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Sermon for December 24, 2023 – Fourth Sunday of Advent

Program Transcript

Advent – Love

In this sacred season of Advent, as we gather in hushed reverence, we are reminded that love is at the heart of it all.

Psalm 89:1-4 calls us to sing of the steadfast love of the Lord forever, to declare God’s faithfulness to all generations.

As we kindle the Advent candles, each flame represents a beacon of love, illuminating the path toward the birth of love incarnate.

In the vulnerability of a child’s birth, we witness the boundless love of our Creator, a love that knows no limits.

Love, like the pure snow that blankets the earth, covers over our flaws, bringing renewal and peace.

I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.
You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one;
I have sworn to my servant David:
‘I will establish your descendants forever
and build your throne for all generations.’ ” Selah

Psalm 89 reminds us that God’s love endures forever, an everlasting promise that cradles us in times of need.

In this season of Advent, let us open our hearts to the love that transcends boundaries, a love that unites us all as one human family.

May our gatherings be a testament to the love that brings us together, to the love that fills this sacred space.

As we journey through Advent, may God’s love be our guiding star, leading us to the manger where Love was born.


Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 • 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 • Romans 16:25-27 • Luke 1:26-38

Each week of Advent, we will include a brief Advent service to accompany the lighting of a candle in the Advent wreath.

Fourth Sunday of Advent – Purple Candle

Today we relight the first three candles of the Advent Wreath — the candles of HOPE, PEACE and JOY. Now we light the fourth candle of Advent. This is the candle of LOVE. Jesus demonstrated self-giving love in his ministry as the Good Shepherd. Advent is a time for kindness, thinking of others, and sharing with others. It is a time to love as God loved us by giving us his most precious gift. As God is love, let us be love also. In the Book of Psalms, we find these words:

I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens. You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn to my servant David: ‘I will establish your descendants forever and build your throne for all generations.’ ” Selah (Psalm 89:1-4 NRSVUE)

And we will read from Paul’s letter to believers at Rome:

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 16:25-27 NRSVUE)

God is love and he loved us so much he sent his one and only Son, so that we might have eternal life in him. Jesus gave us a new commandment, to love as he loves, to live a life of giving, serving, walking alongside, including others.

Let us pray:

Teach us to love, O Lord. May we always remember to put you first as we follow Christ’s footsteps, that we may know your love and show it in our lives. As we prepare for our celebration of Jesus’ birth, also fill our hearts with love for the world, that all may know your love and the one whom you have sent, your Son, our Savior. Amen.

Today is Christmas Eve, and our theme is the promise of the Incarnation. The call to worship Psalm recounts the suffering of Israel and then asks for its restoration because of God’s promises to David. The reading in 2 Samuel tells the story of God’s promise to King David that his “throne will be established forever,” which was fulfilled by Jesus but not exactly as King David probably imagined. Paul writes about “the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery…kept secret for long ages,” a fulfillment of God’s promise to deliver humanity by becoming one of them and inviting them to participate in changing the world. Our sermon text, found in Luke 1:26-38, tells about Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel and her call, transformation, and willing participation in the Incarnation, illustrating how the promise of the Incarnation includes our participation in bringing Jesus to the world today.

She Said Yes

Luke 1:26-38 (NRSVUE)

If you’re on any social media site, such as Facebook or Instagram, you may have heard of a hashtag slogan called “#shesaidyes.” It allows couples to post the photos and stories of their proposal and the long road they traveled to get there. Though I only scrolled through a few, I didn’t see anyone who seemed surprised that #shesaidyes. From what I read; it seemed as if the proposal was the culmination of lots of time spent together talking about the future. But the point of a proposal, offered by one person to another, is that confirmation of consent.

When asking another person to spend the rest of their life with you, they need to buy into that idea. Those of you who have been married know what I’m talking about. The person being asked must give their consent to everything that commitment entails: “in sickness and in health, for better or worse.” Because the stakes are high, a person needs to be able to say “no” if they are going to be unable to follow through. Any relationship, not just a romantic relationship, requires the full participation of those involved to realize the full effectiveness and beauty of life lived together rather than separately.

Today our sermon text takes us back before Jesus was born, back to that moment when the angel Gabriel proposed the Incarnation to Mary and asked her to participate in it. Let’s read Luke 1:26-38. [Read scripture passage.]

