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Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent

First Reading: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

1When the king lived in his house and the Lord had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, 2the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” 3And Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.” 4But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, 5“Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? 6I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. 7In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” 8Now, therefore, thus you shall say to my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel. 9And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 16‘“And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’”

Psalm 89:1-5, 19-29

1Your love, O Lord, forever will I sing; from age to age my mouth will proclaim your faithfulness. 2For I am persuaded that your love is established forever; you have set your faithfulness firmly in the heavens. 3“I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn an oath to David my servant: 4‘I will establish your line forever, and preserve your throne for all generations.’” 5The heavens bear witness to your wonders, O Lord, and to your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones; 19You spoke once in a vision and said to your faithful people: “I have set the crown upon a warrior and have exalted one chosen out of the people. 20I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him. 21My hand will hold him fast and my arm will make him strong. 22No enemy shall deceive him, nor any wicked man bring him down. 23I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him.” 24My faithfulness and love shall be with him, and he shall be victorious through my name. 25I shall make his dominion extend from the Great Sea to the River. 26He will say to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.’ 27I will make him my firstborn and higher than the kings of the earth. 28I will keep my love for him forever, and my covenant will stand firm for him. 29I will establish his line forever and his throne as the days of heaven.”

 Second Reading: Romans 16:25-27

25Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith — 27to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name 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 father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” 35And the angel answered 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 called holy — the Son of God. 36And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.


Surprise, It’s Christmas!

Suprises.  Who doesn’t like surprises, especially at Christmas time?  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more practical and the presents I receive from Terry and the girls are ones I’ve picked out.  From time to time, Terry will surprise me with an unexpected gift, but for the most part I know what’s “under the tree” as it were.  That’s probably why I like the office and family Christmas parties where there’s a dirty Santa gift exchange.

You know the present exchange I’m talking about.  Everyone brings a wrapped present only marked for a man or a woman.  Everyone draws a number and then you get to choose a gift when your number comes up.  Of course, there are three surprises to this gift exchange.  The first is what people bring that is unique and unexpected.  The second is the amazing ways they hide the gift, in order to throw you off as to what’s in the package.  And the third is the “stealing” of the gifts during the round.  It’s a lot of fun and it’s a time filled with surprises.

Chuck Swindoll writes, “surprises come in many forms and guises: some good, some borderline amazing, some awful, some tragic, some hilarious.  But there’s one thing we can usually say, surprises aren’t boring.”  Surprises are woven through the very fabric of all our lives.  They await each one of us at unexpected and unpredictable junctures (Finishing Touch p. 268).  I like the story about a professor who sat at his desk one evening working on the next day’s lectures.

The housekeeper had laid that day’s mail and papers on his desk, and he began to shuffle through them discarding the obvious junk mail.  Near the end of the stack, he came across a magazine, which was not addressed to him, that had been delivered to his office by mistake.  He flipped it open and immediately came across an article titled “The Needs of the Congo Mission”.  Casually he began to read the article when he was suddenly consumed by these words: “The need is great here.  We have no one to work the northern province of Gabon in the central Congo.  And it is my prayer as I write this article that God will lay His hand on one – one on whom, already, the Master’s eyes have been cast – that he or she shall be called to this place to help us.”  Professor Albert Schweitzer closed the magazine and wrote in his diary: “My search is over.”  He gave himself to the Congo.

That little article, hidden in a periodical intended for someone else, was placed by accident in Schweitzer’s mailbox.  By chance he noticed the title.  However, the words written leaped out at him.  Was that chance?  I don’t think so.  It was one of God’s many surprises.  This morning we focus on one of the greatest surprises that ever there was, the surprise that took place when an angel, by the name of Gabriel, appeared to a young teenager by the name of Mary.  In this encounter, Gabriel piled one surprise upon another.  Mary and Joseph’s lives suddenly had more astonishing surprises than any game of dirty Santa could have ever experienced.  And the first surprise to Mary was “The Lord is with you, do not be afraid.”

You can be sure that Mary was gripped with fear.  Our English translation of the Greek word dietarachthē (die-tarach-thE) is greatly troubled, but the meaning of this Greek word is much more than troubled or fear.  Die-tarache-thE, is to be disturbed, to be surprised, to be in awe, and to fear.  But it also means to be very curious, all at the same time.  Gabriel is one of God’s archangels, one of the few angels that God entrusts the most important news to be deliver.  And certainly, the coming of God’s promised Messiah was at the pinnacle of the list of important news.

Gabriel was sent to announce the incarnation of God’s Son.  And this coming was going to fulfill the prophecies that had been given some 7 centuries before.  God through the prophet Nathan announced to king David that his “throne would be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16).  Through the prophet Isaiah, God would give a sign to king Ahab, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14).  Thus, we call the incarnation of Jesus, the virgin birth.

I’m not sure what Mary called it, a mess, a dilemma, a thorny problem.  But the announcement God sent through Gabriel was certainly a surprise; a surprise that presented a problem.  It was a problem then, and it’s still a problem for many folks today.   Surprisingly, there are several people in the church, some of whom are ministers and even some who are bishops, who do not believe in the virgin birth.  And that astonishes me.  Most of these nonbelievers, in the virgin birth, have no problem admitting that God created all things in heaven and on earth, that Jesus preformed amazing miracles during His earthly ministry, but when it comes to Mary’s pregnancy they say, well, that’s impossible.  Amazing, incredible, fantastic, but to call it impossible is nothing but a lack of faith in a limitless God.  Now I will admit that it is difficult to understand.

