This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell Uniting Church for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B. It was Sunday 24th December 2017
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Luke 1:26-38, 46b-55
The story that Christianity tells about Advent and Christmas is about many things, but one of the main things is newness. God did a new thing when “Word became Flesh”, God in all God’s God-ness came into the world as a male human baby. But that new thing was not without precedent, since God was honouring a promise and God was faithful to the world in the way that God had always been, and how God has always been since the ascension of Jesus. So, there’s another thing about Advent, God’s new thing is about God’s long-term faithfulness.
The story found in today’s Psalm is a reminder that God has loved humankind in very practical ways through the ministry work of Israel, and God has remained faithful to all the promises of the covenant. The prophets through the ages from Samuel who anointed David, Nathan who advised David, and the prophets who spoke to later kings, all proclaimed God’s faithfulness and God’s desire that the people remain faithful, (Psalm 89:3-4). God who is consistent, who we declare to be the same yesterday, today and forever, is also constantly changing, working with each new king in the best way for that king and his situation. So, by the time of Ethan, the Ezrahite, who re-wrote an earlier song of Israel’s king to suit his circumstance as a hope-filled exile, Ethan can find much for which to praise God. Even though the people’s unfaithfulness and disobedience has caused their downfall as a nation, Ethan can declare that God is no less worthy of praise because God is still faithful, (Psalm 89:1-2).
Looking back on Ethan’s song today; and as Christians we are looking back through the life of Jesus, we see that in the baby in the manger is the fulfilment of God’s promises. In Jesus the Israelites were given a king directly descended from David and the royal family, (Psalm 89:19-20). Israel was given a man who would lead them in worship, and a man who would point them towards a new and complete revelation of God as a faithful and loving father: something they had always known but had also tended to forget, (Psalm 89:26, 28). The exiled Israelites believed that they had been forgotten; they were confused and felt abandoned and betrayed in Babylon and Persia. But God had remembered the people even if they had forgotten that God was faithful. And four hundred years after the last prophet spoke, and when the Judeans and Samaritans were living under Roman occupation and were feeling forgotten again, God spoke through a baby’s cry. Jesus as the son of Joseph of Bethlehem was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David, and God’s promise to the Israel through David.
God’s new thing is only a new way of keeping God’s age-long promises.
Jesus is a child of the impossible, and one of many in the history of Israel. The significance of the virgin birth of Jesus is seen as miraculous, and so it should be, since it is impossible for any virgin animal to give birth to male offspring. (Even if Mary had somehow fertilised one of her own ova, which is theoretically possible but very improbably, the baby would have been XX and a clone of the mother.) But I think it is more significant to Luke that in Mary we see the messiah born to a young and fresh mother rather than an old and barren one. Any woman could have been the mother of Jesus, and any birth might have been miraculous: but God chose twelve-year-old Mary. In his telling of the story of Jesus Luke immediately sets Mary beside Elisabeth, the post-menopausal mother of John the Baptiser. John’s conception is no less a miracle than Jesus’, even when you consider that Zechariah was involved in a way that Joseph was not. But by doing it this way, and having the messiah born of a girl, Jesus is presented as the bringer of a new covenant. John, born of an old-and-barren woman is presented as the last in the line of the old covenant. Both conceptions are miracles of God since both covenants testify to God. Mary is a new Hannah, and Elisabeth a new Sarah.
Luke goes further in his presentation of the new-born king, and this is something often missed in the retelling of the Christian stories of Christmas. In fact, the gospel accounts are inflammatory, and each one challenges the legends of the day. Are you aware of how much the Christmas stories in the three gospels in which they appear blatantly contradict and mock the stories told about the origins of Caesar Augustus? The legendary conception of Octavian, as he was known before he became Emperor, also took place under the shadow of infanticide: in Octavian’s case the senate was fearful of the foretold, newborn king. (Matthew speaks of a jealous Herod.) Octavian was considered to have been of divine origin since he was the son of Apollo through the human mother Atia. The way in which God overshadowed Mary is both like and unlike the Roman and Greek stories, since Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit but the human girl Mary, unlike Leda and Atia among other heroines, was not seduced and raped by her god. Mary was not harmed, and whilst she did become pregnant she remained a virgin after conception. Jesus, unlike Octavian, was conceived in love and peace, not violence and fear; Mary is a willing recipient of the angel’s grace and God’s activity. The actual son of the chief god, (and Jews would say the only true God), who was born from a human woman, and born to bring divinely-attested peace to the world, is too close to the Empire’s propaganda to be allowed to exist. Of course, this all comes later, the written down stories of Jesus’ birth do not come for another seventy years or so, but you can see how the story of Jesus is a threat to the story of Augustus and every Caesar who followed. The actual presence of the God of the Jews, on earth as a man, just adds to this.
In Genesis 1:26 we read that humankind was made in the image and likeness of God, and St Augustine wrote in the fifth Christian century that humankind was made by God to be recipients of love. If Jesus’ conception and birth is supernatural then it is only because it is very natural: it is in God’s nature that things take place like this. We can call it miraculous, we can, but really, it’s just doing what God does the way God does it. Baby Jesus was created in the image and likeness of God, much like baby everyone else was. This is ordinary divinity: it’s manger faith.
And so, with all this talk of the miraculous I am lead to ponder two things. Maybe these things haven’t occurred to you, maybe you’ll not think much of them after I’ve said them anyway and think them irrelevant, but for now let me plant a couple of seeds of manger faith.
Number One. Back in the day there wasn’t the understanding of human biology that we have now; specifically, there was no understanding of the ovum. There was also no understanding of the sperm, which are too small to see, but there was some understanding that the man put something in the woman during sexual activity and that thing made babies. So, I ask you this: did the Holy Spirit fertilise one of Mary’s ova with a holy spermatozoon, or did God plant an entire zygote, a fertilised ovum in Mary? Luke can’t tell us because he didn’t have that understanding of conception: God certainly did the man’s part in making the baby, but in a world which didn’t understand the woman’s contribution, other than as incubator, what happened? Did Jesus come from Mary’s egg?
Number Two, and why number one matters. Who, if anyone, did Jesus look like? Even if we allow for Mary’s biological contribution, and that her ovum was used by God, did Jesus look like his mum? And allowing that everyone knew in Bethlehem, as I’m sure they’d know just as easily in Morwell, that Mary was pregnant before Joseph had had his manly way with her, did Jesus look like Joseph? Was there room for doubt that the baby asleep in Mary’s arms belonged also to the man in whose arms Mary rested? Was Mary’s boychild the image and likeness of his father, both upper-case F and lower-case f father? You can all see today, because he is here, that I look like my dad: did Jesus look like his? Since my dad was more involved in my conception than Joseph was in Jesus’ conception that would be another act of manger faith.
I have no doubt that whoever Jesus looked like, he was the image of his father. Fathers, plural, as I am the image of mine, both. The faithfulness of God to the promise made to David, which came about by same means that God sealed God’s promise to Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elisabeth allows for God to be faithful to Mary that her son looked like her husband, and shame was averted. The Christian story of Christmas is that even when God is doing mighty and divine stuff, like saving the world by sending the messiah into the world via the virgin fiancée of a direct descendent of King David, in Bethlehem, God can still be personal enough to make sure that there was at least a stable and that the baby looked like his daddy. Our faithful God is more than dependable, our God is considerate and kind.
The message of Christmas, this year at least, is that each of us who was born to be loved by God, created in the image and likeness of our Father in Heaven should be faithful, considerate, and kind too. The best way to share God at Christmas is to act like God at Christmas.