Today, the Fourth Sunday in Advent, I preached at Trinity United Reformed Church in Upminster.
Before the sermon I had talked to the young people about “surprises” and how not all surprises are good ones. We also explored how people in the the “Christmas story” were surprised by what happened. And yet the Old Testament part of the Bible gives us 365 prophecies about the Messiah, who he will be, where he will be born etc. This website, Bibleprobe,com lists all the prophecies complete with New testament references to where they are fulfilled by Jesus.
And so to today’s sermon, with the Bible reading:
Luke 1:39 – 45
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”
Life is full of surprises.
We talked with the young people a few minutes ago about surprises and here in our Bible reading from Luke’s gospel we have two surprised people.
Elizabeth whose name means “My God is abundance”, was getting on in years. She and her husband Zechariah had no children. Luke 1:7 says “But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.”
In those days there was immense pressure to have children and so not to have a family was a not only a disgrace but people would say that you were perhaps cursed by God. Maybe you were terrible sinners and that’s why God had withheld children from you. And of course it was always the woman’s fault that there were no children.
Perhaps Elizabeth had asked “why”
Why have I not conceived?
Why do I not have the privilege of experiencing the joys of motherhood?
Why them and not me?
Why is my desire so strong but remains unfulfilled?
Why does it seem like I am not receiving all that God has promised?
WHY me? WHY not? WHY?
I’m sure we’ve all known people who have longed to have children and its just not happened. They undergo tests and IVF and still nothing happens.
After our eldest son Tom was born my wife Gaynor developed an over active thyroid and she was told by her consultant that she would not be able to conceive whilst she was on the medication which could be for many years. However we started praying into this problem and had others intercede on our behalf. One night we went to a prayer meeting at the church that one of my brothers attended (All Saints, Woodford Wells) where the Holy Spirit was powerfully at work. And so some nine months later our second son Alex was born. Gaynor’s thyroid went back to functioning normally and we were later blest with Sam and Josh.
Whilst our prayers were clearly answered, I accept that God is sovereign and that the answer can be “no” rather than “yes”.
Maybe Elizabeth and Zechariah had prayed and prayed for children. Maybe they had given up praying and hoping. Yet Zechariah meets an angel in the Temple one day as recorded in Luke 1: 8 – 23. This is just part of the conversation: “11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve seen an angel, although I’m sure that on occasions God has sent them to keep me safe. Once when I was taking my son Alex back to university in Manchester we found that a van was on a collision course with us and to this day I don’t know how our car maneuvered out of the way just in time to avoid the accident. I maintain that the Lord sent an angel that day to keep us safe.
So I think I would probably have reacted as Zechariah did when he was suddenly confronted with an angel.
The angel’s words came true and Elizabeth became pregnant. Here is an encouragement that our prayers don’t go unheeded. God does answer in his time.
This is what Elizabeth says in Luke 1:25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
Elizabeth’s son John was later described by Jesus in Matthew 11:11 “I tell you the truth, John the Baptist is greater than any other person ever born.”
John was the last of the prophets of the Old Testament showing the way to Jesus who brings us a New Testament or covenant with God.
And the second lady in our story with a surprise, Mary. Not the mature woman pictured in religious art, but probably a young girl of 13 or 14.
A girl no doubt looking forward to her planned marriage to Joseph the carpenter. She like all brides to be probably had her dreams about life with Joseph, her hopes and aspirations for their future.
The Bible doesn’t tell us if there was anything unusual about Mary. I am aware that some Christian traditions say that Mary was herself miraculously conceived, but the Bible doesn’t tell us about it. Luke who wrote this gospel was a doctor so no doubt he would have written about it in his gospel if there was any evidence.
I understand that many young women of Mary’s time would wonder if they might be the mother of God’s chosen one, the Messiah.
But what a surprise for Mary when the angel Gabriel appears to bring her such astounding and amazing news. Perhaps we can imagine what goes on in Mary’s mind. Her hopes and dreams and aspirations come crashing down around her as she contemplates this offer.
She could say “No. I’ve got my life mapped out. I know where I’m going. So thank you but no thank you”. “Any way, whose going to believe me? They’ll say I’ve been a bad girl and probably stone me to death.” No, would have been the easy option.
But Mary doesn’t do that. Luke records her as saying in Luke 1:34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel tells her that the Holy Spirit will perform a miracle.
To some people miracles are the things of legend and were simply explanations given to superstitious folk who knew no better.
To others, miracles may have happened in New Testament times, but there is no need for them in modern enlightened times. They may well argue that the Holy Spirit was with the early believers until the full canon of scripture was written. He then packed his bags and went home, as we have the Bible to rely on and don’t need any further proof of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
And yet Jesus clearly states in the John 14:11 – 14 “11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. 12 I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”
So according to the Bible if we are men and women of faith we can expect to see miracles.
The Virgin birth is oft times a stumbling block to people. But there is evidence that virgin births do occur. The technical name is “Parthenogenesis”. However the medically recorded events of this result in a female child. Jesus is the only recorded male child.
And if we believe in God whom we affirm in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed is ”the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible”, can’t he bend the rules and intervene when and where he wants?
Luke, a doctor, has no problem with this and accepts it as true.
We don’t have to understand things to believe in them.
So we have two women, one too old to have children and one a young virgin who is preparing to get married. Both are expecting unexpected babies. Both have been surprised by God and how out of all the Jewish women in Israel he has chosen them. Yet both are prepared to say “yes”to God and play a part in his rescue plan for mankind.
We can only imagine what Mary in particular had to sacrifice for God. But she simply says in Luke 1:38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”
The two women meet and the unborn John leapt for joy in his mother’s womb. He knew that he was in the presence of the Son of God.
I think that the message for us today is that we are never too old or too young for God to use us. Our circumstances don’t stop us being a part of God’s plan. The only thing that stops us, is our unwillingness to say “yes” to God and to trust him.
If we like Mary say “I am the Lord’s servant, May it be to me as you have said.” God will do the rest and we will be surprised and amazed at what he will achieve through us as we faithfully serve him. Amen.