Many of us, adults included, simply don’t fully understand what we’re talking about when we discuss the virgin birth.  There is a lot of mystery there, but simply put, it means that Jesus came from God.  It means that Jesus is God’s Son.  Yes, he was born of a woman, but His Father is God.  Jesus, fully divine, came to us in the flesh to become fully human.  Jesus is fully divine and simultaneously fully human.

The announcement of Jesus’ coming means that the emphasis isn’t primarily on Mary, but on the power of our Almighty God.  As theologian Reginald H. Fuller put it, Jesus is not the product of human evolution, the highest achievement of the human race; He is the product of the intervention of a transcendent God into human history.  It’s a lot for us to take in and we must, like Mary, receive God’s intervening in our lives in faith.

Think of the fear and amazement that must have gripped Mary.  Her first response was, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.  I am still a virgin.”  But Gabriel assured her that God was with her, and this would be the work of the Holy Spirit.  Her next thought must have been, “My father is gonna kill me.”  It was hard enough to get a good girl married off, but one that has lost her purity, that would be a real problem.  But the Angel further reassured her in a very special way.

Gabriel declared, your relative Elizabeth, even in her advanced age, is going to have a child as well.  It was a miracle, unlike Mary’s, but a miracle, nonetheless.  Think about the impact of this news.  God didn’t leave Mary alone in this miraculous event.  Someone else, a trusted elder friend in her family, was also going to experience the unexpected blessing of heaven in the womb.  I can picture the family getting together and saying, “what Mary is telling us must be true.  There are things occurring in our family that are too wonderful to ignore.”  But Mary’s heart must have skipped a beat when her thoughts turned to Joseph.

Fear has a way of gripping us, telling us that what we’re about to do is impossible, or improbable at best.  Mary must have felt that way, even with all of Gabriel’s convincing words.  Mary surely thought that her fiancé Joseph would have great difficulty in the face of public disgrace.  But God didn’t leave Mary to shoulder the burden alone.  An Angel also appeared to Joseph as well and told him not to fear.  Yet another great surprise of this Christmas season.

The angel appeared to Joseph and said, “do not fear to take Mary as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20).  Mary do not fear, you have found favor with God.  Zechariah and Elizabeth do not fear; your prayers have been heard.  Do not fear!  It’s the great surprise of Christmas.  God’s great light, the true Light, has come into this world this season to banish the darkness and drive the fear from our heart.

The first surprise of Christmas is fear not, the Lord is with you.  Gabriel’s second surprise to Mary was, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son.”  Can you hear the surprise in that, Mary you will conceive and have a son?  What could be more astonishing than God placing His most awesome work in the hands of a teenage peasant girl named Mary?  I’m afraid to have a 15-year-old baby-sit children, but to entrust the destiny of the world into such hands?  God’s wisdom certainly isn’t our wisdom!

But once you get past Mary’s troubling circumstances, this whole thing really is very casual and domestic.  What’s more natural than the birth of a child?  The babe in Bethlehem always appears to be less than He really is.  He’s a child born at night, in a lowly stable, in poverty, and obscurity.  He’s a simple boy of Nazareth, rambunctious and learning the trade of carpentry alongside His father.  He goes unnoticed for years while living in a family of little means.  He isn’t a member of the religious class, but a self-styled preacher like His cousin John the Baptist.  He’s a prisoner refusing to answer the accusations of a judge.  He’s accused of being a common criminal like the two He was crucified alongside.  He died, was buried, and except for a few fanatics, was expected to be forgotten.  He was seen by most to be like any other human on earth.  But as Easter would prove, surprise!  Jesus is more than just like your average criminal.

The surprise of Christmas is, the Babe of Bethlehem, the carpenter from Nazareth is Emmanuel, God with us.  I love the way the St. John describes it.  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  John is saying that God pitched His tent among us in the flesh of Jesus Christ, the possibility that no one thought possible, the identity that no one identified, the divinity that no one divined, was made possible at Christmas.  This is the second surprise of Christmas, that Jesus is not only fully human but also fully divine.  Gabriel’s third surprise to Mary was “He will be called the Son of God.”

Let me tell you what’s so surprising about Christmas.  It’s simply this: When God chose to do His greatest work of salvation, He didn’t choose to do so with the grandeur of His earlier works: Saving Noah from a world flood, hiding baby Moses in a basket on the Nile, delivering the Jews from bondage in Egypt, splitting the Sea, giving the Ten Commandments, bringing His people in to the Promised Land.  His greatest work was done in the frailty of a newborn child.  A child who grew up like so many other children.  And this too is important.

And if you miss the importance of this, you’ll miss the importance of Christmas. Jesus was a boy like every other boy who has ever lived.  He got sick like other children.  He learned to be a carpenter alongside his father.  He laughed like every other boy, skinned his knee like every other boy, and grew in wisdom and stature.  He was 100% boy.  But the surprise of Christmas is, He is 100% God and He was 100% boy.  The church has been careful throughout the centuries to point this out.  He isn’t 50% God and 50% human.  He is all boy and all God.  That’s the mystery.  He’s Mary’s son, yes.  But the angel also assured Mary that her Son would be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.

The surprise of Christmas comes to us in the words of the prophets, the words spoken by Simeon in the Temple and the announcement from angel Gabriel: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me.  Your throne shall be established forever”; “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise.  He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him” and [Mary] you will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  May the awe and wonder of this season bless you and keep you to eternal life.


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