December 21, 2008 - Fourth Sunday in Advent
It was late at night in early March. We had been married less than a year and were driving back to Beth’s parents’ home to celebrate her birthday. I was tired and it was dark and I drove down their road trying to spot the driveway. It was no problem. Her brother had turned on the Christmas lights for us!
Now that I’ve gotten older, I understand better the temptation to just leave those darn lights hanging all year. Up and down the ladder, packing boxes, trying to find empty storage space that got filled up with something else in the weeks before Christmas. January, February… by March it’s not all that long until next Christmas. Why not leave the lights up?
If Jesus’ birth truly was in December (and we’ve no way to know that for sure), then March is actually the right time for our text today. If a baby’s to be born now, then back up nine months. Some churches celebrate the angel’s visit to Mary as “Annunciation Day” on March 25. Long before the Christmas star shined over Bethlehem, the light of the angel Gabriel came shining into the life of a young woman in a little village on the outskirts of Palestine.
Actual preparation for the birth of Jesus did not happen in four weeks counted off with candles and marked with red and green ornaments and bright lights. It all came about more quietly and more persistently as a tiny life took form within a person who was willing to serve God as no one else ever had before or will since.
So the angel came to Mary nine months before the birth we’re celebrating on Thursday with a salutation in verse 29 that rings down through history, “Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you.”
That greeting felt much stranger to Mary than Christmas lights in March. This was no plastic and glitter cherub lit with a 20 watt bulb. This was a gleaming angelic messenger, a being who had existed since the world began. Gabriel had seen the face of God and he was face to face with Mary. Verse 29 says she was “greatly troubled” at the angel’s words, wondering what kind of greeting she had received, what it meant that she was favored and the Lord was with her.
At my sister’s house the day after Thanksgiving, I dug through a box of my mother’s Christmas decorations and found an old box I recognized. I opened it to find a melted blob of wax. It had a story. I knew what that blob used to be. My mother was snowed in and all alone on her first Christmas Eve away from home at nursing school. She hadn’t heard from her family, but then a package arrived. Mom opened it to find a gift from her older sister. It was that piece of wax, then in the brand new form of a candle bust of the Virgin Mary.
My mother looked at that Mary candle, with the typical blue hood over blond hair and cool, serene blue eyes. She felt so different from that image. Mom had red hair and a fiery temper, and she was not at all serene about being by herself on Christmas. She looked at that candle and broke down and cried and cried that night before Christmas.
But the real Mary was not so cool and collected, an image of peace caught in wax. She was a girl-just-turned-woman hearing an impossible announcement. She was troubled, “greatly troubled.” God might be with her as the angel said, but she had no idea what that meant, what sort of news she was receiving.
That’s partly why the Church has always understood that Mary represents us all, not at first in faith and peace, but in confusion and even fear. What does “Emmanuel,” “God with us,” really mean? If God is with us, why do we often feel alone, afraid, confused and in the dark? Mary felt that way too, greatly troubled. She would have understood my mother’s tears that long ago Christmas Eve. She was troubled, like you and I can be, but God had more to say to her, and He has more to say to us.
The Lord was with Mary and He promised to be with her in an incredibly more deep and intimate way. Gabriel said in verse 30 what real angels always need to say, “Do not be afraid, Mary.” Then he told her in verse 31 that she would have a baby, a son, and in verse 32 that her son would be “the Son of the Most High,” the Son of God.
By being with Mary, God came to be with us. Mary’s womb was seat of the miracle one of our Sunday School classes has been talking about, the Incarnation. God who is pure spirit, pure light, pure transcendent incandescence, entered into that small, dark space. God became a baby. That’s how He was with her. He entered into her, dark and deep, and it became possible for Him to enter into you and me, even into the dark, deep places of our own selves.
God’s light came to Mary and to us in flesh and blood. That’s what Incarnation means. We are not invited to worship a wax figure or a cold, dead image of any kind. God came to us alive, breathing and warm. A baby was to be born, and he was to be called Jesus.
The rest of the promise to Mary is that her Son will stay with us, will be God with us forever. Verses 32 and 33 say that “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, his kingdom will never end.” It will never end. The light that Jesus brought into the world does not come down with our strings of bulbs when Christmas is over. His light is never-ending. It goes on and on, through the year, and through eternity.
We know that the light of Jesus will never end, because He is the one who does not end. As Mary and every follower of Jesus would discover, the Son of God is God Himself. Early on in the history of Christianity, there was a debate about a title for Mary. In the fifth century, Christians discussed whether to call her theotokos, the “God-bearer.” We might say, “the mother of God.”
It sounds strange to our Protestant ears, and we worry that such titles make Mary more than human, might cause us worship her rather than her Son. But in 431, in the ancient Christian city of Ephesus, a church council declared that it was absolutely right to do what Athanasius and Augustine and many others had been doing for decades. It’s right to call Mary the mother of God, not because she needs a divine title, but because in the title is a guarantee of who her Son is. If you call Mary the God-bearer, the mother of God, you will never be in any doubt that Jesus is God. And if He is God, His light will never end.
