Fourth Sunday of Advent
A Sermon preached at Trinity Cathedral, Pittsburgh PA Dec. 18, 2011
by the Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding
It is the tradition of the Church on the last Sunday of Advent to focus on the figure of Mary, and upon the annunciation by the angel Gabriel to her that she would bear the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. “Hail, Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee; the Holy Spirit shall overshadow thee and thou wilt conceive a child and call his name Jesus, which means God saves, and He will save His people.” Ultimately He will spread out His arms on the hard wood of the Cross so that the whole world will come within the reach of His saving embrace.
Most churches have a stained glass window of the Annunciation — here at the Cathedral, there is one in the Lady Chapel and also in the main sanctuary.
The life of Jesus is bracketed by two miracles. The first is the miracle of the incarnation, the miracle of the Virgin birth, whereby the eternal Word of God’s love, the only begotten Son of the Father takes human flesh from the Virgin Mary His mother and becomes man. In the paraphrase of the Bible by Eugene Peterson called The Message, “The Word took on flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” At the beginning of His life on earth is the incarnation and at the end of His earthly life is the Resurrection. The Father raises the Son from death and gives us the hope and promise that we might be raised as well — to a new life which begins now and which he grave cannot hold.
The New Testament forthrightly puts before us a God of miracles and bids us to hope in a miraculous salvation. A miracle is a demonstration of the power of God that is recognized as such in faith. Where there is no faith, there can be no miracle seen, only something appearing astonishing or inexplicable. Both the deed of power and the faith to recognize it are the gift of God. He gives the faith that recognizes the deed and performs the deed that elicits and strengthens the faith.
So the angel comes to announce the meaning of the deed, and because the author of the miracle is the God of Love, the mighty deed is done with the character of love and for the purpose of Love.
Our era is a strange mixture of skepticism and superstition. On the one hand, there is the militant skepticism and scientism of the new atheists who think of any kind of religious belief as a kind of virus. On the other hand, alongside this atheism, there are literally millions of sons and daughters of the civilization the Bible built who are numb to the claims of their ancestral faith but are mesmerized by all kinds of fantasmagoric spirituality and religiosity. There is oddly more interest in Gabriel and in angels than in the message of the angel and the miraculous birth he comes to announce.
Hard skepticism and credulous superstition — they have in common an allergy to the God who intervenes, who breaks into human life and by so doing creates a crisis of decision, a moment which is full of both judgment and salvation. In our age, an aspect of human life which has always been there has gained the upper hand, has become dominant. It is a deep fear of anything which might interfere with our personal freedom, or at least the way we think about our freedom. We think that the more choices we have, the more free we are. The God who intervenes decisively in human life suddenly reduces the choices to two: reception or rejection.
So properly scientific theories are over-inflated into psuedo-philosophical world views, the purpose of which is to keep our riot of self-will safe from the intervention of a God who cares and cares to act decisively for our salvation. The death of Christopher Hitchens is in the news. He is an interesting figure. One of doctoral students at the seminary debated him and they became friends. They shared a long car ride. Hitchens wanted to discuss the Gospel of John. But this famous proponent of the New Atheism wrote in one of his books that he found the idea of a God who knows everything about us and who interferes in human events, oppressive.
But suppose that the miraculous God, the interventionist God, when he intervenes, when he acts for our salvation, acts not only out of love and towards the end of love but lovingly :
Here we see in the Annunciation the character of God’s intervention, the character of God’s miracle — It does not overwhelm but invites. The miraculous God always makes room for the free response. Love in action lovingly makes room for a free and loving response. Mary’s heart is prepared. In art and stained glass, the Annunciation is often depicted with a book on the floor at Mary’s feet — she has been reading Isaiah. So the salvation of the world depends on Mary’s fiat. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy will.” In surrender Mary finds a human dignity and freedom she could never have otherwise, and so by invitation and free response, God comes savingly among us.
Mary is the figure, the pattern, for both the individual Christian and for the Church. God desires that both as individuals and as the Church, we should be overshadowed by the Spirit and bring forth into the world the new life of Jesus Christ and the eternal Word of seeking, searching, and sacrificing love — the Word which at great cost brings peace with God and goodwill among men. Our purpose as Christians, as the Church of Jesus Christ, is to be bearers of this love. This is our hope. This is our salvation.
It is necessary for us as Christians and for the Church, if we are to fulfill our calling to love each other and the world with the love wherewith we have been loved by God, to closely imitate Mary and like her to say to God “Be it unto me according to your will.” “Lord, come into our lives and make us what you would have us be.” This requires humility, it requires a casting of ourselves upon God in spite of fears and doubts (The doubts and fears of all the years are met in Him on Christmas night).
It requires everything that is the opposite of the cool, detached, ironic, stance that is the ethos of our time. It does not require a sacrifice of the intellect but it requires a humility of the intellect and a docility before the witness of the scripture and the great teaching tradition of the church. It requires a willingness to trade the false freedom of an infinity of meaningless choices for the real freedom which comes from saying, “Behold I am the servant of the Lord. Be it unto me according to Thy will.” And “not my will but Thine be done.”
Let us pray. Father, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Saviour, make us, each one of us and our Church, more like Mary. Give us hearts like hers, surrendered to your will, and bring forth in us, in each heart here and in the heart of your Church, the life and love of your Son who is the peace and joy of the world. Amen.