By the Rev. Darren Miner
For the last three Sundays, I have preached that Advent is a time to rehearse the stories of the first coming of Jesus Christ, as well as to prepare ourselves for his Second Coming. That being said, today’s Gospel reading doesn’t actually focus on either the first or the second coming; instead, it focuses on the antecedent to the first coming, namely, the angel’s Annunciation to Mary and the virginal conception of Jesus.
The angel’s greeting in this story has appealed to the visual imagination of countless Christian artists, from the Middle Ages up to the present day. The museums of Europe are full of paintings of the Annunciation. Typically, you see a pale young woman in a diaphanous blue gown seated on a throne. You see an angel devoutly kneeling before her. You see a dove hovering over the scene. What you don’t see is Jesus! But in truth, the whole point of the Annunciation story is Jesus. Luke shares this early tradition, because it tells us something we need to know about the identity of Mary’s son.
We are told that Jesus is to be born of a virgin and that his father will be none other than the Lord God. The archangel Gabriel explains that the conception will take place in a spiritual manner as God’s power passes over Mary like a shadow. Now, the virginal conception of Jesus is a difficulty for some faithful Christians. And I can understand why. After all, none of us here today has ever witnessed such a thing. Nor are we expected to! The Gospel portrays the event as a one-of-a-kind occurrence. And that’s one main point of this story: Jesus is one of a kind. The other main point is that Jesus comes from God—exactly how is less important.
The angel Gabriel goes on to prophesy that Jesus will be called the Son of God and will rule as king over Israel forever. In short, the angel is telling Mary that her son will be the long-hoped-for Messiah, the Davidic king who will usher in a new age of peace for Israel. What Gabriel doesn’t tell Mary is that this Son is destined to rule over a kingdom far greater than the earthly Israel, namely, the Kingdom of God.
Mary believed the angel. She gave her consent. And then she waited. At first she waited nine months to see the first part of the prophecy fulfilled, the birth of a child. Then she waited some thirty more years to see her son take up his ministry, and she hoped for the coming of the Kingdom. Just three years later, those hopes were dashed with the death of her son on a cross. We are told that it was like a sword piercing her heart. Even so, Mary remained faithful. Mary waited. Three days later, reports began to filter in about the Resurrection of her son, of God’s Son. But the Kingdom did not come in its fullness, not yet, and so she continued to wait and to hope and to pray till the day she fell asleep for the very last time.
Two thousand years have come and gone, and like Mary, we wait and we hope and we pray. Mary was faithful to the very end, but she had questions. We know this from today’s Gospel reading. We too have our questions. We wonder how much longer we can keep working for this church and for the Kingdom. We wonder if our efforts make a real difference to the state of the world. And we would like some assurance. Mary had some assurance. She was told by an angel of God that her obedience to God’s will would result in a Messiah for her people. But we don’t have that kind of assurance. No angel has prophesied the result of our efforts. We are forced to wait and see. And that, brothers and sisters, is what Advent is all about—waiting and hoping for some kind of culmination. The culmination of Mary’s act of obedience to God was the birth of the Holy Child Jesus. The culmination of our efforts is yet to be determined.
In the meantime, we come to church Sunday after Sunday. We pray for the world. We sing God’s praise. We provide hospitality to one another and to the occasional stranger. We make our small efforts to help those in need, especially at this time of year. We welcome newcomers into the faith. We bless marriages. We visit the sick. We bury the dead and console the grieving. We contribute a portion of our income for the building up of God’s Kingdom. Year after year, in a variety of ways, we say yes to God, just as Mary said yes to God. And we wait for God’s final promise to be fulfilled. Now, Mary was given a promise, and the promise was fulfilled in Jesus. We too have been given a promise. That promise is eternal life in the Kingdom of God. But we must wait for it!
Just last week, I saw a show on PBS about birds. It seems that crows can learn to defer gratification, if a greater reward is in order. These crows were taught that, if they didn’t eat the piece of bread that the trainer gave them, they could trade it in later for a piece of cheese. Well, folks, being a faithful Christian is, to some extent, a matter of such deferred gratification. We would prefer our blessings right now: unending health and happiness, life and love, with money enough to spare. But that is not the promise of the New Testament. That is not the promise of Jesus Christ. His promise is this: If you have faith in God and in his Son, and if you live your life in the power of the Spirit, loving your neighbor as yourself, you will be rewarded in the World to Come. Such faithful living may actually result in suffering in the here and now. It may require real sacrifice for the sake of others. In other words, it may require that we all master the art of deferred gratification. Brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, wait patiently for the Lord and for his Kingdom. If Brother Crow can learn to wait for a great reward, surely so can we!
© 2017 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.