A Sermon Preached by Jennifer Vasquez, D.Min. on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2107
Advent IV Sermon
Happy 4th Sunday of Advent! I feel a lot of pressure to deliver an excellent sermon this morning to reward your dedication for coming to church the morning of Christmas Eve. I know that you’ve got other things on your mind. Decorations, food, gifts, cleaning the house to prepare for visitors…the big day is almost here. If you’re like me, you’re wishing that the fourth week of Advent would last for a whole week and not just a morning and afternoon! But no, tonight we quickly transition to our celebration of Christmas.
The sanctuary itself is an object lesson demonstrating the tension between Advent and Christmas, the anticipation, the waiting, the big expectant pause. Paul and I started talking in January about what we would do this year with Christmas Eve on a Sunday. Do we wait to decorate the church until after Sunday morning services? Do we hold the Hanging of the Greens the week before and then cover the decorations? I like where we ended up. The altar paraments are not changed; it is still Advent IV. But, the evidence that Christmas is very near is all around us.
It’s a lot like getting ready to have a baby. Our tenant in the Dudley house, Jasmin, is due to have a baby any day now. Every mom seeks to prepare as well as she can, getting cribs and clothes and bottles, taking classes on childbirth and parenting, freezing dinners ahead of time. Jasmin, sent to live in a different place by a natural disaster, has also made preparations. She also sent me her deep gratitude to St. Paul’s for taking so much stress off of her and her family. She is excited and ready to hold her son. Amidst the crib and baby clothes, feeling the movements of this new life, she waits, wondering when he will arrive, anticipating when he will come.
Preparing the church with greens, preparing your home to welcome e a baby…actually, they are both good object lessons for how God’s kingdom breaks into our world at Christmas. We see hints of that kingdom all around us; in every act of love, in a genuine smile, in tears of joy, in hugs, in sacrifice. If you know what to look for, if you’re expectantly looking like we talked about with our Advent Photo Challenge, then there is evidence of God’s presence in the world everywhere. But, the final event has not yet happened. We still are yearning, breathless with anticipation, waiting for that time when God’s kingdom will be here in its fullness, when no one will experience tears or hunger or homelessness or pain. It is the “already/not yet” kingdom of God that we witness as we transition from Advent to Christmas. I read a devotion this week that compared both the winter solstice and Advent to the bottom of the swing of a great pendulum. There are so many dichotomies in the Bible and in life: hope and fulfillment, light and dark, joy and sorrow, life and death. Advent is that time of deepest darkness, rock bottom, that bottom of the pendulum swing, when all of creation holds its breath to anticipate what comes next: the ascent, the return of the light, new life, the birth that fulfills the “hopes and dreams of all the years.”
Something feels different this year as I reflect on the actual historical circumstances of Christmas. Is it the increased gun violence that makes the news, or the political animosity, the collective stress? For some reason, for me, this year I can enter the Christmas story in a different way. The people of God, waiting for so long for a Messiah that hadn’t come despite centuries of promise, losing hope, living under occupation by an oppressive government, fearing that the world as they knew it was changing before their eyes. Into this situation we bring the unwed teenage girl, a nobody in her society, visited by a messenger from God and given an impossible task. That is the story we hear in today’s gospel, that remarkable passage that includes a quick transition from Mary’s confusion, to Mary’s agreement, and then in the verses right after today’s reading, to Mary’s prophetic song, the Magnificat. There is so much to learn from Mary here, if we can look with fresh eyes and not become stuck in our images of her from tradition.
The person of Mary carries so much baggage. She was conceived immaculately and was without sin herself according to the Catholic church; she is the Mother of God in the Protestant church; and she is theotokos, the “God-bearer,” in the Orthodox faith. Interestingly, there is even adoration of her in the Muslim Quran, which includes stories of Mary giving birth in the wilderness and being nourished by dates and a stream while in labor (pretty good advice, actually, for a laboring woman).
Out of those various images of Mary, it is the image of “God-bearer” that has stuck with me all month as the message for Advent IV. Mary, this young, poor, female nobody, was the one who literally carried God and bore him into the world. God’s choice for such a humble mother and lowly beginning speaks volumes about what God values. Mary is on the lowest rungs of her society, yet the angel’s first words to her are that God favors her already, even before she says yes. She hasn’t had time yet to “do” or “be” anything spectacular in her brief life; even so, God chooses her and calls her blessed, favored, beloved.
“God’s message to Mary and to us has two parts – affirmation and expectation. Because Mary is beloved by God, because she has found favor in God’s eyes, God has a plan for her.” This plan needs her obedience, yet God is still the one doing all the work. When Mary opens her heart and responds with a “yes” to God: “Let it be with me according to your word” – she becomes a God-bearer.
Although we don’t bear God as tangibly as Mary did, we still are God-bearers today. God’s grace sneaks into our broken places, and we become the beloved children of God. Yet, when we can truly open ourselves, when we can let go of all that crowds out the good in us, we find that Christ also becomes present in our hearts. We then become God-bearers, bearing God to the world through the love that pours forth from us.
Christian educator Kenda Creasy Dean describes our vocations as God-bearers this way: “God-bearing ministry, however, begins with a conscious yes to God, a decision that flings open the doors of our souls so that grace no longer needs to sneak in through the cracks. Now the Holy Spirit rushes in “like a mighty wind” and fill us, overshadows us, transforms us by forming Jesus within us, restoring us to the image in whose likeness we were created. Now our soul-wombs, already prepared by grace, can carry Jesus into the world. Now there is no denying that God is at work with us for creation’s sake: a simple yes, and we find ourselves up to our necks in God’s plan of salvation, participants in God’s restoration of the imago dei in every human being. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” No phrase in human history has had more cataclysmic consequences.” (Dean, p. 50-51)
It’s so easy for us to dismiss our call to be God-bearers. We don’t have the tangible Jesus in our arms to care for. It’s also easy to dismiss the call because most of us think fundamentally that there is no possible way that God would want to use us. We’re not spiritual enough, we don’t know enough about the Bible, we have made too many mistakes, or, for some of us, we are too busy already with many good things. Even though these thoughts are common, they completely miss the truth of the Biblical witness, which is that God always chooses broken and sinful people through whom to work and with whom to make a covenant. God came to an unwed mother, was born among animals, ate dinner with sinners – God acts in ways completely contrary to our expectations, and God’s kingdom is one that gives value to those that society deems unimportant. If God could choose a humble young woman to be the mother of Jesus, then surely God can choose you to bear Christ to the world. Bearing Christ to the world looks a lot like radical love, even love that goes to the cross to defeat death.
I know, it’s not fair to bring up the cross and resurrection the day before Christmas. Can’t we just stay with the innocent baby for a while? We want to say, just like another author I read this week: “But, Lord God, I want to stay for awhile in Christmas where hope is something I can cradle to my chest. I want to dwell here where music sings the promise of love, reminding me of those Mary moments in my life when it seems truth and love are about to burst forth from within and change the world.”
But, the reality of the cross will come, and, in fact, today also is not yet Christmas day; it is the fourth Sunday of Advent. For this morning, we wait. Until God’s already/not yet kingdom comes in its fullness, we wait. We wait in darkness, preparing ourselves to be God-bearers, to say a radical yes, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” allowing the Holy Spirit to fill us up and burst forth into the world.
Don’t try to rush the discomfort of the darkness, the pause, the expectation. We need this time to prepare. Something new is going to be born in us. When it comes, it will be nothing like we expect. But, it will be full of love and life. That’s how God operates. So this morning, pause. Wait. Live in the darkness now so that the light of Christ being born inside you will be even more spectacular, capable of illuminating the world. Amen.