Inconceivable

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Video of the Divine Service here.

Bulletin here.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Well, we’ve finally made it. We’ve made it to the last Sunday in Advent. We finally get to hear a Gospel reading that has something to do with Mary and the Baby Jesus—although, if you think about it, this reading really belongs nine months before Christmas, on March 25. Nevertheless, here we are, with one day left until Christmas. People everywhere are asking themselves, Am I ready for Christmas? Have I bought all the gifts, have I baked all the cookies, have I decorated the house? This is really the worst time to be caught at Costco, with all the people who are trying to get ready. But Advent still asks us, not whether we’re ready for Christmas, but whether we’re ready for Christ.

We ask people all the time if they’re ready: ready for graduation, ready for that new job, ready for marriage, ready for children. If they say they’re ready, they’re probably lying, simply because they don’t really know. We’re never as ready as we think we are. And if you’d asked Mary 24 hours before the angel Gabriel visited her if she was ready to be pregnant the next day, if she was ready to have a baby, I doubt she’d have said yes. She might have looked at you as if you were a little crazy (and not just because she didn’t speak English). She may have wanted children, longed for children, expected children. After all, she lived when people thought children were a blessing in which to rejoice, rather than a curse to be suffered. But I doubt she was ready or prepared or expected an angel of God to confront her with this word. And as for Mary herself, I don’t think that when people saw Mary, they saw her glowing with some supernatural virtue. There was no halo to mark her as the one whom God would choose to bear the Son. Though she certainly knew the Scriptures and their promises, she wasn’t, as some artwork depicts her, literally kneeling piously before the Scriptures. I’m sure she was going about the business of her day, whatever that entailed for her. She wasn’t ready for Christmas, though it was nine months off.

But somehow we can’t get rid of this picture of Mary as somehow more prepared for the angel’s words than someone else. We think that God must have seen something in Mary, or that she had somehow done something, and that that’s why He chose her. But this is just our native paganism; it’s just us believing that people somehow deserve what comes to them. The good get good things and the bad get bad things. God’s gonna check His list to see if you’ve been naughty or nice. So if we believe that Mary was chosen because she was more holy or more virtuous, then we hold out a little hope that maybe God has seen something in us, too; that He’s chosen us because of that something. Otherwise, the whole thing is inconceivable to us.

But if that were how God worked and chose and saved, how different that would be from how God chooses every other person in the Scriptures. God never chooses anyone because she’s more holy or more virtuous or has otherwise done something to deserve it. God is not like the antique collector, going around looking for pieces with as few flaws as possible. He appears much more like the half-senile junk collector picking up trash and decorating his house and lawn with it, driving down property values. He’s much more like someone who picks up random pieces of broken glass and makes a beautiful mosaic out of them; much more like the potter taking a broken jar and remaking it. God never chooses saints! He only chooses damned sinners.

But maybe we think it’s different with Mary because, after all, the Son of God was in her womb, and since we want to protect His sinlessness and holiness, we defend hers. But here’s the thing: if Mary cannot carry the Son of God because she’s a sinner; if He cannot come to her and purify the flesh He takes from her, then He cannot come to us and purify us either. And maybe that’s what we really find inconceivable: that God saves sinners in Jesus Christ completely and absolutely apart from who they are or what they’ve done. We modern, enlightened people say, the Virgin Birth is impossible. We ask, as Mary did, how could this be? Same as the Apostles when Jesus said it was only with difficulty that the rich would enter the Reign of Heaven. The disciples said, “Who, then, can be saved?” And Jesus said, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:23-26). God causes barren old women and virgin young women to be pregnant; no Word is impossible that comes from the mouth of God. It is all literally inconceivable—unless God is conceived in Mary. The virgin conception and birth of Jesus are exactly as impossible as your salvation.

But Mary had prayed with the prophet Isaiah for the heavens to shower and the clouds to rain down righteousness; she had prayed that the earth would be open so that righteousness and salvation would bear fruit. Heaven is full and the earth is empty. The earth does not bear fruit unless it receives the seed from above; unless it receives the rain and the sun from above. Neither do empty wombs become pregnant without seed. But after 800 years, God answered the prayer of Isaiah. After 1000 years, He fulfilled His promise to David to build a house for his Descendent, a house for God’s Name. And Mary was part of the answer to that prayer. The heavens rained down righteousness and salvation, so that the empty earth of Mary’s womb might bring forth the fruit of righteousness in Jesus’ own body. He is the House of God’s Name on earth, and God chose Mary as the one through whom He would come. Inconceivable—unless God Himself is conceived.

Conceived for Mary’s salvation and yours. At the heart of the message of the Angel is the Word of God for you: “For us men and for our salvation, He came down from heaven, was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” In answer to your prayer, that He would stir up His power and come and help you by His might, that the sins which weigh you down would be quickly lifted up by His grace and mercy, He came down, and took on flesh and was made man: for you and for your salvation. And yet, here we are, still waiting, still praying for Christ to stir up His power and come back. The true joy of Christmas is only by faith, while everything we see is Advent. God made barren Elizabeth to have a child, but barrenness is still a bitter burden. God caused Zechariah to be mute in his unbelief, and still there are those who do not believe and so do not speak. Sin and its effects still surround us and weigh us down. Even as we celebrate Christ’s first Advent, we still long for His Second. Most people seem to think that all the garbage that piles up in this world is an argument against God’s mercy. The fact is, it’s the reason for it. Advent and the rest of the Church Year proclaim the entire Scriptures to us so that we are prepared for Christ—not as a memory, or as a once-a-year celebration, or as a festive time of the year—but as He Himself comes to us, the living Jesus. He is not safely in the past or at some distant point in the future, but right here and now, so that now is the judgment and today is the day of salvation. And being ready to cling to Christ in faith now means also being ready to rejoice in Him when His full glory is revealed on that last day.

As surely as His Word was confirmed to Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary, just as surely has it been confirmed to you. He did come down, and He will come down again, and the sins for which He died once, to lift them from your shoulders, He will remove completely; He will cleanse you just as He cleansed Mary’s flesh. And so, week after week as He comes to us, we continue to speak these words, sometimes with joy, sometimes with a sigh of longing: for us men and for our salvation, He came down from heaven. Rejoice in those words this Christmas and always! Worship at those words! He has done what He said, and it will be according to His Word.

What He did for Mary when He graced her with His Son, He has done for us. In Christ, He chose you, He predestined you to be sons through His Son, to the eternal praise of His grace, with which He has graced us in His Beloved. And to that, there is nothing left to say but Mary’s words: Amen. I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be to me as You have said.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/21/17

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