Year A – 4th Sunday of Advent
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I heard a reference to our gospel text during my first trip to Wal-Mart last Tuesday.
It was in that aisle where they have wrapping paper and bows hopelessly strewn in piles, along with ribbons, and gift bags.
I had just managed to squeeze around two women and their overloaded shopping carts. They were babbling in Portugese and I was trying to figure out what they were saying. And that’s when I heard it.
Right there in Wal-Mart broadcast over the Wal-Mart Radio Network for the entire world to hear – a commentary on our gospel text. “Silent night! Holy night! All is calm, all is bright ‘Round yon virgin mother and child...”
I wonder how many other people heard the reference to the Virgin with a child as they were filling their carts. More than that, I wonder if it really matters.
I bet 99% of the shoppers in Wal-Mart or Target can sing the first verse of Silent Night.
And I would be further willing to wager on the fact that in spite of the gross biblical illiteracy in our society that at least 85% of all American adults can tell you that Jesus’ mother was a Virgin named Mary.
“Everybody knows that!” But so what? Does it really make a difference to the average person that Jesus was born of a virgin?
Would YOUR Christmas celebration be any different if the whole virgin thing were not a part of the story?
Matthew apparently thought it to be a key component in the episode. And Luke–he made a big deal about it in his telling of the Christmas story. Although, for the sake of time we’re really going to focus on Matthew’s perspective today.
The point being, though, that the “round yon virgin” bit seems to be pretty important to our understand of what Christmas is really all about.
I would be so bold as to suggest that if you miss the Virgin Mary component that you can’t really understand or enter into the true meaning of Christmas.
And this morning I would like to make three observations about the Virgin birth that should help put your Christmas celebration in perspective – three things you really must start to digest if you’re going to do Christmas right.
First of all, I’d like you to note that THE VIRGIN BIRTH DRAWS US INTO GOD’S MYSTERIOUS METHOD OF OPERATION.
God is a mystery! As such he is often going to appear unconventional in his modus operandi. And the virgin birth of Jesus is one of the greatest evidences of God’s mysterious and perplexing nature.
Please look with me at verses 18-20. “Now this is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her fiancé...”
More literally the word here is “betrothed.” Hebrew engagements had two stages – early engagement or promise, often arranged in childhood. Then a year’s betrothal before they moved in together. And Joseph and Mary were at stage two.
If they were following normal societal practices at the time Mary would have been between 12 and 14 years of age.
We know very little about Joseph other than that he was a carpenter, the son of a man named Jacob, and of the family line of King David. Church tradition has it that Joseph was significantly older than Mary, a widower, who had children from the earlier marriage. It seems plausible but we don’t know these details for sure.
We do know that he was a man of unusual character and grace.
Verse 19 – “Joseph, her fiancé, being a just man, decided to break the engagement quietly, so as not to disgrace her publicly. As he considered this, he fell asleep, and an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to go ahead with your marriage to Mary. For the child within her has been conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
This child is not the offspring of a normal union – as wonderful as such children are.
This is a child born from the mysterious intervention of God. The Holy Spirit somehow circumvents the normal process of insemination – and Mary finds herself mysteriously impregnated through an act of God.
This news is so outrageous that it requires angelic visions for both Mary and Joseph to actually believe that this is God in all of his mystery at work.
And there is a lot of mystery here:
• How can a woman get pregnant without a man?
• Angels on the scene...
• Strange messages about naming this child Jesus – “for he will save his people from their sins.”
• God being present with his people is a mystery – Immanuel.
The whole virgin birth episode is steeped in mystery. And in a sense it is really a primer to the mystery of God.
I so much like what Karl Barth has say about this that I have reproduced a quote from him in the message guide. It’s a little weighty but chew on it for awhile.
“...The Virgin birth denotes particularly the mystery of revelation. It denotes the fact that God stands at the start where real revelation takes place – God and not the arbitrary cleverness, capability or piety of man. In Jesus Christ God comes forth out of the profound hiddenness of his divinity in order to act as God among us and upon us. That is revealed and made visible to us in the sign of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, but it is grounded upon the fact signified by the Virgin birth, that here in this Jesus God himself has really come down and concealed himself in humanity. It was because he was veiled here that he could and had to unveil himself as he did at Easter...” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I.2 pp. 182-183
This mysterious virgin birth and incarnation is the first act to a mystery play that would climax in the resurrection. From beginning to end Jesus is a mystery.
Now, we don’t really like mystery when it comes to God things. We like mystery when it comes to gift giving and the spirit of good will and cheer that hits people at Christmas time. It’s almost a romanticized view of mystery.
But when it comes to real long term protracted mystery – we have little patience. If we don’t understand God and have him figured out to the point where we can manipulate his attributes for our own good fortune, we get frustrated and figure that he is irrelevant.
If we’re not on a first name basis with God then we think he is meaningless in our little worlds.
But look! Here are two very righteous people – Joseph and Mary – totally engaged in this encounter. And they are caught up in the mysterious activity of God. If you had asked them they wouldn’t have been able to explain diddly squat about what was happening to them.
And in a way that is the whole nature of Christmas and the incarnation – the mysterious invasion of God into humanity.
