Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Interim Pastor
Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Sermon December 6, 2015
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will 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. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
“GIVING BIRTH TO GOD”
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
Sisters and brothers, I hope you ponder the title of this sermon. I chose this provocative title to highlight the absolute absurdity of what we Christians believe and hold dear. We believe that the God of All There Is – the Almighty Creator of Everything – was born into our world in and through Mary.
Do we understand – do we comprehend – how completely crazy this sounds? Or have we become so accustomed to hearing this account every year that we fail to grasp its staggering improbability? How could Mary give birth to the One who created her?
Let me share some words from the minister writer, Frederick Buechner: “if you do not hear in the message of Christmas something that must strike some as blasphemy, the chances are you have not heard the message for what it is. Emmanuel is the message in a nutshell, which is Hebrew for ‘God with us.’ (But) who is this God? How is (God) with us? That’s where the problem lies.
“God is ‘the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity,’ says the prophet Isaiah, and by and large … all the major faiths of the world would tend to agree … (and) the reality of God is so radically different from anything we know as real that in the last analysis we can say nothing about (God) except what (God) is not …
“According to the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich you cannot even say God exists in the same sense that you say a person exists, or a mountain or an idea (exists). God is not a thing among other things … God is that out of which reality itself arises.” (From A Room Called Remember)
Now, sisters and brothers, I’m not trying to be obtuse or confusing here – but what exactly do we have in mind when we use the term “God”? Do we imagine some sort of grandfatherly figure – with a long, white beard, watching over all that is? Do we see the God of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel – reaching out to touch Adam? We must surely know that any attempt to symbolize the Almighty – any attempt to creatively portray the Almighty – is doomed to failure.
And now – we hear in our preaching text, how the God of All There Is – deigned to enter the virginal womb of a woman named Mary and become as any other child growing in any other womb. Is this not absolute absurdity? Yet, as Buechner notes, “Year after year the ancient tale of what happened (at Christmas) is told – raw, preposterous, holy – and year after year the world in some measure stops to listen.”
Brothers and sisters, is it possible for us to hear this Christmas proclamation with ears more finely tuned to its overwhelming reality? Is it possible for us to see this Christmas proclamation with wide-open eyes healed of cynicism and the burden of our years?
Is it possible for us to embrace this Christmas proclamation with hearts made humble and healed of hard-heartedness? Is it possible for us to allow this Christmas proclamation access to the dimmest corners of our souls so our souls might be filled with holy and healing light?
These questions, of course, are not really answerable. But I hope they help us to stop for a minute – catch our breath – and at least partially understand what is being proposed in this simple story of an angel speaking to a young Palestinian girl.
If anyone says they fully understand Christmas – such a person is either dishonest or delusional! We, creatures, cannot hope to understand what happened within the womb of the Virgin Mary. Any attempts to fully understand are doomed to failure.
And, yet, and yet, we keep trying, year after year, to grasp some sliver of what this season – this Incarnation time – is all about. So let’s go deeper into our well-known preaching text. First we should realize that there are three Gospel accounts of the coming birth of Jesus.
In Matthew Gospel, we hear nothing from Mary. The account is focused on Joseph and how he responds to the news of a pregnant Mary. In one sense, we can say that Matthew’s account is from Joseph’s perspective. We do not have the appearance of the angel Gabriel. No, in Matthew, we have the announcement of what’s happening in a dream.
Let me read part of this text: “When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” (Matthew 1:18-19)
Let me pause and allow us to linger on what is happening. Did Joseph go to Mary and ask her what was going on? Did Mary tell him the child was growing within her because of the Holy Spirit? Did Joseph believe her – and if so – why does he decide to dismiss Mary quietly? We hear nothing from Mary in Matthew.
Let me continue the text: “But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20) Joseph wakes from his sleep and does what the angel asks of him – taking Mary as his wife.
A different account is our preaching text from Luke’s Gospel. We could say that this is an account from Mary’s perspective. As I’ve said in the past, Luke’s account is much better known than the account from Matthew. And with good reason! The story of Gabriel’s amazing talk with our young Mary is truly captivating. We don’t encounter Joseph until he takes Mary on their journey to Bethlehem.
As we may know, the Annunciation in Luke’s Gospel comes just after Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel. Gabriel announces to Zechariah that his wife will conceive and they will have a son who will turn many people to the Lord their God. Zechariah hesitates in receiving this wonderful announcement, questioning Gabriel about how this could be since his wife, Elizabeth, is “getting on in years.”
As I’ve said before: don’t unduly question angels. They seem to have short tempers! Listen to Gabriel’s response: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (Luke 1:19-20) So Zechariah will be unable to speak for nine long months.
Mary also questions Gabriel – but Gabriel is gentle with her. Gabriel certainly could not make Mary mute because Gabriel needs something from Mary – her consent. Without that consent, nothing can happen. I love the final words Gabriel says to Mary: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” A more literal translation of Greek is found in the NIV: “For no word from God will ever fail.”
Then Mary quietly asserts: “Let it be with me according to your word.” Or another way of saying this: “Let your word be my word.” I think, brothers and sisters, that we would well ponder this because who is going to be conceived in Mary’s womb? The Word of God!
As the beginning of John’s Gospel proclaims, which is our third Gospel account of Jesus’ conception and birth: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being with him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
Sisters and brothers, this equally vital account of what happened between God and Mary is not as well-known as the more well-known accounts of Matthew and Luke, but it is equally revealing. All three Gospel accounts are worthy of our reading and reflection, especially during these days of Advent.
Sisters and brothers, we’re called in these days to become as Mary was, a person open to all that God will bring to us.
I end with words from the theologian John Shea’s masterful book, Starlight: “…the virtue of Mary’s virginity is not chastity, but obedience. Mary hears the Word of God, listens wholeheartedly, (and) waits expectantly.” May each of us, brothers and sisters, hear the word of God, listen to that word wholeheartedly, and wait expectantly for that Word of God to heal us and make us whole. Amen!