Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Text: Luke 1:30-32
The angel said to her, "Donít be afraid, Mary; God has been gracious to you.  
You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.  
He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High God. The Lord God will make him a king, as his ancestor David was, and he will be the king of the descendants of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end!"
Mary is told by an angel that she will be the mother of the Saviour.


In an attempt to help us understand the mystery of God coming from heaven to become a human like us, the biblical scholar and theologian J B Phillips told the following story he called The Visited Planet.

Once upon a time a very young angel was being shown round the splendours and glories of the universes by a senior and experienced angel. To tell the truth, the little angel was beginning to be tired and a little bored. He had been shown whirling galaxies and blazing suns, infinite distances in the deathly cold of inter-stellar space, and to his mind there seemed to be an awful lot of it all. Finally he was shown the galaxy of which our planetary system is but a small part.

As the two of them drew near to the star that we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.

"I want you to watch that one particularly," said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.
"Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me," said the little angel. "Whatís special about that one?"
"That," replied his senior solemnly, "is the Visited Planet."
"Visited?" said the little one. "You donít mean visited by . . .?"
"Indeed I do. That ball, which I have no doubt looks to you small and insignificant and not perhaps overly-clean, has been visited by our young Prince of Glory."

And at these words he bowed his head reverently.

"But how?" queried the younger one. "Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince, with all these wonders and splendours of his creation, and millions more that Iím sure I havenít seen yet, went down in person to this fifth-rate little ball? Why should he do a thing like that?"

"It isnít for us," said his senior a little stiffly, "to question Ďwhyí, except that I must point out to you that he is not impressed by size and numbers, as you seem to be. But that he really went I know, and all of us in heaven who know anything know that. As to why he became one of them Ė how else do you suppose he could visit them?"

The little angels face wrinkled in disgust. "Do you mean to tell me," he said, "that he stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?"

"I do, and I donít think he would like you to call them Ďcreeping, crawling creaturesí in that tone of voice. For, strange as it may seem to us, he loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like him." The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.

That last sentence of JB Phillips story The Visited Planet about sums up the mystery of Christmas. The senior angel is trying to explain why the Prince of Glory should visit this planet and concludes, "Strange as it may seem to us, he loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like him." For the little angel such an idea was beyond his comprehension.

This kind of mixture of amazement, bewilderment, incomprehension, mystery and "canít understand why God should do this" is very much a part of the Christmas story. You can just imagine what Mary must have felt when she was visited by the angel Gabriel.

We donít know what Mary was doing at the time -
perhaps carrying water from the village well...
perhaps doing some mending, or preparing food
or cleaning up after a meal.

Then out of the blue, with no warning, Gabriel suddenly appears and greets the stunned and startled Mary, "Peace be with you. The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you." Luke tells us she was "deeply troubled" or "perplexed" by the sudden appearance of the angel. I donít know if Luke is being polite here describing Maryís reaction but most of us would be scared out of our wits if a strange, unexpected being from another world suddenly appeared out of thin air right in front of us.

Even the opening words of the angel are perplexing and troubled Mary. We have lost some of the meaning of what the angel is saying to Mary through translation of the text. Gabriel is saying, "Greetings, you the recipient of a gift" or "Greetings, privileged one".
No wonder Mary was troubled Ė what gift had she received?
Why would an angel call her privileged?
As far as she knew she was just a poor girl who lived a simple uncomplicated life. But that was about to change.

Maryís visitor comes straight to the point. The young teenager was about to become pregnant, and that she would give birth to a son and the name that she is to give him is "Jesus". Her son is the promised king, the Messiah. He is "the Son of the Most High God".

Iím not sure if the magnitude of what the angel had just told her sinks in at that moment. Her immediate response focuses on the impossibility of such a thing happening. To make a baby you need a man and she and Joseph hadnít reached that point in their relationship.
Is there something her mother forgot to tell her about how a woman conceives?
How can she an ordinary girl possibly give birth to "the Son of the God Most High"?
How is it that the all-powerful holy and perfect God has decided to become flesh and blood and now telling her that she will be the means by which God will enter this world?
The child she will give birth to will be the God of heaven come down to earth as a baby.

