December 20, 2020 – 4th Sunday of Advent – Sermon by The Rt. Rev. Donald Phillips

   by Yanna Courtney

Let us bow our heads in prayer.  God for whom we wait, we give you thanks for your presence in this time and place, and in each of the places of all of us gathered.  Help us now to open our minds and our hearts to receive the gift of your living Word for us this day; and may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

So here we are, in this 4th Sunday of Advent, on the cusp of Christmas Eve.  And if you’re one of those who thinks of your preparation for Jesus’ birth like a journey, you could say that we’re on the outskirts of Bethlehem.

I want to invite you to think about where you are in this ongoing story.  And I don’t mean it in the usual sense of which character do you identify with in the story – whether it be the Innkeeper if you think you unknowingly turn away from opportunities to encounter Christ; or perhaps Joseph if you don’t really know what God is up to but you’re trying to be a faithful husband and expectant father and do all that God wants you to; or even Mary, because you feel both blessed and burdened by what you believe God is asking of you – as fruitful as those reflections might be.  I want you to explore your “connections” – between your image of God, the omnipotent Creator; of Jesus, the one born over two thousand years ago whose life and death are given to you as a gift; and yourself – your life here in Manitoba (or wherever you are right now) – your family, your friends, your work (whether it be paid or volunteer), your joys and your challenges.  How do those three connect?

So, I mean it in the sense that if we played one of those word-association games – what image comes to mind when you hear the word ‘God’? … when  you hear the word ‘Jesus’? … and then in relation to both of them, when you hear ‘you’?  How do you see, or understand, God?  How do you see or understand Jesus?  And now, where are you in all of this?  These are pretty important questions if you’re going to get in touch with, and experience the reality and the depth of Christmas.

Even before Jesus’ birth, God’s People of Israel worked on this very thing.  In their ancient understanding God was ‘awesome’ (and I don’t mean it in that colloquial sense as we use it today), I mean it as One who fills us with awe!  But God was also not far away!  The reigning king of the nation of Israel was seen as being an “adopted son of God.” God was the King of the nation of Israel.  The human king was like God’s “prince” who reigned in God’s stead.

This is the understanding in today’s 1st Reading from 2nd Samuel.  God has established King David as the ideal king.  But David feels badly.  He is living in a beautiful cedar palace but the ark of God (signifying God’s presence) is just kept in a tent-like tabernacle.   David wants to build a decent and respectable structure for the ark of God.  Note the closeness and the intimacy between David and God as we read in that first reading.  God, though, replies lovingly but assertively to David’s intentions.  God says, in a sense, “Yes we are very close, but I AM GOD – I will look after myself.”  But God promises to build David a “house” – not a physical house – but a dynasty, to remain forever.

Now take note.  This story asserts the massive difference between the “living God” and a mere mortal – like David, a human being.  And yet, God draws close to us – very close.  Psalm 8 expresses this closeness beautifully.  The psalmist writes, “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! … When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, what are human beings that you are mindful of them?”  Then the psalmist answers, “Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour.”  In the Old Testament there is that tension, beautifully held, between the awesomeness, the utter greatness and holiness – the “other-ness” of God and, at the same time, God’s intimate closeness to us – God’s loving desire for us – the God-given, blessedness God desires for all of humanity. 

Look even at today’s Gradual Anthem, and I encourage you to take a look at the English translation now in the bulletin.  It is a reflection on pieces of Scripture.  The exalted Jesus Christ is the Bridegroom that’s spoken of.  The People of God are the Bride.  The Bride is to prepare herself for this glorious wedding.  Look at the words that are used, “Your cheeks must now glow much more radiantly, hurry to love the Bridegroom with passion!”  Whoa!  It is so “earthy”.  The Bridegroom , Jesus Christ, “for the salvation of the earth, will be born at last.”, expressed in the passionate language of marital love!

It is against this backdrop that Luke writes the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus’ birth.  On the one hand, Mary and Joseph are very ordinary folk, living in an insignificant village of Nazareth.  And yet, Joseph is a descendent of King David and therefore Jesus will be the one who fulfills God’s promise to King David a thousand years earlier – “your house … your throne shall be established forever.”, as God said to David through the prophet Nathan.  Our ‘ordinary Mary’ is visited by the Archangel Gabriel, representing the mighty holiness of God.  The angel has a ‘normal’ conversation with her, telling her what will happen.  And Mary asks a very rational question, “How can this be?” And the angel also describes that Elizabeth, who is a relative of Mary, is also expecting a son, even in her old age.  And this follows a typical Old Testament pattern of special persons, called by God.  Isaac was born of the elderly Sarah and Abraham.  Samuel was born to the older, previously barren, Hannah.  The angel then finishes with, “Nothing shall be impossible with God.”  Two ordinary Israelite women being intimately involved in God’s plan.  And the Messiah will not be some divine, extra-terrestrial.  He will be a human being – born like any other human being.

I think sometimes we try to make Mary unique, and special, and different.  But when Luke writes that the angel explains how this will happen to Mary, he says these words, “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.”  Luke uses the same words that Jesus uses to describe how the Holy Spirit will come upon the disciples after Jesus’ ascension – which is the same gift of the Holy Spirit that each of us receives in our baptism.  Once again, close intimacy of the divine power of God and the ordinariness of humanity.

At the beginning of this sermon I asked you to reflect upon your image of God; upon your image of Jesus Christ; and upon your image of yourself; and where you are in relation to those two.  Many of us make erroneous assumptions about God, and Jesus, and ourselves.  Some may emphasize the closeness of God, but forget the awe-inspiring holiness of the Creator of the universe.  Then God kind of becomes ‘my pal’ – and too easily this God just becomes ‘my creation’ – God as I would like God to be.  But I think much more often, especially for traditional Anglicans, we grasp the awe-inspiring holiness of God, but we picture God being a ‘zillion’ miles away – and we being insignificant, unknown, mortals – removed from the living God.

But Christmas proves us very wrong!  WE are part of that humanity that Psalm 8 says God has made “only a little lower than God … and crowned with glory and honour.”  We are just like Mary and Joseph.  The Holy Spirit has “come upon us” just as the Spirit did on Mary and on Jesus’ first disciples. 

The birth of Jesus and Luke’s description of it makes all this crystal clear.  This awe-inspiring, holy, Creator God is right here – right now – intimately involved in your life and mine.  This is why we can pray at today’s Offering Prayer: “… make holy all we offer you this day.”, remembering that nothing is impossible with God. 

We need to have the courage and the confidence to trust that God really is intimately close, so that we, too, can say, “… let it be with me according to your word.”, and, by God’s grace, “… may we, like the Virgin Mary, be obedient to your will.”

This is the relationship God has given to each of us in Christ – and the birth of Jesus of Nazareth proves it.