Sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2020 based on Luke 1:5-38, written and preached by Rev. KJ Norris.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
This morning I expanded our lectionary text a little so that we could look deeply at the love of God in action.
Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent, a day when we pause to reflect on love, just as we looked at hope, peace, and joy the last three Sundays.
Often when we look at love, we think about our love. How do we love? How do people throughout the Biblical story show love to one another? How do they love God? How can we show love to God and neighbor?
But today I would like to do something a little different. Today I want to compare too stories and see how God showed love to two families.
In a very real sense, these two families could not have been more different.
The first family was well established. Our Scripture tells us a lot about this family. (Read Luke 1:5-8). They were the “right kind of people,” you know what I mean? If there had been a People Magazine in that day, Zechariah and Elizabeth would have been on the cover. They were the “it” couple of their day. They had it all. A strong marriage. They were from a good family. And Zechariah had just been chosen for the greatest honor a person from a Priestly family could receive—He was invited to stand within the Holy of Holies.
We’ve talked before about how the Temple was set up. Here’s a slide of what it looked like to remind you. There was an outer court where anyone could gather. And then there was a courtyard where anyone of Jewish faith could enter—it’s marked here at the Women’s Courtyard. Then, there was a separate section where only the Jewish men were permitted to worship. And then there was a section where only the priests could go. And then, there was an area where only one priest would be chosen to enter. He would go and offer sacrifices.
Zechariah had been chosen for this great honor. He and Elizabeth were older, well-established, and on top of their game. But they shared a great sorrow. They had been praying many years for a child and their prayer had not been answered. Despite their faithfulness & love and happy home, no child had come.
Perhaps some of you have faced this, too, many families do. You fall in love and set up a home. You long to have a child, but one doesn’t come. I know several couples who long for a child and who wonder if they have done something wrong. They wonder if God is punishing them for something in their past or some unforgiven sin. They wonder if they are just not loved.
Let me be clear about this: we don’t fully understand why some people can have children and others do not. Even with all of the fertility treatments and medical expertise of our day, we do not fully understand what it takes to create a child.
What we do know is this: sometimes even the very best couples–by every standard–simply cannot get pregnant. If that is you situation, know that you are loved. Know that God does hear your prayer. Know that you are not alone in this. There are many examples of people of faith in the Bible who could not have children—Rachel, Rebekah, Hannah… the list goes on and on. This is not because of anything you did wrong. You are deeply loved by God. And sometimes, these things just happen. We live in a broken world. And yet, God has a plan and a purpose for you.
Zechariah and Elizabeth shared the sorrow of many in our day. They had waited and waited for a child, but none had come. And now Elizabeth is passed what is considered childbearing years. The time of praying and waiting in hope is gone. But now God is choosing to do a new thing.
The second family we encounter today is quite different. We are told just a little about this family. And honestly, we could say: well, there is not much to tell. (Read Luke 1:26-27). So the second story is told about a woman who absolutely would not be featured in People Magazine. She is young, single, unmarried. And she is living in a little town called Nazareth way out in the country area called Galilee.
By all worldly accounts this woman named Mary is nothing special. She’s receiving no special honors from the world. No one is really paying any attention to her at all. And she is not praying for a child. She’s not even married. Having a kid is not even on the agenda, not yet, anyway.
And yet, despite how vastly different these two situations are, God steps into both in very similar ways (see table below).
Notice that in both stories, both people are visited by the angel Gabriel. Both are afraid when they see the angel. We might not expect that. We might think that Zechariah would be brave and bold. After all, he is standing in this holy place, praying to God. And he has been walking with God all his life. He should, perhaps, expect God to act. But, our Scripture tells us he is “terrified.”
Mary, on the other hand, we might expect to be truly terrified. She is just a young woman. She’s apparently is at home going about her day when the angel shows up. But the Scripture describes her as “perplexed” more than terrified. Just the same, the angel responds to them in the same way, “Do not be afraid.”
