Fourth Sunday in Advent (B)
December 18, 2011
Text: Luke 1:26-38
It is the nature of our fallen flesh that we fashion God in our own image. It is the ultimate act of rebellion. Rather than allowing God to fashion us in His image, we fashion Him in our own image in our minds. We design Him according to our own idea of who God should be, what we would like Him to say to us, how He should be disposed toward us. We create the rules that govern our relationship with Him. And in this way, the one true God is displaced and replaced by a false god, an idol. And that idol is us. This is true as much at Christmas as at any other time. We love the pageantry of it all, the story of the birth of Baby Jesus in Bethlehem, the manger, the shepherds, the angels, the wise men (who by the way, contrary to your nativity scenes, actually show up much later at a house where Jesus is probably already walking and talking, but be that as it may…). All of this is beautiful stuff, and very important for us and for our salvation. But how we sentimentalize it to the point of robbing the Christmas history of all its substance, and when Christmas is done, we pack it up with the rest of the decorations and throw the box in the attic for next year. So the image of God we have fashioned is this: He is a sentimental softy of a deity who comes out when we want to see Him, to make us feel good, and obediently stays in the box and out of our way the rest of the time. Even for Christians who come to church every Sunday, this is the temptation, is it not? And we succumb all too often. You hear something in God’s Word you don’t like, and you resist it, you stuff it in a box. You have your pet things you hear in church that you nod and smile at, but in the secret place of your heart you believe you know better. You see, none of us is innocent of this sin. It is as old as Adam and Eve, and common to all their children. “You shall have no other gods,” is the First Commandment. It is a Commandment given in love, because God knows that we need Him to be our God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as He reveals Himself in the Holy Scriptures is the one true God. And there is help and salvation in no one else. You will never ascend to this God by your own reason or strength, because your own reason and strength are always busy fashioning idols. You’re incapable of anything else. So this God must come to you. And He does. And that is what the Gospel is all about this morning.
Of course, as is always the case with this God, He does not come to you in the fashion you imagine or even desire. For His thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are His ways your ways (Is. 55:8). He does not come in a blaze of glory, annihilating His enemies and exalting you to heaven. He does not come in feelings in your heart or voices in your head or spectacular miracles before your eyes. He comes as a baby, to a poor girl from Nazareth (remember the proverb about that place: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” [John 1:46; ESV]). He is born in the midst of scandal. This girl is not married. She is betrothed to Joseph of Nazareth, but he isn’t the father. No one believes she is a virgin and that God is the Father. Please! According to the Law of Moses, she should be stoned to death, but Joseph, being a righteous man, has in mind to divorce her quietly. And right in the middle of this soap opera, God comes in the flesh. There are no halos over anyone’s head. No one has the serene look you see on the Christmas cards. This is all one big controversy, and no one is expecting God to show up and bless this mess with His presence.
The angel causes all this trouble when he comes to Mary and announces all this. Because the moment the angel speaks God’s Word, it happens. That’s how powerful the Word of God is. It always does what it says. The angel declares to Mary, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus… The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:31, 35). “You will conceive in your womb.” The Greek literally says, “You will catch it in the belly.” “The Holy Spirit will come upon you… the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Bam! Pregnant! That’s it! The seed of God’s Word enters Mary’s ear and implants in her womb. The Word becomes flesh and makes His dwelling among us. The Son of God is now the Son of Man. It’s a great scandal. It is a scandal both because of the way He is conceived, and because God is not supposed to appear in weakness for our salvation. A little, helpless baby. How much more vulnerable can it get? This is supposed to be our salvation? To be sure, God’s thoughts are most certainly not our thoughts, and His ways are most certainly not our ways.
But what did you think would happen? How else can this happen? Jesus comes to save you from your sins. Can He really appear anywhere else but right where the sins are happening? Do you really think He can save you without getting His hands dirty? The image of God we create in our minds is too clean, too sanitized. The real deal is too demanding. He’s too messy. He’s too… well… real. He really comes in flesh and blood. God is really a baby, a boy, a man, a human being. And He really is great, the Son of the Most High, the rightful Heir to the throne of His father David (v. 32), but He doesn’t appear that way. He appears “as one from whom men hide their faces”… He “was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Is. 53:3). This is not how a king, much less God, should come, according to our fallen wisdom. So we reject Him. We spiritualize God to such an extent that the incarnation no longer has any real meaning for us. That’s why even many Christians reject that Baptism has any real power to save or forgive sins or create faith. That’s why even many Christians believe the Lord’s Supper is just bread and wine. Because the idea that God comes to us in the flesh, as body and blood, is scandalous. And even we who do believe it, treat it lightly, as if it’s not what God says it is, as if it has no bearing on our daily lives. We pack the God of the incarnation and the Sacraments up in a box where He can be safely stowed away.
Repent. God comes to you, not in your own image, but in the flesh to transform you into His image. And this is tremendously good news. He comes to you right in the midst of your sin and sinfulness and all the drama that is your life in a fallen world. He comes to you in the flesh to save you from all of that. He says to you, as He said to Mary through the angel Gabriel, “Greetings, O favored one” (Luke 1:28). The Greek on that verse is literally, “Grace, graced one.” And the meaning is that neither you nor Mary have earned His coming or merited it in any way. Grace is God’s undeserved kindness. He comes out of His own kindness, because He is good, and He knows our need of His coming. “Grace, graced one,” and bam! You have grace! That’s it! Because Jesus is on the scene, and He is grace in the flesh. The Word of God is just that powerful.
And it is just that real. Flesh and blood real. If Jesus did not come in the flesh, and if He does not come to you in His Word and Baptism and the Supper in the flesh, then you are still in your sins. But Christ indeed came as a baby and comes to you in the flesh to deliver to you real, tangible, flesh and blood forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. The flesh and blood Jesus is the place of God’s tabernacle-ing among us. What David doesn’t understand in our Old Testament reading (2 Sam. 7:1-11, 16) is that the body of Jesus is the true Temple, the House of God built by THE Son of David. Thank God, He doesn’t come to us in the image we’ve crafted for Him. Thank God, He doesn’t stay in the box where we try to hide Him away. He comes through the Word announced to Mary of Nazareth. He comes, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary. He comes to be our Lord and to redeem us from sin, death, and the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, that we may be His own. He comes in His Word preached and read, real words from real voices and on real pages written in real ink. He comes in water that splashes you and soaks you and washes away all your sins because of the power of the Word. He comes in real bread and wine which are His true body and blood, because He says so. You actually touch God and eat His body and drink His blood, the body that was really crucified on a cross of real wood, the blood that was really shed, really poured out from real wounds onto the real dust of the earth. This is real history. This is present reality. Forget your images, your idols. Christianity is a real religion, because Christ is real.
And He’s real for you. That’s the point of Christmas. We don’t just worship some “spirit in the sky.” The Father is Spirit. The Holy Spirit is Spirit. Jesus Christ is Spirit and flesh. We worship a Man! Because a Man has come for us men and for our salvation. Grace, O Graced One. The Lord is with you. Jesus is here, for real. And faith says with St. Mary: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.