isaiah 7:14 the following: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” Isaiah lived in the seventh century BC.
So, why was the virgin birth important? Here’s what one theologian said. “The virgin birth protects Christ’s deity. Had Jesus been born of a human father, Jesus would have inherited the curse of Adam’s sin. Romans 5:12 says, “Through one man [Adam] sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men.” The virgin birth protects Christ’s deity. He could not have been God had He been born of Joseph.
The virgin birth preserves Christ’s humanity. Had Jesus escaped the birth process, then we could not have a high priest who understood us. Hebrews 4:15 says, “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” The fact that Jesus was born just like you and me, and that He lived the same kind of existence we do, means He understands everything we are going through. His humanity is preserved through a virgin birth” (from “Mary, Mary, Quite Extraordinary” by Dr. Robert Jeffress, 2016.)
Many of the heresies that arose after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension in part dealt with this very question of Jesus’s nature. Was He really human or something else? One heresy suggested that Jesus was a sort of phantom, not material at all. How else could His resurrection be explained? In other words, He did not die on the cross, but merely appeared to die. Therefore, there would be no resurrection because He had not died in the first place. Would that really matter? Yes, indeed!
Here’s the theological, soteriological (soteriology referring to the understanding of salvation) nut of it all in one short sentence: What God (that is Jesus) has not assumed (a body like yours and mine) cannot be saved. By Jesus being born into human flesh and blood, He stands in our shoes. Even more, by doing so He became our proxy. He took our place. He took our sin upon Himself. He took our punishment, meaning God’s judgment would have fallen upon us if Jesus had not stood in our place, taken our place. Why was He able to take our place? Well, as to His humanity He was like us. He was born of a woman. He was flesh and blood and was not some phantom spook. This is why the Virgin Mary, who miraculously conceived, gave birth to a human being. This is why God did not just materialize Jesus as a six year old or full grown man. Jesus had to be one of us and die like one of us which brings us to the crux of the virgin birth.
When we think of Jesus’ birth in the manger like the one before you this morning, we think how lovely, how domestic. It really is a nice family scene, one many of us have known. For those who have had children, you remember that first born. It wasn’t much different for Mary and Joseph. What though if the story had stopped there? The birth of Jesus would have been like the birth of any other Jewish boy at that time. Yes, there would have been what we like to call the miracle of birth, but it would have stopped there for Him. He would have lived life more of less like the rest of us.
In other words, the virgin birth, the immaculate conception would have meant nothing without, without the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. The miracles Jesus performed and the healings He did would have merely been something done a long time ago. As to our lives, yours and mine, what He did would have made no difference. Sure, we might have thought wasn’t that wonderful—the blind to see, the lame to walk, the lepers cleansed, and good news brought to the poor, but what has that got to do with today, with you and me. The answer—nothing at all! There would be no Christmas without the cross, no Christmas without Easter—the resurrection. As the celebration of Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ birth is upon us, remember that the real gift of Christmas—eternal life to those who believe in Jesus is not really delivered until Easter. Merry Christmas is really Happy Easter.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.