And then the angel makes promises. Both will receive a child. And both children will have a specific purpose. The first, the older, born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, will serve the younger, born to Mary.
The older will be a prophet filled with the Holy Spirit. The younger is the Son of the Most High God.
And of course, both Zechariah and Mary have a lot of questions.
Zechariah wants to know (see verse 18) how this can be because he thinks he’s too old to have kids.
Mary wants to know (see verse 34) how this can be because she hasn’t been with a man.
The questions appear to be the same, at least to me. Both are “How” questions. Both seem very reasonable. But the angel responds to them very differently.
When Zechariah asks, his question apparently shows that he doesn’t believe God. He responds without faith. Notice verse 20. And in order to prove to him that God really is at work, God takes away his ability to speak for the next nine months.
I personally think this is hilarious. This is the thing with we people of faith. Sometimes we think we are the ones with all the answers. We want to do all the talking. We think we know what God does and what God doesn’t do. We who have been walking with God a long time and especially we preachers can be very guilty of this. So, what does God do? God makes sure Zechariah will spend the next 9 months listening instead of talking. It’s a good lesson to remind us all, especially those of us who call ourselves believers that if we stop listening, if we stop learning, if we think we are the “it girls”, the “it guys,” the “it couples,” God might humble us. We should humble ourselves instead.
Mary on the other hand, asks what seems like is the same question—the “how” question and Gabriel responds very differently. Although we can’t tell this by her words, we know that God knows the heart. And she is apparently asking from a place of faith, not doubt. Trusting that this really is going to happen, she wants to know how.
Gabriel answers and Mary responds faithfully that she will do as God wills.
So, what do these two stories teach us about love?
First, I think that we are reminded that love comes in the form of people. Through relationship. Through connection with one another.
I know this sounds simple, but yet, in our materialistic culture it is easy to forget this. We use the word “love” for all sorts of things. We love pizza and snow skiing and Netflix. Food, adventures, and media. These are things as a culture we often love above all else—things that we can even become addicted to.
But true love is not about material blessings or experiences. True love can only be found in relationship.
I’ve never had the great blessing of having my own children but I know that many of you can remember those first days and weeks with your own children. And perhaps all of us have had the beautiful opportunity to hold a little one in our arms. Those moments of connection are so essential. Lynn Japinga in the Connections commentary says it this way:
“Infants can best focus their eyes on an object twelve to fourteen inches away, just the distance between the infant’s eyes and the eyes of the one holding the child. When infants and caregivers look intently at each other, their brain activity increases. They get to know each other. They learn to love each other. They develop compassion and empathy” (82).
We can all imagine that scene. An infant child laying in the arms of one who loves them. Their little minds learning what love is from the simple act of touch. From the steady rock or the shy smile or the deep gaze.
Love is found in connection. In the touch of a kind embrace. In the sound of laughter. In the smell of a well-known perfume. In sight of an old friend.
God’s love came to us not in the gift of material blessings or even in powerful actions. God’s love comes to us in the form of a person. In a child with us. In Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. Love is found in relationship.
Second, God’s love comes in ways we don’t expect. Sometimes God’s love comes after years of unanswered prayer. Sometimes God’s love comes as something most of us would see as tragic—losing the ability to speak. Sometimes God’s love comes when we haven’t asked for it and don’t even think we know how to pray. God’s love comes when we are young and when we are old. When we expect it most and when we expect it least. And if we feel unseen, like Mary who no one would have noticed, we are seen. God’s love reaches far beyond the world’s love. And God’s love always comes.
So this year, as we prepare for Christmas, let us draw close to the one who loves us more than we could ever know. Let us praise the name of Jesus.
Green, J. B., Long, T. G., Powery, L. A., Rigby, C. L., & Sharp, C. J. (2020). Connections: Year B, Volume 1: Advent Through Epiphany (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worsh). Westminster John Knox Press.