Secondly, THE VIRGIN BIRTH SHOWS US THAT THIS IS A PART OF GOD’S LONG TERM, SWEEPING PLAN.
Check out the angel’s message to Joseph, starting in verse 21 – “And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
There is a bit of a play on words here. For the name Jesus or Yeshua in Hebrew means “The Lord saves”.
“And she will have a son, and you are to name him ‘The Lord saves’ for he will save his people from their sins.”
From the beginning – the time when Adam and Eve took that illicit bite of Kiwi in the garden – humanity has been groaning in anticipation of the coming of the one known as “The Lord Saves.” This is a part of God’s big plan to bring his salvation to the world.
And when they play Silent Night or O Little Town of Bethlehem over the store sound system they are really attesting to the fact that God has this long term plan to save the world – a plan which he is working out by sending his son into the world.
They may not know that they’re broadcasting the good news of salvation every time they play a Christmas carol. But they are.
We may not realize it but every time we open a Christmas present we’re really celebrating God’s gift of salvation -- but we are.
This Christmas stuff isn’t about some nice sweet baby born in a barn and laid in a bed of straw.
This is about God sending his son to save the world – according to plan. The great rescue mission. And the Virgin birth is God’s chosen sign of his activity.
Verse 22 -- “All of this happened to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: ‘Look! The
virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and he will be called Immanuel (meaning, God is with us).’”
The angel is quoting from the prophet Isaiah – chapter 7:14 – which is a somewhat obscure prophecy about a young woman having a son before some king comes to power.
As far as we can tell it was not originally thought of as a messianic prophecy. But when the angel delivers his message to Joseph he says, what’s happening here and now is really a fulfillment of what the prophet Isaiah was talking about 730 years earlier. This was a part of God’s thinking from way back. He has been working to mold history in such a way that he can bring it to this point.
You think Wal-Mart is getting ahead of the game when they start selling Christmas decorations in September! But God has been working this Christmas angle for centuries – getting ready, stocking the shelves, planning the party...
This is not some after thought on the part of God!
Immanuel – God is with us. Living among us. Being one of us. We’ve been waiting a long time for this to happen. By the way, does anyone remember how the book of Matthew ends?
I’ll give you a hint. Jesus is speaking to his disciples – “And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.?
He is saying – “I am Immanuel.”
The first chapter in Matthew has the angel prophesying that the Virgin born baby Jesus would be Immanuel – “God with us.”
Then the very last words of the book have Jesus saying – “I am with you (Immanuel)...not just now...but even to the end of the age.”
Everything in between in Matthew is a part of the sandwich.
Thirdly, THE VIRGIN BIRTH SPOTLIGHTS JESUS’ IDENTITY AS THE GOD-MAN.
Verse 18 again – “But while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit.”
Verse 20 – “...The angel said, “do not be afraid to go ahead with your marriage to Mary. For the child within her has been conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
You can imagine what was going through Joseph’s mind at that point -- “Yeah, right, do not be afraid to marry this woman – for she is only carrying the son of God in her womb.”
It would have been a whole lot less disturbing if she had engaged in an adulterous relationship.
Verse 23 – “He will be called Immanuel (meaning, God is with us).”
God is here in this baby. Born of God and born of woman. Not that he is some kind of a half-breed – half man and half God.
The church spent a long time trying to work out the best wording that conveys the truth spelled out here. And we ended up saying that Jesus is mysteriously, at the same time fully God and fully human. He is the God-Man, of which there is no other.
And this truth is rooted in the idea of the Virgin birth.
Look at Luke 1:35, where the angel is trying to explain the concept of virgin birth to Mary – “The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby born to you will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. “
“Holy, Son of God” -- and yet fully born. Mystery like no other. Mystery upon which the significance of the cross will hang – and out of which millions of people will discover new life and new beginnings. After thousands of years of planning it all starts here with
the Virgin birth. And this salvation is the significance of Christmas.
Hey, it’s great that people send greetings at Christmas time. I think it’s wonderful that people give gifts – for gift giving has the potential to get people outside themselves. But you can have all of the gift giving and the card writing and the warm fellowship of parties – and still miss the significance of the day.
But if you look at the Virgin birth– and look closely– you’d have to try awfully hard to miss the point of it all.
TO REALLY UNDERSTAND CHRISTMAS YOU HAVE TO LOOK CLOSELY AT THE VIRGIN BIRTH. This is the key point this morning.
In a few minutes we’re going to sing a song called “For Ages Women Hoped and Prayed.” It’s on page 144 in the hymnal. This is very interesting musically – combining major and minor keys to give us a sense of the joy and the struggle of Mary as she accepted this challenge.
It is based on the words of the Magnificat – Mary’s song of praise in Luke 1.
And the last verse of the hymn, “For ages Women Hoped and Prayed,” really challenges us to look at the whole Christmas experience through the eyes of Mary. To make her experience our experience.
Let me sing these words for you and then you can ponder them for a few minutes until we return to them at the end of the service.
“Our hearts rejoice as Mary’s song becomes our hymn of praise.
For Christ has come, Emmanuel, to claim our years and days.
Both present now and coming still, accomplished fact and dream,
we join the song that Mary sings, an earthly heaven’ly