Fourth Sunday in Advent (December 21, 2008)
“Receive” (Luke 1:26-38)
What a momentous occasion when a young wife tells her husband, “I think I'm pregnant.” The home test is 99% accurate. The doctor confirms it. Friends hear the good news. The months pass. The child grows within ... along with the usual morning sickness, weight gain, movement inside, discomfort, and preparation for the arrival. Then come the words ... expected, yet unexpected: “It's time to go to the hospital.” The mother is rushed to the labor room. Then comes the waiting ... breathtaking, exciting, frightful, joyful waiting. Then come the words, “It's a boy,” or “It's a girl.” The parents give thanks to God and receive their wonderful gift from Him.
Mary got the word, not from a doctor, but from an angel: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” No need to confirm this by a doctor's word. This is God's Word ... 100% accurate. Talk about a surprise! This was an unusual way to get pregnant! Mary was unmarried and had never been with a man. To top it all off, this baby to be born to her would be the long-expected Messiah, the Savior of the world. Mary can do nothing but believe and receive this wonderful gift: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
As you and I wait for the coming of the Savior, we, like Mary, can do nothing but believe and receive God’s wonderful gifts. And in all of this, it is God who is the primary actor. He is the primary actor in the plan of salvation and making that salvation a reality in our lives. God acts on our behalf. We can only receive.
God acted in the mystery of the Incarnation. He is the one who acted and who told Mary through the angelic messenger, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”
Other religions often deal with prescriptions or instructions on how to reach God. Do this, do that, and God will be happy with you. Do this, do that, and you will find God. Do this, do that, and you will be truly spiritual. Do this, do that, and you will be in paradise when you die. “God helps those who help themselves,” which, by the way, is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Act, and God will reward you. That's the world's notion.
Here in today's Gospel there is no prescription but rather a description of God's gracious acting on our behalf. God acted. He reached down to us in our sinful condition. He came to us in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh.
God acted when He sent out the Gospel message of undeserved love and salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That message was once hidden and obscure. God had promised a Savior. But exactly how was He going to carry out His plan? As the prophet Isaiah once proclaimed, “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him.” (Is. 64:4) Also, in today's epistle reading from Romans 16, we heard how “the mystery” of the good news of salvation was “kept secret for long ages.” Now, however, it has been “disclosed.” And Hebrews 1:1-2 says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” God's mysterious plan was promised through the prophets. The beginning of the unfolding of God's plan was seen in the conception of the Savior in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
How illogical that God would save us through this strange birth! How irrational that this Baby is God and Man at the same time! How unreasonable that God would save us through such a shameful death! How improbable that a Crucified Man would come back from the dead! Some may say it can't be true, simply because it is so improbable and illogical. God would not have us believe something so illogical.
But lying in the manger and hanging on the cross was true divine logic, logic that passes all understanding. We must keep in mind the limitations of our own minds, and not place limitations on what God can and did do through this most unusual birth.
God also acted when He recorded in Holy Scripture a record of His love in Christ Jesus. He inspired the holy writers to record His message of love, and it has now been “disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith,” again quoting St. Paul in today's epistle. (Rom. 16:26)
While some religions demand that everything be perfectly logical and rational, other religions place truth beyond the grasp of normal human beings. There is an endless search for enlightenment, for secret knowledge revealed only to the “in crowd,” or for hunting for mysterious guidance through cards, crystals, and clairvoyants.
The Lord Almighty, on the other hand, gives us His very Word, written down in black and white, in clear language, so that all may hear, read, and understand ... “to bring about the obedience of faith” ... that is, so that through the Word of God, we might be able to obey the call to “Believe,” the call to have faith in Jesus.
God acted. He acted in Jesus Christ in the mystery of the Incarnation. He acted in the Gospel message of grace and salvation through the death and resurrection of His Son. And He acted in giving Holy Scripture as a record of His love in Jesus.
God still acts today. He acts and we receive. He enables us to receive through that Gospel message which we have been so privileged to hear.
You and I are tempted to doubt that God has acted on our behalf. Mary didn't doubt, but she did ask a reasonable question in her wonderment, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary's reasonable question becomes our skeptical question of God's activity for us and in us: “How will this be, God? How can you forgive me, considering the many ways which I have disobeyed you? How can you save me by something that happened so long ago? Are you really there for me, God?”
Instead of doubting God's action, sometimes we place more emphasis on our own actions. Our gifts from God are turned into our meritorious achievements. When we look at all the earthly blessings God has given us, we are tempted to say, “I deserve this. I worked hard for everything that I have. All these wonderful things have happened to me because I have lived a good life and been such a good person.” It’s like that line in the song from “The Sound of Music,” when the Captain and Maria, who have fallen in love with each other, look into each other’s eyes and sing, “For here you are, standing there, loving me, whether or not you should. So somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.” But what happens when something bad happens to you? Do you change the lyrics to “I must have done something wrong?” What then?
Sometimes we even want to define God's heavenly gifts according our own standards. For instance, some people define baptism as something that we do for God, rather than what God does for us. Or the blessing we receive in the Lord's Supper becomes dependent on our faith, rather than dependent on the sure promise of Jesus ... that He truly gives His Body and Blood regardless of how strong or weak our faith is. In Baptism, in the Lord's Supper, in simple words, God acts graciously by coming to us in very ordinary ways with His extraordinary forgiveness. He gives ... we receive.
Our gracious Lord has acted and we can only receive all of His gifts, just like Mary. When the angel Gabriel first came to Mary with the message of the Savior, he said, “Greetings, O favored one.” Mary was highly favored because she was the recipient of God's grace, not because of anything in her character. She, too, was in need of a Savior. That's why she proclaimed in her song, the Magnificat, “My spirit rejoices in God MY Savior.” And the angel also told her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” God's perfect love and grace, which He freely bestows upon us in Christ, banishes all fear, as 1 John 4:18 says “Perfect love casts out fear.”
A father and mother were asleep in their bedroom. From across the hallway came the cry, “Daddy, I'm scared!” Out of the groggy, fuzzy state of being half-asleep, the father responded, “Honey, don't be afraid. Daddy's right across the hall.”
After a very brief pause the little voice was heard again, “I'm still scared.”
The dad, always quick with a spiritual insight, responded, “You don't need to be afraid, sweetheart. God is with you. God loves you.”
This time the pause was a bit longer…but the voice returned one more time, “I don't care about God, Daddy; I want someone with skin on!”
You don't have to be afraid either. You have found favor with God. In the Incarnation of His Son, God sent “someone with skin on.” The coming Savior's rescue mission shows how far Jesus was willing to go for you. Jesus left the riches of heaven. Jesus was born in poverty. Jesus endured intense temptation and persecution. Jesus went all the way to the cross with our sins weighing Him down, and throwing them away forever when He rose from the dead.
Does God still act on our behalf so that we may receive His Son? The answer is yes. We hear the words about God’s rescue mission in Jesus from earthly messengers, and the Holy Spirit conceives faith in us which receives “God with skin on” ... Jesus, the Word made flesh. The angel's words to Mary still hold true: “nothing will be impossible with God.” He breaks through seemingly impenetrable hearts that are cold and indifferent. He enters into lives full of conflict, sickness, and death. He sets up residence and brings reconciliation, forgiveness, and new life.
We honor Mary highly for being the Mother of our Lord. But Mary had nothing to do with the miracle of the birth of Jesus. God acted. She received. What followed was the joyous response of faith that responded to the angel, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Likewise, you and I contribute nothing to the miracle of the new birth which the Holy Spirit conceives in us through the Gospel. God acts. We receive. What follows is our joyous response of faith that also says, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”