The Hope of Conceiving Christ – December 6
A sermon based on Luke 1:26-38 (The Message)
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 6, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Advent refers to the coming of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ on Christmas day– the word “Advent” actually means arriving . . . coming. So, in the four Sundays before Christmas, we have this wonderful time of anticipation on the church calendar, aptly named the season of Advent. Even the secular world joins in– calling it the Holiday Season– as much of the culture looks forward to Christmas.
This year our Advent Sundays are centering on the prenatal and birth stories of Jesus found in the Bible. They only appear in two places, the Gospel of Matthew and The Gospel of Luke. We tend to know them as Christmas narratives, but they are also Advent related because they foretell Jesus’ arrival as an infant as well as portend the Divine nature of his life that unfolds.
You may have noticed over the years that each of the four Sundays in Advent have a theme with a candle on the Advent wreath lit for that theme. The themes sum up both the promise and the purpose of Jesus’ arrival. Last week it was the theme of Peace and we lit THAT candle in the Advent wreath. Next week we light the pink candle for Joy. The week after that, the Sunday before Christmas, we light one for the theme of Love. And today, well, as you heard, we lit a candle today for Hope.
Since Advent is about the anticipation Christmas, hope pretty much pervades the whole of the season. It sums up the nature of Advent as well as the promised coming of Christ because there is so much hope in that promise; the hope of peace, and the hope of joy and the hope of love. And even the hope of hope. By that I mean the rest of the year we look forward to this season– we hope for all the hope it offers.
Our reading today is from The Message, a thoughtful modern paraphrase of scripture by Eugene Peterson. I chose the Biblical paraphrase to help us hear the story anew. It’s sometimes good to hear a fresh telling. We’ve heard the story of Gabriel’s Annunciation in the King James Version or NRSV so often we might not notice anymore that the verses start off with what seems like more of a foreboding cloud than with hope. The angel Gabriel startles Mary, an unmarried teenage girl, telling her that she’s favored by God and here’s the kicker . . . that she is with child. Unmarried motherhood in that time and place came with the certainty of shame and looming threats of being an outcast or even executed. The light of being favored by God is overshadowed with the great darkness of an unlawful pregnancy.
That’s the start of the story and it might have startled the first listeners, almost as much as it startles Mary. But Gabriel follows the very worrisome detail up with words that start to offer hope, life-altering-great-light-in-the-darkness hope. We learn from Gabriel that the baby’s name will be Jesus which means “God saves.” Gabriel also asserts that Jesus will be so great that people will call him Son of God. Gabriel points out that God will make Jesus a ruler whose reign will never end.
There’s a lot of hope in all off that, of course, and on a grand scale. But the most hope, the best offer of hope, comes after Mary understandably expresses doubts about being pregnant. She asks “But how? I’ve never slept with a man.” First Gabriel tells her it is God’s doing. Next Gabriel points to Mary’s elderly cousin Elizabeth noting that she is miraculously pregnant. Then Gabriel utters one of the most hope-filled lines in all the Bible. He says “Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.” This promise is in the future tense, as the NRSV translates it “For nothing WILL be impossible with God.” Later in Luke the adult Jesus puts it like this “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” (Luke 18:27, NRSV).
We might hear this along the lines of the popular mantra among many Christians to “Just let go and let God.” But that implies we are passively involved, which is clearly not what Mary does in response. She asserts a readiness to act, to serve God and to take on the impossible task she was asked by God to do. And the she does it.
That task is to conceive Christ with God, which all alone offers the hope of greatness– and as the very name of Jesus indicates– the salvation of God. We are saved from our lesser selves, our lesser way of being by Mary’s conception of Christ, so is she, so is all of humanity and even creation. That’s a very powerful positive consequence evidenced by generations and generations of lives that have been positively transformed by Christ’s arrival. Its amazing ripple effects go on and on.
