Sunday, December 24, 2006

Sermon: Advent 4 (Rorate Coeli)

24 December 2006 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 1:39-56 (Historic Gospel)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor at the time of the birth of our Lord, had a saying: “Festina lente!” which means: “Make haste slowly.” It’s a funny and ironic way of saying: “Even when you’re in a hurry, take your time and do things right.”

The coming of Jesus to save us was, is, and will always be the most urgent event in human history. From the days of the fall in Eden, mankind needed a Savior, and needed Him as soon as possible. And yet, the world had to wait for some four millennia for God to carry out this urgent mission. That’s a long time to wait, at least for us, but according to God’s plan, this was the very fullness of time, the point in history where man was ripe for the fruition of the divine plan to go into force.

Of course, our sinful flesh is impatient. We want what we want, and we want it now. We don’t want to plan, and wait, and work, and wait, and “make haste slowly” and then wait some more. We certainly don’t like to wait on someone else’s schedule – not even God’s.

Today’s Gospel lesson is where the Old Testament meets the New Testament, where ancient Israel passes the torch to the infant Church. For Zacharias is a priest of the Old Covenant. His wife, Elizabeth, is pregnant with the very last prophet. Mary is kin to Elizabeth, she shares her family origins with this last Old Testament family. Mary bears in her womb the Priest of all priests and the Prophet of all prophets. And John the Baptist confesses that his fetal cousin is not only a true human being, but also very God of very God. John prophesies in utero by leaping even before he is able to draw his first breath, let alone speak and preach. The Old Covenant, the Old Testament, is finding its fulfillment in the New – as the New Testament in His blood rests peacefully in his mother’s uterus.

At this moment in history, the New Testament Church has only two persons: the Lord Jesus and His mother. The very first Christian sanctuary, the very first tabernacle to hold the body and blood of Christ is Mary’s womb. Mary is truly the first Christian, and the mother of all Christians even as the Church is our holy mother. Mary is both the mother of the incarnate God, and the first to recognize this incarnate God as her Savior. Mary is neither prophet nor priest, and yet she is given an even greater privilege – to bear the Christ, to be the mother of God, to serve as a holy bridge between the Old and New Testaments. For God’s plan that has seemed to proceed so slowly – thousands of years of waiting as a people – as well as the nine months of waiting as the Christ child grew within her – but all at once, God’s plan would make haste, as the Son of God was born. The world has never been the same.

But before the blessing of Christmas was the Advent of pregnant expectation. While carrying the Son within her, Mary makes haste to meet her cousin. After John the prophet leaps his confession, Mary sings a confession of her own. And just as Mary is the first Christian and a living symbol of the Church, the Church has sung with the Blessed Virgin for twenty centuries: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” This canticle, called the Magnificat, has been chanted every evening around the globe at Vespers for centuries. While none of us has the privilege to be the mother of God, we do carry the physical Jesus within our bodies, as our own sinful flesh is transformed into holy vessels of the body and blood of the Lord.

And like Mary, we recognize our lowliness. Far from deserving the honor, we, like Mary, are “gratia plena,” full of grace. We are brimming, pouring over, with the gifts of God – undeserved, and yet given. As Elizabeth, full of the Spirit, utters: “Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.” The Church is blessed, as is the Blessed Virgin Mary, not due to her great deeds or worldly wealth, but because she believes.

In this belief, this faith, God carries out the prophecy of John the Baptist, that the hills would be leveled, and the valleys would be raised. Mary confesses with us: “He has regarded the lowly state of his maidservant.” Mary, the pregnant teenager who was too poor to even offer a standard sacrifice for the birth of her Son, is to be called blessed by all generations. The Church sings with her, for we too are lowly. The Church has been the target of tyrants and mighty men from the day Satan invaded the garden, from the time Pharaoh tried to snuff out the baby savior of Israel, from the time Herod tried to destroy God through infanticide, from the days of persecution in ancient Rome, right up until today where godless governments wage war against those who bear Christ, those who continue to bear the cross.

The Church is neither mighty nor respected by the world. She is racked with scandal, with schism, with antichrists within and with mortal enemies without. And yet, she remains blessed. She continues to present the Christ Child to the world.

For He who is mighty has done great things for her. Holy is His name, Jesus. Wherever the name Jesus goes forth, mercy follows, generation after generation, among those who fear, love, and trust in Him above all things.

But woe to them that put their trust in themselves, in their positions, in their money, or in their might. For God Himself scatters the proud, the conceited, the self-centered. Those who sit on peacock thrones and bully the weak had better beware. They have been warned. For with the incarnation of Jesus, they have been put down, while the lowly are raised up above them.

We who hunger are filled with good things. The body of the Crucified One, the same holy body suckled by Mary and stuck to the cross, the same body laid in a manger of hay in a stable, and laid out on a slab of stone in a tomb, is given to us as food. We who are poor, kneel and open our mouths. We are fed. And yet those who do not see their own poverty, those who are too rich, too proud, too full of themselves to kneel here as a hungry beggar find themselves sent empty away.

The Lord is our help. He is merciful. He speaks to us today through that holy Seed, the Seed born of the woman. The Seed carried in the temple of the virgin, the Seed sown upon the cross, the Seed scattered around the world – bears fruit. And we once more await his coming to us – in His Christmas incarnation of the past, in His incarnation in word and sacrament today, and in His future coming at the end of time. Like Mary, we, the Church, wait. We wait with joy. We wait to see Him with our eyes, whom we’ve only felt within us. And yet, never even having seen His holy face, we keep vigil with songs and praises, with proclamations of what he has done for us, the victory won, the elevation of His humble servants, and the destruction of the proud who reject Him.

And what seems to be slow is only because the time has not yet come. Our impatient sinful flesh groans like children counting down the minutes until Christmas. For God is indeed making haste, even when it seems slow to us, His impatient little children.

While we wait, we sing with Mary, with all the saints, with the angels, and with all Christians around the world this holy day: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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