Advent 4 · Luke 1:26-38 · December 21, 2008
By Jeffrey A. Oschwald
Year ? is far and away the most evangelically diverse Adventtide of the three-year series. Years A and C are devoted entirely to their respective Gospels, Matthew and Luke. In Year B, on the other hand, we have readings from every Gospel except Matthew (whose Gospel does provide the reading for Christmas Eve). This means that the preacher is going to have to help his hearers jump from the themes and moods of one Gospel to the next during this season. Perhaps the easiest of those “jumps” will be the one to Luke 1 for this final Sunday of Advent. By December 21st everyone will be in the mood for Christmas,¹ and, with all due respect to the first evangelist, when it comes to Christmas, just about everyone thinks “Luke.”
There is a very clear link and an easy segue from the previous Sunday’s Gospel from John to this passage from Luke, which seems about as unlikely as a duet featuring the brash baritone of the Baptist and the gentle soprano of the Virgin. However, it will likely be missed entirely if the traditional analogy for this text is allowed to become a controlling metaphor. I will explain.
This is the Sunday of Preparation. What better analogy could the text provide than that of a mother receiving confirmation that she is with child and then, with purpose and resolve and a barely containable joy, setting about making all the necessary preparations to welcome the newborn into heart and home? Everything lines up perfectly until we get to the “baby part.” We are not preparing to welcome a baby, but to welcome the Lord of Heaven and Earth. He will come not in need of our nurture and protection; He will come to judge the world. In short, when He comes again, our Lord will not be in need of “mothering.”
The perfect segue does come from the mouth of the mother herself, though, and it shows that she already realizes that, even at His first coming, her Son will have a claim on her that far exceeds the normal claims of sons upon mothers. In a gende voice that should have brought some needed silence to later battles over her, this mother does not boast in the vaunted tides that the theologians would argue about. She will be a slave—in the most mysterious way possible—a domestic servant to her son and Lord. What John—greatest of those born of woman—was not worthy to be, this young girl—most blessed of all those who bear sons—has become: the slave of the Coming One. How can this be? “Nothing will be impossible with God” (v. 37).
To our list of doorkeepers, announcers, and confessors, we can, at last, add slaves. Your development of this theme will be gready aided by a quick review— strike that—by the slow reading and serious contemplation of Luther’s sermon on this passage, easily accessible in Martin lather’s Christmas Book.² In his sermon on the Annunciation, Luther (hearkening back to St. Bernard) speaks of three miracles that take place here, and greater than the miracle of the Incarnation, greater than the miracle of a Virgin Birth, is the miracle that this maiden should believe this word from the angel. If she had not believed, Luther declares, she could not have conceived. And this, he adds, is the hardest part for us as well, not to believe that He could be God and Man, or even to believe that He could be born of a virgin, but to believe that this Son of God is ours.
If our Advent prayer is that the Son be “born in us today,” and if Christ dwells in our hearts through faith (Eph 3:17), we are slaves to the Lord and for the world by being His faith-full Advent people. As Mary did, we submit ourselves whole and entire to the word of the Lord. We cling to His assurance that nothing is impossible with Him, that He makes no impossible promises.
Verse 37 could be translated “no word is impossible with God” or, even more woodenly, “Every word [that God speaks] shall certainly not be impossible [for Him to fulfill]!” Although such a translation strays more than a litde from English idiom and even requires a second or third hearing to be understood, it does reflect an emphasis on word that stretches throughout the rest of the chapter. Mary repeats the same word in her response in v. 38: “Let it be to me according to your word”— and no one suggests translating “according to your thing/matter.” And Elizabeth finally removes all ambiguity with her blessing in v. 45, where she switches vocabulary to make the point even more clear: “Blessed is she who was brought to the faith that there will be a fulfillment for what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
It is difficult to imagine a more complete servitude than bearing another’s child. What is not risked? What is not involved? The men in the room are at a definite disadvantage in trying to express what they have, at best, only witnessed, never experienced. Still, graphic delivery room descriptions are not needed to make the application that our service to the Lord is no less demanding. It is also no less important. Our submission to this word, our willing enslavement to this Lord, is also service for the salvation of the world. Advent 3 reminded us that we are not the Christ, but Advent 4 calls us to be His presence, His light, His body once again in the world—a world rushing aimlessly through the darkness toward the last and unending night.
So then, we are slaves of the Lord in our submission to and faith in His word, and we are slaves for the world, the house where the voice of the Lord can still be heard, the people among and through whom His presence is still made manifest. Three days after you preach this sermon you will celebrate with your people the Nativity of our Lord. Are they different people as they head into this Christmastide and this New Year? Has hearing these Advent Gospels changed them? Has it changed us? What will happen when the “holidays” are over for another year? There was no “back to life as usual” for John or Mary; will we be content with that or even comforted by it? Or has a renewed awareness of our somber responsibilities, our sacred privileges, the holy purpose of our life and calling changed forever the way we look at ourselves and live for the Lord in this world? May God richly bless all your Adventtide preparations this year, filling minds and hearts, mouths and ears, church and world with the wondrous gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
¹ Unless, of course, your people have already been celebrating Christmas for four weeks by this time.
² Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Christmas Book (ed. Roland Bainton; Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997).