We are an evidence-oriented people. Since the Age of Enlightenment many people have demanded or declared empirical evidence to back up Bible narratives. This is especially true of the Advent and Christmas narratives– as if they were all written with modern sensitivities for historical and scientific accuracy. On one side are Literalists who insist the stories state historical facts just because they are in the Bible. On another side are those who dismiss the stories as nonsense asserting something to the effect that no evidence exists for a virgin conception of a human child, so the story defies reason and is rejected outright and often even ridiculed. Both sides take the story out of context. It is very unlikely the author of Luke meant the story as our modern version of a factual accounting in either science or history.
The author would no doubt be surprised future readers get bogged down in these evidence-oriented debates. They miss the point of the stories. It is likely the story’s purpose at the start was what we’d call parabolic. That is, the story was told for meaning. Evidence for science and history were not the subject. Theology is the subject. The Truth lies in the meaning, its metaphoric accuracy.
Jesus taught his followers in parables. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan assert Jesus’ followers taught in parables too and that Matthew and Luke’s Advent and Christmas narratives can be understood as just such meaningful stories. (First Christmas, p 1-53). Professors Borg and Crossan connect the virgin conception to the tradition in ancient stories of great men being not just born to virgins but being fathered by a god. Caesar, the royal nemesis of Christianity, was said to have had such virgin conception and was called son of God. Matthew and Luke show how Jesus – NOT Caesar– is the real Son of God for Christians.
But Borg and Crossan also link the story to Divine help with conception in the scriptures. Sarah who was barren had a child, and so too Elizabeth John the Baptist’s mom. Only a virgin conception could be more miraculous. Jesus is being elevated in the Jesus Following over John. But for both there was divine interaction with humans and the result was the supernatural benefits that John and Jesus provide. (First Christmas, p 126). In other words, when someone like John or Jesus mediated the divine the cultural tradition at the time was to attribute divine connections at birth. A god involved in the birth even as a parent. These are all metaphoric meanings.
And we can search for others. I asked myself on the Advent Sunday of hope, what hopeful truth can we find in Mary’s conception? The answer I like best is to understand conception as a metaphor for apprehending, giving birth to an idea. Conceiving God in that sense. With that in mind isn’t it metaphorically true that Mary in our lesson is asked to do the very same task we are all asked to do? Aren’t we asked as Christians coming into the faith (our own Advent if you will) to conceive Christ alone with God? It’s between us and God, Right?
I’ve mentioned this idea before. To put it in words of our reading about Mary, Don’t all Christians in one way or another experience the Holy Spirit coming upon us and the power of the Highest hovering over us as we first conceive Christ — and onward as we call him Jesus and Holy and the Son of God? In my experience that is true. It is Truth.
It’s a truth we can find in the story whether we believe Mary literally had a virgin conception or not. That’s true too of the Borg and Crossan assertions that ancients honored great men by connecting their birth to divine intervention. And each of these metaphoric truths provide hope to Christians. Hope that God intervenes and that a human conceived Christ and humans can, and do, still conceive Christ. But most of all – at any and all levels– the conception of Christ undeniably provides the hope of being saved– saved from our own lesser ways of being and saved from our collective lesser ways of being. See, conceiving Christ leads to salvation by our actions through the incarnation of God that we have conceived and carry about with us and respond to.
Once the first recorded conception of Christ takes hold in our story, Mary sings a song with all kinds of hope in it regarding God’s blessings on her and humanity and the wonderful ways in which God is going to provide salvation from lesser ways of being. We will look at the song, The Magnificat in more detail next week. Today I want to point out that the first thing she sings is “My soul magnifies God.” Conceiving God magnifies God. And there is all the hope in the world in that! Since God is good all the time the more that goodness is magnified the more God is seen and the God is put into action by the hands and feet and voices of humanity. So that all that love and joy and peace on earth stuff we think is impossible starts being possible.
Because “Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.” Or as Jesus puts it his “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” (Luke 18:27, NRSV).
That’s true when we follow Mary’s example. When she conceives God, she is ready to act. She is ready to serve God and take on the seemingly impossible tasks God asks. And she does them. There’s great hope in that. Just as there’s great hope in our conceiving God and doing as Mary does, take on Holy tasks. Advent and Christmas offer and remind us of that great hope. AMEN
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