By Paul Koch –
Sermon preached after the baptism of baby Estelle, a new member of God’s family!
We have become conditioned to distrust words. I’m not talking about distrusting God’s Word, I mean words in general. Not only have we devalued the idea that one can actually find truth in this world, but we have been told over and again that if something sounds too good to be true -it probably is. Now, we say this and repeat it to our children not because we want them to distrust words. We say this because we know that there are many in this world who use words to twist the truth, to swindle people out of money, and take advantage of the unaware. Even as our technology advances, this central distrust of words will only continue to grow.
Think about it, there was a time before internet searches and snopes.com when people actually believed what they read in the newspaper. There was a time before Twitter when people just dismissed the offhanded remarks of celebrities. But now the bias in our media is constantly being exposed, and we can’t distinguish between a comedian and a reporter. Add to this the reality that the rhetoric of our politicians isn’t even all that cleverly disguised. Shameless twisting of words piles up all around us and we are left to wonder what we can trust, if anything at all. These days, it’s almost as if we expect to be lied to.
Imagine, though, Mary the mother of our Lord. Imagine the trust she had in the words spoken to her by the angel Gabriel. Now, having an angel of the Most High God visit you is a bit more credible than listening to the Republicans and Democrats make their promises on TV; but still she is given a word so outlandish and crazy that it couldn’t possibly be true. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Now what makes this unbelievable is not just that God declares that his Son will be born and live upon the earth, but that he will be born of Mary. This is an unknown and unassuming girl from a backwater town called Nazareth. Surely, he could have come some other way. He might have been born in the palace in Jerusalem. He might have at least been born into a powerful family amongst the leaders of the people of God. It seems offensive that the Almighty God would use this means to enter his creation. In fact, I think this is why some have taught that Mary was without sin, and that she was some pure vessel for God to use. They go scampering off to find some way to clean up what looks so unseemly for our God.
Perhaps this is what we ought to expect from our God. As strange as it may seem, he makes a habit of doing his greatest work under the form of opposites. He used the lowly, the despised even the foolish things of this world to demonstrate his strength, wisdom and power. Faith after all is not born of what we see, in the power and strength of men, but in the mysteries of God’s unexpected work and word. And so, what could be more unexpected than a word of promise spoken to Mary declaring that she would bear the Savior of the world?
A former professor in college used to remind us that the Gospel is what happens when God gets his hands dirty. The Gospel, the good news of our salvation, comes not by a God who stands above all in his pure holiness sending his decrees down from on high. The Gospel comes when he enters our filth and grime and does what we could never do. The Gospel looks exactly like a child growing in the womb of a virgin named Mary, conceived without sin yet born into a world saturated in it. The Gospel looks like one who weeps for his people, one who is compassionate and forgiving and loving. The Gospel is found in the lowly unassuming means through which our Lord has chosen to do his great work.
This morning, we have all been reminded of such a work. Together we gathered here in this place wondering about all the things of the approaching Christmas week. We came into our Lord’s house with thoughts of gifts that we still have to buy or wrap or cards to send. We came worried about reunions and broken relationships. We came here with all the baggage that fills our lives this time of the year. And right in the midst of it all, right before we could even really get our bearings this morning, God arrived to do his great work. He arrived to a little girl named Estelle. He washed her in his grace and declared to the entire world that this is his child! Satan has no claim on her for she has already died with Christ, and now Christ himself lives within her. What an incredible Word! What a promise that has been made.
But remember, we are conditioned to distrust words. And while the Evil One may have been driven from her heart, we all know that he will hang about her throughout her life always seeking to find his way back in. Satan’s greatest tactic, the one that proved successful at the beginning of all things, is to cause doubt with regard to the Word of God. We know this and we struggle with it daily. You have been declared to be the children of God; you are declared to be the forgiven, loved and blessed saints of the Almighty. But as life wears on, you begin to wonder if those words really do what they say. Am I really saved? Am I really his child? Am I loved and accepted? At times it doesn’t seem like it; we look like anything but his children. To be honest, at times we don’t care if we are – we are doing just fine on our own.
Mary, then, becomes the example of faithfulness. In the midst of the insanity and unreasonableness of it all she boldly declares, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Though she may have doubts, though it may seem too good to be true, she moves toward the promise rather than away from it. She clings to the Word despite the unseemliness of it all. Through the proclamation of the Word given to her by the angel Gabriel she is given the faith to hold fast to the promise of God. And the Word has created such faith for you, as well. Despite the world’s disregard for words, despite the skepticism of it all, despite the constant and ancient cry of, “Did God really say?” we are given to respond with Mary; let it be to me according to your Word.
Faith comes by hearing, faith is born of the Word, and it is to the Word that faith clings. The mother of our Lord, and little Estelle, and you and I are not all that different. Our world has been changed by a Word made flesh. This Word lived and suffered, died and rose for each and every one of you. According to that Word you are free. You are redeemed. You are the very children of God.