The fact that Jesusí mother was a virgin and that his conception is a complete mystery as far as human understanding is concerned is difficult enough in itself. But the fact that the God of the universe reduces himself to a growing foetus inside Maryís womb is even harder to grasp. There are those who regard the virgin birth as so impossible that it is an insult to their intelligence. We canít even attempt to fathom this out. We may not understand how this happened but we do know why.

During the darkest hours of World War II in England, a gloom swept over the nation as the Luftwaffe dropped tons and tons of bombs on London. Fear was felt for the safety of King George VI and his family and so his staff made secret arrangements to transport the king and his family to safety in Canada for the duration of the war. But King George refused to leave his country in its darkest hour. Soon after a London newspaper reported an incident when the king was inspecting a bombed out section of London after an air raid. While walking through the rubble, an elderly man walked up to King George and said, "You, here, in the midst of this. You are indeed a good king".

That is the message of God who became a foetus in Mary and was then born in a cowshed and laid in a manger. And like the little angel in my opening story we scratch our heads at the utter incomprehensibility of it all. We donít understand the mystery that surrounds the Christmas events but we do know that the one who is born is Immanuel, God with us. God is with us in the ugly part of our lives as well as the good.
He doesnít desert us in the darkest hour of our despair.
Our heavenly King has come into the rubble of our broken dreams and the ruin of our tangled sin-filled lives because of his incredible love for us.
Mary must have often wondered over the first words of the angel Gabriel that called her privileged and the recipient of a great gift. God had chosen her to be the Saviourís mother solely out of his divine grace Ė in fact he chose her in spite of her circumstances to be the recipient of this great gift.

God hasnít changed one bit over the last 2,000 years. In fact, he hasnít changed even from the time he chose those ungrateful whinging Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt to be the nation from which the Messiah would be born. The little angel must have shaken his head in disbelief every time God chose sinful people to be his church and to do his work.

Maybe the little angel is up there shaking his head again saying, "I canít believe that God Ė the all powerful, all knowing, creator of everything who is totally Lord and King and perfect and holy should use simple water and words spoken by a sinful pastor to bring sinful people into his family. Dylan, Reece and Rebecca are great kids, they know and love Jesus, they have been taught well by their parents and teachers, but they are not perfect like God is, they are sinners. Just as God chose sinful, poverty stricken Mary to the mother of Jesus, he is choosing Dylan, Reece and Rebecca, not because somehow they deserve it. In spite of their faith or lack of it, their good behaviour or the lack of it, God is pledging himself to them through the water of baptism. He is promising them forgiveness, a new relationship with God, his continual guidance and blessing throughout their lives until that day they are called to their home in heaven. It is our prayer today that their response to being a recipient of a great gift (to use Gabrielís words) will be the same as that of Mary, "I am the Lordís servant" or to put it plainly, "God's in charge of my life. I will do what he wants me to do. I will trust him and his love for me even when I least deserve it".

And when Ebony, Natalie, James, Elizabeth, Chantel Melissa, Dylan and Reece receive their first communion today and they take in their hands the body and blood of Jesus (to use Gabrielís words again) they will be recipients of a great gift. That little angel, who couldnít comprehend why God should visit this planet at the first Christmas, must be really shaking his head in disbelief as Jesus places into sinful hands his own body and blood with the bread and wine. Itís not that they or we have done anything to deserve such favoured treatment, or are especially pious and holy, or have a superior understanding of what is happening in Communion. Just as he chose to give the precious baby Jesus to poor sinful Mary to be his mother, he simply chooses to give to us the most precious gift of all Ė his own Son who came down from heaven, born in a stable, died on a cross all because of his intense and extreme love for each of us.

As we all reflect on our baptism and God's gift of the body and blood of his Son in Holy Communion we are suddenly aware of how great our God is as he pledges again his loyalty to us and reassures us that he will never give up on his promise to be closer to us than we are to ourselves.

We live on the planet visited by the Prince of Glory.
We have been visited and made recipients of his gifts;
we have been claimed, named and recreated. Maryís baby is truly Immanuel Ė God with us. He has come to earth for us and in the midst of our troubles he brings us hope, peace and love.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
18th December, 2005

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