Though this passage is probably familiar to you, let’s thoughtfully consider the call and transformation that Mary experienced when she said yes to participating in the promise of the Incarnation, and what this means for us today.

The call

The organization of Mary’s story in Luke 1:26-38 can be compared to other Old Testament stories about special births, such as Ishmael in Genesis 16:7-14, Isaac in Genesis 17:1-21, and Samson in Judges 13:2-25. In these instances, the focus was not necessarily on the person who was hearing the announcement, but on the child to be born. Some scholars refer to this type of a story as a “call narrative,” which contains specific components: “a greeting (Luke 1:28), a startled reaction (1:29), an exhortation not to fear (1:30), a divine commission (1:31-33), an objection (1:34), a reassurance (1:35), and the offer of a confirming sign (1:36-37).” (This according to Mark Allan Powell, retired professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio and editor of the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary.”) Mary’s call narrative follows the pattern of Moses (Exodus 3:1-12) and Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-13), and her answer in v. 38 (“Here I am, the servant of the Lord”) sounds very much like young Samuel’s response.

In the case of Luke 1:26-38, Mary and her response are the focus of this passage, offering today’s readers a chance to consider her example of believing that God would fulfill promises made. For us, this last Sunday of Advent gives us a chance to expand our thinking about the promise of the Incarnation to reach beyond what we typically think of (i.e., God taking on our human flesh and form) to show us that the Incarnation includes our participation in terms of engaging with God’s will and work in the world.

Mary isn’t honored because her womb carried Jesus, but she is honored with all the other prophets because she believed God would accomplish what was promised and wanted to be a part of it. Author Debie Thomas writes that “At its heart, Mary’s story is about what happens when a human being encounters the divine and decides of her own volition to lean into that encounter” (21). Jesus affirms that participation was more important than blood ties in the passage from Luke 8:19-21:

Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.” (Luke 8:19-21, NRSVUE)

In another example, Jesus renounced the sexist comment found in Luke 11:27 which implied that Mary’s value was only found in her female body with its ability to birth and nurture Jesus. Instead, Jesus called attention to Mary’s willingness to believe God’s promises and participate in the Incarnation:

While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:27-28, NRSVUE)

The transformation

In three verses, Mary changes from a mere peasant girl to the mother of the Son of God (v. 35-37). By giving her consent to Gabriel (and thus to God) in v. 38, she was consenting to the change and growth and the uncertainty that accompanies them. Let’s speculate what might have happened in Mary’s heart and mind from her question “How can this be?” to “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

  • Seen by God

First, Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and told she is favored by God – twice. Everyone wants to know that they matter, that they’re seen and noticed. Mary is no different than you and me, and “It is no small thing to be regarded, to be favored, especially when you are exceedingly aware that you should not be” (Lewis, “Commentary on Luke 1:26-38”). Gabriel also conveys the message that God is with her (Luke 1:28), a promise that we are also given through the Incarnation of Jesus (Emmanuel, God With Us). Jesus further confirmed his presence with us in Matthew 28:20:

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20, NRSVUE)

  • Impossible Made Possible

Gabriel assures Mary of God’s regard for her and presence with her before asking her to participate in the Incarnation. Notice that Mary does not passively say “OK” right away. She asks for clarification or at least a little more information: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (v. 34). Gabriel offers a little explanation (v. 35) and then tells Mary about another miracle conception, that of her relative Elizabeth (v. 36), ending with the affirmation that “nothing will be impossible with God” (v. 37).

Though we can only speculate on Mary’s transformation from a young peasant girl to a prophet, we can imagine, based on Gabriel’s words in v. 32-33, that she caught the vision of who Jesus would be and how she could be a part of raising the Son of the Most High. Her response to Elizabeth, called the Magnificat and found in Luke 1:46-55, shows that she envisioned a world where the proud were scattered (v. 51), the powerful brought down and the lowly lifted up (v. 52), the rich sent away empty but the hungry filled with good things (v. 53). Mary’s transformation from perplexity to quiet consent had to come from a knowing that the Incarnation would be a disruption to the cultural and political systems of her day. Jesus would defy and subvert those who treated some human beings as if they were worthless, and she was all in. Mary changed from peasant teenager to prophet and mother of God’s Son.

