Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 18, 2011

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: 
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16Romans 16:25-27Luke 1:26-38, 47-55

By Bruce G. Epperly

The days of December are on the move, and we are on the move, with Christmas just around the corner. Many of us are trying to balance the busyness of work with family life and Christmas shopping. Parties abound – even at church – and as fun as they are, they often add to the stress of the season. In the midst of our joyful-stressful busyness, an incarnational spirituality reminds us that we can experience God, in the spirit of Brother Lawrence, amid the flurry of Christmas parties, church events, shopping opportunities, and work responsibilities. (For more on incarnational spirituality, see Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God; Jean Pierre de Caussade, Sacrament of the Present Moment; and Bruce and Katherine Epperly, Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.)

Today’s lectionary readings proclaim that God is on the move, not from afar, but right with us, Emmanuel, saving and healing humankind in our concrete world in all its intricate and ambiguous interdependence. On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, let us bring out the Christmas hymns as well as the Advent hymns of preparation. The baby has “dropped,” labor is on the horizon, and soon a new child will emerge to bring us hope. God is with us in the interim and God’s coming leads to new horizons of divine possibility.

2 Samuel speaks of a God of movement, who does not need a stable dwelling place, but provides shelter for us through all the seasons of life. Wherever we are, God is present in the thick of it. God has moved through the life of David, both quietly and dramatically luring forward a nondescript shepherd boy with the vision of becoming a great king. God never stays put, can’t be boxed in, and defies any attempt to limit the scope of God’s presence. We can rejoice because God is as much present in the life of humble shepherd as in the courts of the Temple. A living God is on the loose, showing up everywhere, and inviting us to be on the loose, too!

The Letter to the Romans continues the vision of a lively, ubiquitous God. The God who strengthens us is not restricted to our faith tradition or religious and ethnic community. God reaches beyond the Jewish community to embrace the Gentile world. Hearing, and then embracing, good news strengthens and empowers those who believe, regardless of ethnicity. Our sharing of God’s good news advances God’s realm in surprising and ever-expanding ways. Nothing can hinder the spread of good news; the winds of revelation and healing blow where they will and on whomever they will!

Christmas calls even the humblest pastors to theological reflection. Too often our theologies of Christmas are far too minimalistic and one-dimensional. While we have to consider the relationship of the gospel birth stories to the stories surrounding the births of other political and spiritual leaders, we can’t be limited by scholarly conclusions, even the most perceptive. No doubt there is a descriptive juxtaposition of the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth and those of the Caesars. Like Augustus Caesar, Jesus is also a king. Yet, there is something unique about the birth of King Jesus; in contrast to the Caesars, he is born in humility, not opulence. He is born among the vulnerable and marginalized and not among the elite and powerful. His mother is of little account, an ordinary girl with hopes and dreams, but few expectations of greatness…..and yet!

God comes to a teenage girl, unnoticed by the spiritual or political elite. An angelic visitor gives Mary a strange message; she will give birth to a unique, world-transforming child. Here theology and gynecology merge: divine revelation comes in subtle, barely noticeable ways. More than that, God may reach out to us in unique and unexpected ways: choosing surprising and unexpected people. Like a growing fetus, God’s realm is imperceptible until bursting forth, changing everything, and turning upside down the best-laid plans of the wealthy and powerful.

In the intricate and dynamic interplay of call and response, could God have singled out Mary to be Jesus’ mother? Or, did God’s messenger come first to other women, who may have said “no” to God’s invitation? Did God’s messenger persist until he found a young woman who said “yes” to a surprising adventure?

Mary doesn’t expect to receive a divine visitation or a great task. But, despite her perplexity, she says “yes” to new horizons that will not only put her at risk, but also open her to wonders no mortal can fully imagine. Like Isaiah, Mary responds to God’s call: “Here am I; I am open to your vision, energy, and transformation of my life.” Mary says “yes” to God’s “yes” for humankind.

We don’t need to worry about the mechanics of the incarnation. God is surely present as a factor in the birth of each child. No doubt God has an evolving dream for each growing fetus, a dream that will emerge over time, circumstance, and decision. We don’t need to succumb to the imaginative limitations of modernist, Bultmannian, or even progressive de-mythologizing of the “virgin birth” in our reflections on Jesus’ birth. God may have personally called Mary forth and in the conception of Jesus. God may have provided her with unique personal and obstetric possibilities and the energy to embody them. We can affirm Jesus’ uniqueness without succumbing to supernaturalism. Within the causal relationships of human life, quantum leaps of energy and creativity may occur. Joseph may also have been a uniquely called agent of divine birthing in the conception of Jesus. Progressives can affirm a multi-dimensional universe, filled with surprising events. As Arthur Conan Doyle asserts, “Life is infinitely stranger than anything the mind could invent.”

Ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they open to God’s revealing in their lives, and then say “yes” to God’s vision for their lives and the world. Mary bursts forth in praise, sharing a dream that is more than she could previously imagine. Everything will be turned upside down. The poor and marginalized will receive God’s blessing; they will be lifted up from obscurity to experience the fullness of life. The elite and wealthy will experience what it’s like to be vulnerable and impoverished.                                                                               

In the handful of days leading up to Christmas, we will have our hands full with the revels and responsibilities of the season. Yet, during that time we can pause long enough to listen for our own angelic messengers and God’s call to us. We will in the pausing and responding discover a world of wonders in which God whispers to us in every encounter, inviting us to be midwives in God’s creative birthing of our world.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the PerplexedHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He is available for lectures, workshops, and retreats.