Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Sermon for the third mid-week Advent service - Lk 1:26-38
On Monday of this week, St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic church here in Marion had a Mass for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This feast celebrates the reported appearance of the virgin Mary to Juan Diego and his uncle in Mexico City during December 1531.
The story goes that Mary appeared to Juan Diego on several occasions and also once to his uncle as she miraculously healed him. Mary told Juan to gather flowers on Tepeyac Hill where you would not expect to find them in December. When he did so, Juan found Catilian roses blooming there which are not native to Mexico. Mary arranged the roses in Juan’s cloak, and when he opened his cloak before the archbishop the flowers fell away and left the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Today this image is enshrined in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The location is one of the most visited Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world. The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe was made part of the Roman Catholic church year, and Juan Diego was canonized as a saint in 2002.
You would be hard pressed to find a better symbol of all that has gone wrong in relation to the virgin Mary during the history of the Roman Catholic church than Our Lady of Guadalupe. What was already bad at the time of the Reformation where Mary was viewed as a uniquely qualified and effective intercessor with God has become even worse during the last two centuries. In 1854 the Roman Catholic church declared that the Immaculate Conception of the virgin was a dogma of the church. The Roman Catholic church claimed that Mary was born without sin. Then in 1950 the church declares that the Assumption of Mary was a dogma. The claim was made that Mary was taken up, body and soul, into heaven. She is called the Queen of Heaven and Roman Catholics have described her as the “Co-Redemptrix” along with Jesus Christ.
Now none of these things have any basis in Scripture. And as for the virgin Mary’s supposed appearance in Mexico City, I think that there are two possible explanations. Either it is a fraud – which may have been prompted in part by pious self-delusion. Or something really did happen, but the source was not God. Instead, it was demonic – because what would please the devil more than to focus attention in the church itself away from Jesus Christ.
The false teaching and excesses associated with the virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic church have probably caused Lutherans to overreact in the opposite direction. We are inclined to say too little and to understate what is true. After all, as we learn in our text, the miracle of the incarnation necessitates that we say some rather remarkable things about Mary. And in Mary’s reaction to the angel Gabriel, see a model of faithful trust in God’s word.
We learn in our text that six months after Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah, he then appeared to Mary. She was a virgin betrothed to man named Joseph who descended from King David. Mary was probably in her early teens. In a world of high infant mortality, girls began to marry and give birth to children as soon as they were physically able to do so. Gabriel appeared to Mary and said: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” The appearance of an angel would freak us out, and it did the same thing for Mary. And so Gabriel went on to say, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He 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, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
In his grace, God had chosen Mary to play a unique role in the history of humanity. She would conceive and bear a son who be called the Son of the Most High – the Son of God. This son was going to be fulfillment of God’s promise to King David. He would be the king who would reign forever.
Apparently Mary perceived that there was nothing normal about this. She asked Gabriel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And 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.”
Mary, the virgin, was going to conceive a child through the work of the Holy Spirit. She would give birth to a real human baby. But this baby would also be the Son of God. He would be true God and true man. Mary would be the unique instrument used by God for the incarnation. Because her Son truly is God, the early Church confessed that she is the Theotokos – “the God bearer.” While our hymnal refers to Mary as the “Mother of Our Lord,” historically the description has been a stronger confession of the incarnation – she is the mother of Jesus and so she is the “Mother of God.”
As we heard last week, the incarnation would take place in a way that brought Jesus into the line of David through his adoptive father Joseph. The incarnate One came as the fulfillment of God’s promises about the Messiah – the One through whom God would put all things right.
Gabriel greeted Mary with the words, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” By the end of the conversation, it would have been understandable if Mary didn’t feel very favored. Mary learned that apart from any kind of say in the matter, she was going to be pregnant. Though she had been faithful to God’s will in keeping the Sixth Commandment, she would now appear to all to be an immoral woman. Without being asked, she was now being involved in the great and mighty things involving the Messiah.
Yet Mary’s response was to say, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She believed God’s Word. She declared herself to be the servant – the slave – of God, and so she willingly accepted all that the angel announced.
In faith, Mary accepted God’s calling of being a mother. It is in the vocations where God places us that we too are called to live by faith in God’s word. It is as husbands and wives; fathers and mothers; sons and daughters; employers and employees that we are used by God to serve and care for others. Serving others isn’t about me. And so it goes against the old man within us. There are times that we fail. And if we are to succeed, we need a source of strength that comes from outside of us. It is the One whose conception is announced to Mary that provides both.
Mary believed God’s word, yet she did not know what this would involve. Very soon after the birth of Jesus she began to learn when Simeon said, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” Jesus would be opposed. Mary would know the pain of watching her innocent son die by crucifixion.
In our text Mary learns that Jesus is the Christ – the Messiah who descends from David. And yet then on Good Friday she will see him die on the cross. It is only after his resurrection on the third day that Jesus explains this to the Church when he says, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Our Lord opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
As we get closer to the celebration of Christmas, our text about Mary sets before us the incarnate Son of God, and faith that receives God’s Word. In Jesus Christ, God has acted to give us forgiveness and new life. As Mary received this news about the incarnation, she accepted the vocation God had given her, and trusted his word. When we fail, we find in Jesus the forgiveness that gives us peace. And the Spirit uses the good news of the Gospel we hear tonight to strengthen us as seek to follow the example God has given us in Mary.