What we need to understand from Mary’s story is that a transformation took place for Mary to embrace her calling and offer her consent, and this is a similar transition for God and us as we move from the season of Advent to Christmas. As theologian Karoline Lewis writes, “Mary’s story moves us all from who we think we are to what God has called us to be, from observant believer to confessing apostle. Moreover, remarkably, impossibly, Mary’s story demands that we acknowledge the very transformation of God. It is no small journey to go from our comfortable perceptions of God to God in the manger, vulnerable, helpless, dependent. Yet, this is the promise of Christmas.” God, through the Incarnation, was willing to change and take on human form so that we could be changed and brought into relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

After Mary’s encounter with Gabriel, he leaves her, and she has to figure everything out on her own, much like we do. We have to discern the next right step with the memory of that mountaintop experience fading. When we pray for guidance, we might hear silence, and it’s during those times that we must remember that saying yes means we also are agreeing to trust in the Holy Spirit in us, guiding our decisions and efforts and utilizing our unique personalities, education, and gifting along the way. This is part of the transformation process, knowing that what seems impossible to us is possible with God.

The complexity of saying yes

It’s safe to say that Mary did not understand all the complexities of her decision. She may have understood that she would bear the stigma of an unplanned pregnancy that could jeopardize her relationship with Joseph, or worse, potentially result in stoning or shunning. She probably didn’t know that she would have to give birth in less than desirable circumstances and then flee as a refugee to another land to save her baby’s life. She wouldn’t have known that Jesus would go missing at age 12, bearing that panic only to find him talking with temple leaders about theology that she didn’t even understand. Mary probably worried about Jesus’ antagonism of the temple leadership, maybe thinking he was taking foolish risks. And then she might not have guessed that she would have to stand and watch her son die, bearing humiliation and great grief when he was called a criminal and sentenced to a criminal’s death. She may have heard the prophet Simeon’s words spoken to her at the temple, but she could not have imagined all that she would bear:

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” (Luke 2:34-35, NRSVUE)

Participation in the promise of the Incarnation does not mean everyone lives a life free of suffering. As we lean into the divine encounters in our own lives, we may be required to bear others’ pain with them and not be able to fix it. Fixing is not our responsibility; holding space and place for others is sometimes all we can do. Our own resources are few, but the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit provide the love and hope we need to sustain ourselves and encourage others.

Mary’s call and transformation are offered as examples as we live and move in the world today. The promise of the Incarnation makes us participants in what God is doing in bringing many sons and daughters to glory.  Like Mary, we need to understand that whether we consent to participate or not, we are favored and looked upon with love. We can ask for more information to catch hold of the vision, that impossible thing God is making possible, and then we can choose to be a part of it, accepting our calling and being changed by it. We can say “yes,” just like Mary did.

Call to Action: In preparation for Christmas, prayerfully consider areas of your life and relationships that God might be asking for your consent and participation to move within and transform. Remembering that God makes the impossible possible, consider what saying “yes” might mean for you and others involved, and give thanks for the promise of Jesus’ presence now and always.

For Reference:
Thomas, Debie. Into the Mess & Other Jesus Stories: Reflections on the Life of Christ. Cascade Books, 2022.

God in the Neighborhood w/ Winn Collier W4

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December 24 — Fourth Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:26-38, “God’s Favor”

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Program Transcript

God in the Neighborhood w/ Winn Collier W4

Anthony: We’re in the homestretch. One final pericope to go for the month. It’s Luke chapter 1:26–38. It is a Revised Common Lectionary passage for the fourth Sunday of Advent, December 24.

When would you read it for us, please?

Winn: Sure.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 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 ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Anthony: This seems like a bit of a silly question, given what you just read, but where do you personally find good news in this passage?

Winn: I think the most obvious place where I go is God—in ways that only make sense because of what all we just said about the incarnation—that God chose to enter the world in absolute humility through the way every human does, which is through the womb of a woman.

And I think it just unravels all kinds of things. Just the fact that it was a woman, that God unfolded this story in a way that this young vulnerable woman, Mary, would be absolutely central to what God chose to communicate and reveal about God’s self through coming through her womb.

And that this baby who was God, came through a womb in a way that was actually dependent on Mary, that actually needed to be fed from Mary’s breast, that actually needed to be tended to, and be cleaned by Mary, and was absolutely reliant on Mary—this kind of absolute humility.

