[Note: I preached a version of this sermon on the fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2018, at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois]
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth [the parents of John the Baptist]. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child—John—leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Last Wednesday during our confirmation ministry I had a really interesting conversation with a young man who had a serious question. He wanted to know, quite reasonably, whether I believed in the Big Bang. And I realized that while I sort of take this subject for granted, I don’t talk about it a lot in church.
So I told him that I do, in fact, accept the standard theory that the universe began with what we call the Big Bang. And moreover I do not think this conflicts with the story of the Bible, in which God creates the heavens and the earth, staring with the moment in which God says, ‘Let there be light.’ In fact, I told the young man, in ancient times, the rational and sophisticated view was that the universe was eternal. It had no beginning. It was Jews and Christians who took the rather unusual view that the universe did have a beginning. Once there was nothing, and then, boom, there was something. Let there be light.
I experience something like religious awe when I try to imagine all the matter in all the trillions of stars in the universe being packed into a point, and in an instant exploding out into nothingness, and pushing that nothingness back as the universe is brought to birth. What we call “the Big Bang” may just have been God’s first act of creation. Ever after, God is making use of the same matter and the energy that was there in that first moment—forming stars, clustering stars together into galaxies, and bringing conscious life into being, on our little planet at least. Fourteen billion years later, here we are.
So I told this young man that the point of the story we hear in the Book of Genesis is not an alternative theory to the Big Bang or the theory of evolution. What we hear in the Book fo Genesis is a picture of God’s relationship to the world. God creates freely, and without violence. And the world is good. I mentioned the fact that other ancient stories, the gods make the world through violence, or through sexual procreation. There is a battle among the gods and the losers are killed and turned into the world—the sea is the blood of Tiamat, the trees and grass are the hair of Ymir. But the Bible was meant to remind people that their God was different. That their God did not need to kill and destroy to make the world, and their God made the world to reveal his power and goodness. The story of Genesis is not the story of how or when the world began. It’s the story of why it began.
I mention all this for a reason. Well, for two reasons: the first is that I am always happy to talk about this stuff, and if you have questions about how our faith interacts with modern science or anything else, don’t hesitate to talk to me.
But also because today we hear a particularly beautiful moment in the story of Jesus’ birth, that blessed birth that revealed God’s power and goodness in a new act of creation. Just before today’s reading, the angel has appeared to Mary and announced that she will bear God’s Son, who will save the people from their sins. Mary doesn’t understand how she will do this, since she has never had sex and is not yet married. But the angel assures her that God’s Spirit will overshadow her and she will conceive without any help from a husband. (It’s worth noting that while Christianity would become a patriarchal and male-dominated religion, God needed a woman but not a man to bring about the incarnation of the Word).
And Mary says yes. The angel does not compel her. God does not create with violence. God creates out of love. And so Mary says “Let it be to me, just as you say.” And it is.
Today Mary, quite pregnant, goes down to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with the child who will be John the Baptist. The child leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary appears, and Elizabeth bursts forth in praise: Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what the Lord spoke to her.
It’s a remarkable scene. God is acting in the world in unexpected ways, and these two women are the only ones who can speak about it. Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, doesn’t come into the story yet. Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, has heard from an angel but he didn’t believe so he’s been struck mute. Only the women can say what’s going on. Only the women can carry the Gospel in their words as they do in their wombs.
Now if you were to ask me whether I believe that Mary conceived the child Jesus as the story says, I would say yes, I do. And if you were to ask me how exactly that worked—where did Jesus’ second set of chromosomes come from?—I would say, “I don’t know.” But just like with the story of the creation, the story of Mary is not about how Jesus was conceived and brought to birth. It’s a story about why. It’s a story that shows us God in his power to act freely, and in his goodness to act with love and mercy.
Yes, it’s a miracle, but it’s a humble sort of miracle. A baby growing in a mother’s body. God will not do violence to the mother. In fact, our Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters say that Mary is like the Burning Bush in Exodus—the bush that burns with the presence of God but is not consumed. Mary, too, is full of God’s own being, and yet she is not consumed.
And God will not bring his kingdom or proclaim his mercy without her participation. God’s salvation will grow in her womb; she will knit his limbs together and nourish him with her blood. The miracle of creation is just that simple: God starts the process, and everything unfolds. God has already spoken to the world through prophets and dreams and visions and all kinds of wisdom. But now he will speak to us as one of our own, as a human grown in the womb and fed at the breast.
It’s the simplest thing. But it calls forth Mary’s awesome song of praise, which the Church around the world sings every day in evening prayer, and yet which in some times and places has been prohibited, and which in America to this day you will never hear in some churches: My soul proclaims the greatness of the LORD, my spirit rejoices in God my savior. He has looked with favor on his lowly servant, and from this day all generations will call me blessed. The LORD has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. He has mercy, but he casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. He feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty. He has come to the help of Israel, his servant, remembering his promise of mercy made to Abraham and his children forever.
Blessed is she who believed that God would fulfill what he spoke to her. And blessed are all those sheltered under this promise, in this distant little suburb of a vast and ancient universe, in which every atom and every corner proclaims the greatness and the mercy of its God. Amen.