Church of England Diocese of Bath & Wells Portbury

Sunday 20/12/20

Luke 1:26-38 Romans 16:25-end

Fourth Sunday in Advent

The fourth candle of the Advent wreath is lit with the following prayer:

Lord Jesus, light of the world, blessed is Gabriel, who brought good news; blessed is Mary, your mother and ours. Bless your Church preparing for Christmas; and bless us your children, who long for your coming. Amen.

The arrival of an unexpected visitor is always a bit of a surprise; I can still remember my astonishment when the doorbell rang in my parents’ house and I went to open the door, to find a whole, strange family greeting me with the words: ‘You must be Astrid. We’re your uncle and aunt and your cousins – we’ve come to see you all!’

As a young teenager, I was a bit perplexed, not having seen these people before, but it was quickly explained: they were the family from New Zealand! And of course, when my parents heard their voices, they ran to greet them. What had been an initial moment of embarrassment, turned out to be a pleasant encounter, adding to the family that I knew some extended members. The rest is history.

If you don’t expect a visit, from family or anybody else for that matter, it may take a little adjustment. You may even ask some questions, as to why and how. It’s funny, though, in the case of Mary being visited by the angel Gabriel, that his message was one that had been foretold a long time ago. The Messiah would be born in the line of old King David, and many a prophet had been telling the people to look out for him. Of course, when such a message as Gabriel’s is told, the messenger needs to come with some credentials and explanations. And they are indeed given, so that Mary, rather than making objections, is able to accept with simple faith, saying the words that have rung down the ages as the model response to God’s plan: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

In today’s world, such a story may be met with disbelief: how can a virgin conceive and bear a son without the regular means of procreation? Many people often think that if science doesn’t say it, it doesn’t exist. But, as the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said: ‘science takes things apart to see how they work; faith puts them together, to explain what they mean.’ What does it mean, then, to accept the message to Mary that she is to be the mother of God’s own Son? And what difference does it make, if at all? At this time, when we are struggling with a pandemic, and all looking forward to a vaccine to give us hope of a return to some kind of ‘normal’ life, does this story tell us anything worthwhile to help us? Even if science one day gives us protection against a life-threatening virus, does that mean that our lives will be ‘happy ever after’? The thing to remember about this account in Luke’s Gospel is that God takes the initiative; and like all things that proclaim God’s initiative, it’s all about love. It’s love that cares for us, and that takes us up into God’s saving purpose. It’s God working his grace through human co-operation. It may astonish us that God takes the trouble to involve people at all. But then, as John 3:16 says, ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him, may not perish but may have eternal life.’ God is arriving on the scene in order to change humanity from darkness to light. New Testament writers like Paul are never concerned about Jesus’ conception and birth, but rather about what Jesus means: his death and resurrection are far more important to Paul and the others. What is most important about the story in Luke chapter one, though, is what it claims in political and royal terms: this child will be the Messiah, the king of the house of David. God had promised this: that one day a descendant of David’s would reign not just over Israel but over the whole world; not for some time, but for ever. This theological and political claim was nothing less than dynamite. A sovereign other than the human powers both then and through the ages, God’s Son himself, shall reign. And he will make all things new. Jesus is the true ruler, according to God’s own plan and initiative. He is the light that comes from the gospel of peace that gives life for ever more. The unexpected visitor becoming the Good Shepherd and the Lover of our souls. Let us all invite him in, according to God’s word. Amen.  

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