And this gives us the first window into what would come to be fully revealed in the mature and grown Jesus Christ, then you look back on the story and you say of course, God came this way.

Jesus didn’t grow up and then just begin to practice humility, but this was woven into the very being of Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is fully God. And so, when we look at the God revealed in Jesus Christ, we are stunned by a reality of God. To be quite frank here, this is a unique proclamation of the faith revealed in Jesus Christ, that God would be humble in this way, and that somehow the way of love is to bend and to yield and to win by humility.

And so that’s just a stunning reality to me.

Anthony: And in light of that reality, this God revealed in Jesus Christ with incredible humility, it makes sense that Mary would respond the way that she did, and I’m drawn to her response. She says, here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.

We say that, but sometimes I wonder for myself, do I really mean it? So, what can we learn from her humble and truly exceptional response?

Winn: We just follow in the way of Mary. Mary is our teacher. Mary knows in her deep heart, her quiet heart, her bold heart, Mary knows that to yield to God is the safest place to be, the most human place to be, the most enlivened and awakening place to be. And that all of her heart longings and anxieties and fears and—just imagine in the first century. I mean we know what’s happening now on the same soil. Imagine the first century where you have the empire of Rome, and you have the uncertainty about your family’s future, and you have all of that.

To think that to follow this God, who Mary would learn was going to look different than she would have imagined, but she trusted that to follow this God was the way of life and healing. And that everything Jesus did from there was toward the healing of the world, even in Jesus’s baptism. Gregory of Nazianzus said that Jesus rises from the waters and the world rises with him.

And When Jesus hung on that cross, all of the evil and ruin that we have brought into our world hung there with Jesus. And as Jesus descended into the depths, all of the evil descended with him. And as Jesus rose from the dead, all of our new possibility rose there because this is the one who is Jesus.

And so, to humbly say yes. It’s to say yes to all of that. And will it require our life? Yes, it absolutely will. And will we have to bend our knee and declare him as Lord? Yes, we will. And that’s the most sane, beautiful, safe, gracious, merciful possibility.

Anthony: Hallelujah and amen. I believe, Winn, that theology’s best use is doxology when it leads us to a place of praise and prayer. And you have done so.

I mentioned this to you offline before we got started. But even though we’ve never met personally, through your writing, through our email exchanges, I really like you, brother, and am so grateful that you bear God’s image and likeness in the ways that you do. Thank you for your labor of love and ministry.

And I so appreciate you joining us here today. It’s beneficial to my soul and I know it will be for our listening audience as well. I also want to thank two people who are so crucial to this podcast, Reuel Enerio, our producer, and my wife, Elizabeth Mullins, who transcribes the words that were spoken.

So, Winn, what you said is going to go out to the world, so good luck with that, and may it have an impact for those who get to listen. And as is our tradition, we like to close with prayer. Winn, again, thank you. And if you would, say a word of prayer for our listening audience.

Winn: Yes, thank you very much for having me and for being willing to have genuine conversations about what really matters, which is Jesus Christ revealed to us in the Scriptures. And for whoever is transcribing then please just clean up all my mistakes.

Let’s pray together.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are God; you are hope; you are light piercing into the realitiesW of our life. You are our future. You are our history. We are never abandoned because you are always near. We never ultimately despair because you tell the story.

In this season of Advent, would you come to us and appear to us again? Would your Spirit awaken us again? May we be faithful and true to the good news of Jesus Christ, which is our hope and the hope of all creation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Sometimes Advent devotionals feature Mary’s response as a passive acceptance of God’s will rather than her active embrace of God’s promise, purpose, and calling. Why is a stance of passive acceptance a dangerous one for Christians to take when it comes to God’s work in the world? In other words, when we don’t take responsibility for our choices, especially when it comes to God’s work in the world, what could happen?
  • Women in many cultures are subject to the misuse and abuse of their bodies, discrimination, and limitations of their freedoms without their consent. Why do you think God gives us a choice about whether we participate in God’s work? Why is the aspect of consent an important part of any caring relationship?
  • Can you think of an example in your own life or in the Bible where there was an invitation to participate, an embracing of a larger vision, and a trust in God’s presence and promises? Can you describe some of the complexities that accompanied saying yes to participating?

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