Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Here we are. It’s the Fourth Sunday in Advent already. Time flies in Advent—it’s not your imagination. Except for Christmas, it’s the shortest season in the church calendar. And, we’re shopping and baking and wrapping, and trying to carve out some time to prepare the way of the Lord, to welcome the Christ child, and to make room--a “mansion,” the collect says--to make room in our hearts and souls for the Christ who will return in glory. It’s a tall order for sure.
And today, finally, after some of the uncomfortable readings of the past few Sundays—the warning to keep awake, the voice crying out in the wilderness—today we hear a Gospel lesson we all know and love. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Luke’s account of the coming of the baby Jesus. I heard it at home, and acted out some part of it every year in Sunday school. You don’t even have to ever have gone to church to know Luke’s account. You’ve seen pictures of it in museums and you’ve seen it on Christmas cards. If you’ve seen the Christmas story on television, odds are you saw Luke’s version of it. That’s the version that’s used in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
So it’s easy to think we can sit back and relax today. After all, we know this story. At least we think we do. But the trouble is, when we hear a story that we’ve heard before, it’s easy to stop listening to it when we hear it again. I know I’ve caught my mind wandering when I listen to a reading I think I know really well. I don’t think I really need to pay attention. It’s easy to let this happen with today’s lesson from Luke.
The other problem with this lesson can be the tendency to get so fixated on the part about Jesus’ conception that the rest of it just slides by us. Some say that Luke’s account of how Jesus is conceived is absolutely true exactly as written. They might want to say, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” On the other hand, there’s a whole other group of folks who totally dismiss this part of the story. “It’s never happened that way yet,” they say. As you might guess, both of these approaches don’t get close to the heart of the matter here, and end up just dividing people.
So, we need to find another way into our passage from Luke. We need to find a way that will help us hear what God is saying to us. So, let’s look at our reading a little more closely.
Let’s think for a moment about just who it is that the angel Gabriel visits. Mary is a very young woman, maybe in her mid-teens. In her world, even more than in ours, her youth and gender didn’t give her status. In fact, the exact opposite was true. It’s notable that Luke doesn’t name Mary’s parents or say anything about them. Apparently Mary’s family connections aren’t worth mentioning. The Mary we’re meeting today isn’t the richly dressed woman you’ve seen in Renaissance paintings. The Mary we’re meeting today isn’t Mary the queen of heaven. Not yet, anyway. All we know about Mary is that she’s from Nazareth, a very insignificant town indeed. When Nazareth deserves a mention in John’s Gospel, it’s in the form of the question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” If you think of Durham’s struggle for respect among the cities of the Triangle, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it meant to be from Nazareth.
Luke also doesn’t tell us anything about Mary’s personal qualities. He doesn’t say that Mary was particularly good or kind, and he doesn’t say that she was outstanding in any way. Her status as a virgin says more about her youth than her virtuousness. Nevertheless, it was Mary whom the angel of the Lord came to visit. It was Mary, a nobody from nowhere, whom the angel Gabriel came to tell that in due time she would become the mother of the Son of the Most High.
Though Mary’s status is soon to change, at the moment she receives the angel’s visit she is nobody from nowhere in the world’s eyes. But if we look at other figures in the Bible, we’ll see that it’s nothing new for God to choose an apparently insignificant person for an important role in salvation history. David is mentioned in our Old Testament lesson today. David started out his career as a lowly shepherd. In First Samuel, God chooses David to be king instead of David’s more impressive older brothers. At the time David is chosen, Samuel says, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Apparently God saw something in David and in Mary that wasn’t obvious to most of the world.
What is special about Mary is that she’s willing to do what God asks of her. This willingness is no small thing. Mary could well have said, “Thanks anyway, but I have other plans for my life. I’m engaged to Joseph. Why don’t you ask somebody else?” Mary could have said no, but she didn’t. Instead, Mary made the faithful soul’s response to God’s call: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
So Mary, the girl who’s no one in particular from a place no one thinks much of, agrees to be the mother of the Son of the Most High. She puts her own life plans at risk to obey God’s call. Matthew’s account tells us that when Joseph learns that Mary is expecting a child by the Holy Spirit, his first idea is to “dismiss her quietly,” though he doesn’t actually do so. We can only speculate what the reactions of the other members of Mary’s community might have been.
Mary is indeed the model of faithful obedience to God. In the eyes of the world what she does is pretty crazy. This is a strange story indeed. But wait—we haven’t gotten to the really amazing part yet.
Just what is God up to? It’s odd enough that God has asked a humble girl to have God’s child. It’s odd enough that this girl, Mary, said yes. What’s really astounding here, though, is that God has chosen to be humble. God certainly doesn’t have to, but God has chosen to take on flesh, to experience life as we know it, not only with its joys but with all its poverty, pain, and sorrow as well. God has chosen to take on life with all its limitations, even the ultimate limitation that is death.
God has chosen to enter this world as a baby. In first century Palestine, there could hardly have been anyone more humble than a baby. At that time, the birth of a baby would have been greeted with somewhat more reserve than we celebrate births today. Before modern medicine, infancy was a perilous time and the mortality rate was high, as it still is in some places. And God entered the world as a very poor infant indeed. There wasn’t anything charming about being born in a stable with animals. It would be as undesirable as being born in a bus station bathroom would be today.
There we have it: Jesus was born homeless. It’s a truth so uncomfortable that it often gets glossed over. I remember feeling shocked when I heard the Reverend Jesse Jackson refer to Jesus as homeless baby many years ago. Jesus’s birth wasn’t the end of his homelessness. He conducted much of his ministry as a homeless person. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
So what, then, does Jesus’ homelessness mean for us on this Fourth Sunday of Advent? In a few short days it will be Christmas, and we will welcome the Christ child whether we are ready or not. Christmas will come whether or not our shopping and baking are done. The real question is, have we made room in our hearts? It’s not easy for you and me to make room. We live in the most affluent society the world has ever known, and most of us here today share in that affluence to some extent. Our busyness and our possessions tend to fill up our hearts and minds. But just outside our door live people whom prosperity has passed by. Our neighbors are pitied and even despised by those who don’t share in their poverty. But our neighbors may be more ready and more able and more willing to receive Jesus than we are. They may well have more room in their hearts than we do. It’s hard for us, in our culture that promotes self-sufficiency, to acknowledge our need for God.
The archbishop and martyr Oscar Romero said the following:
“No one can celebrate
a genuine Christmas
without being truly poor.
The self-sufficient, the proud,
those who, because they have
everything, look down on others,
those who have no need
even of God—for them there
will be no Christmas.
Only the poor, the hungry,
those who need someone
to come on their behalf
will have that someone.
That someone is God,
Without poverty of spirit
there can be no abundance of God.”
If anyone experienced the abundance of God, surely it was Mary. My prayer for all of us here today is that you and I may make room in our hearts for Jesus, so that like Mary, we are able to make our answer to God’s call to us, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord.” Amen.