We’ve all been in places and times where it’s hard to see the never-ending light of Jesus. I’ve been there. There are dim places where we feel all alone like my mother felt on that Christmas Eve sixty years ago. The are dark times when we’re in pain or in trouble. There are times when we can’t really see that’s there is any light ahead. Into those times the words of the angel reach, and we remember with Mary that our Savior’s kingdom will never end. He brings to us the never-ending light.
Even with the promise of a Son, Mary herself was still in the dark, still confused. In verse 34 she asked, “How can this be, since I am still a virgin?” She grasped that her son would not be conceived in the ordinary way. The angel was not promising a conception after her marriage to Joseph, but right now. She understood the strange announcement. What she didn’t understand is how it could happen.
The angel answered Mary in two ways. First, in verse 35 he told her simply that the baby would be “conceived by the Holy Spirit,” as we say in the creed. This was going to be God’s Son, not Joseph’s. “The holy one to be born of you will be called the Son of God.”
Then the angel assured Mary that this impossible thing could happen because something else impossible had already happened. In verse 36 he told Mary that her elderly relative Elizabeth was already six months pregnant. Mary was at least the right age. But Elizabeth had been childless all her life, and now a baby was coming in her senior years. The implication was clear. If God can do that with Elizabeth, why can’t He do this other incredible thing with you?
Finally the angel spoke to Mary’s darkness with a promise. “For with God nothing will be impossible.” Literally, he said, “For with God, no word will be impossible.” As the TNIV tries to capture it, “For no word from God will ever fail.” With God, whatever He says will happen, no matter how impossible it seems.
That promise which enlightened Mary is there for you and me now in our own times of darkness. Mary’s Son repeated something like it to His disciples when they started wondering how they could possibly be saved. “With God, all things are possible.” Even when our circumstances seem impossible and hopeless, they are not, because God is with us. He is with us in the never-ending light of Jesus Christ.
We know that God’s word did not fail for Mary. The promised baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born nine months later, maybe, as we traditionally suppose, in the dark of winter. He was born. And Mary’s words that we repeated as our psalm this morning have also come true, “From now on all generations will call me blessed.”
The light has never gone out for Mary, never gone out on Mary. Through centuries the church has remembered her and blessed her and given thanks for the Baby she welcomed into the world, by welcoming Him into herself. Through Mary, the light of Jesus Christ came into our world and keeps coming to you and me and to every person who walks where it is dark.
Mary bowed her head before the angel and in verse 38 declared, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according to your word.” Mary was the first person ever to invite Jesus into her life. She was the first Christian. His light never left her, never failed her. It will not fail anyone.
In late summer Beth and I attended a birthday party for little Morteza. Many of you know this little three year-old boy lost his mother to cancer this past May. She was a brand new Christian and had been teaching him to say, “I love Jesus.” Now that’s all gone. She’s gone. His father is not a Christian. The boy is spending time with his Muslim grandparents in Iran. The little light of Christian faith in his life is almost extinguished.
Yet at the party, Morteza had a cake with candles on it. He hunkered down and puffed up and blew them all out. But then to his surprise and our delight, one by one the candles popped into flame again. His father had used those trick candles that keep lighting again after you blow them out.
I didn’t think about it then, but I realize it now. Whatever light of faith in Jesus was sparked in Morteza is still there. His mother accepted the light of Christ into her life as she faced the darkness of death and she shared that light with her son. It hasn’t gone out. It may go through some dark times as Morteza grows up without his mother, without anyone yet to show him clearly the love of Jesus. But it hasn’t gone out. The light of Jesus is never-ending, and His light is there for anyone like Mary, like Morteza’s mother, who will accept and receive that light into your own life.
It’s Christmas time, but let me speak for a moment about Easter in the Greek Orthodox Church. Their Easter worship begins with a long vigil in a dark church on Saturday night. Finally, at midnight, the priest comes from behind the screen in the darkness before the congregation. He is holding the only light, a single candle, and he says, “Come receive the light from the never-ending light and glorify Christ, who is risen from the dead.” Then they begin to light all the other candles and lights in the church.
I think I may say those words as we light the Christmas candles Wednesday night. “Come receive the light from the never-ending light.” If the lights of Christmas must be taken down, it’s only so that we can see and receive the even more brilliant light of Easter in the face of our risen Lord. His kingdom will never end. Not even the darkness of death overcomes the Christ light. May we all receive and enter into His never-ending light.
My prayer is that you and I and all those we love and know and rub shoulders with day by day will receive the light of Christ. Paul wrote in II Corinthians 4:6, “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”
Receive the light. Receive the never-ending light of Jesus Christ, and it will light up every dark place in you and in your world.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj