The gospel reading for this Fourth Sunday in Advent is Matthew 1:18-25. Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Trinity and St. Jacob’s on December 18, 2016.
Dear Friends in Christ,
You might think that my sermon would be about Joseph since our gospel lesson is about him. But I want to talk about Joseph on Christmas Eve, so today I will focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus. If we had time to have a round-table discussion of our understanding of who this Mary is, I know that we would shock ourselves with the diversity of our understanding. We come from varying Christian traditions. Some of you were brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition and many more were brought up in the Protestant tradition. Protestants say that Roman Catholics show unbiblical veneration to Mary. This morning I would like to help us find a place for Mary in our Lutheran theological understanding of how God chose to come to us at Christmas.
There are thousands of Roman Catholic parishes in the United States named St. Mary’s. How many Lutheran congregations in the US do you think are named St. Mary’s? The number is 7 (out of 9,000+). This is why I was amused in the movie “Christmas with the Kranks” when the vanload of Christmas carolers showed up from “St. Maria’s Lutheran Church.” If you missed the subtle irony, go back and listen to that part of the movie.
Our Bible is very simple in its presentation of Mary:
The angel Gabriel went to Nazareth and announced to Mary, a virgin, engaged to be married to Joseph, that she would have a baby, the Son of God, and she should name him Jesus. Her pregnancy would come from the Holy Spirit and her son would occupy the throne of David forever.
I guess it is just a natural human tendency to want to fill in the blanks where scripture is silent. Through the ages folks have wanted to know much more about Mary. Who was she? Why was she chosen? What happened to her after Jesus ascended to heaven? Is there a special place for her in heaven now?
Various popes and councils of the Roman Catholic Church have answered these questions with official teachings or doctrines through the years. Here are three that drive Evangelical Protestants crazy: the Perpetual Virginity, the Immaculate Conception, and the Bodily Assumption.
Catholic Teaching says that even after the birth of Jesus, Mary had no relations with her husband and was a virgin the rest of her life. The mention of other children in scripture, they say, in just a misunderstanding that can be explained away (perhaps they were from Joseph’s first wife, or were nephews and nieces). Catholics are also taught that Mary too was not conceived in the way the rest of us are. The Holy Spirit also came upon her mother and so no earthly father can lay claim and there is no original sin that could ever be passed on to Jesus. Finally, Catholics are taught that Mary did not die like the rest of us, but was “assumed” bodily into heaven. This last doctrine was made an infallible teaching by Pope Pius XII in the year 1950.
The response of most Protestant denominations through the years has been to ignore these doctrines as unbiblical and to almost brutally ignore Mary and her place in the story of salvation. She is brought out at Christmas to take her place in our crèche scenes and most young girls would love to portray her in the Christmas pageant, but after Christmas we tend to forget her again for another year.
Perhaps it is time to recover and understand our own tradition that comes out of the Reformation understanding.
In 1521, Martin Luther was hidden away at the Wartburg Castle. He kept busy with translating the Bible and writing commentaries on Bible passages. This is some of what he wrote about Mary’s Song, the Magnificat:
“Mary is the embodiment of God’s unmerited grace. She is called blessed not because of her virginity or even her humility, but because she was chosen as the person and place where God’s glory would enter most deeply into the human story. ‘I am only the workshop in which God operates,’ Mary said. Mary’s faith is not the achievement of merit, but the gift of divine grace.
I see Mary as a fellow pilgrim on the journey through this life to the next life. God chose her for a mission, just like God chooses each of us, for a mission. That her mission was so very, very important was not a credit to her but to God. We must always remember her with reverence and thanksgiving to God, not because she was so wonderful but because she exhibited such faithfulness and trust. Oh that we could do the same in our lives!
Luke tells us that Mary was one of those standing at the foot of the cross of Jesus. When the disciples (including Peter) had fled in fear, Mary remained true to Christ and his word.
There is a famous religious painting by Mathias Grunewald. It was painted on the eve of the Reformation. It shows John the Baptist pointing with his long bony finger to Jesus writhing in the agonies of death. If faded red letters, in Latin, are the words, “He must increase, I must decrease.” John points not to himself nor to anyone else, but to Christ alone. This is the task of all true Christians.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is also a prominent figure in the painting. She joins John in pointing others to Jesus, representing the Church in our primary call to discipleship and witness.
This is the Mary that you and I can and should embrace today. We do not think of the mother of God as an object of devotion by herself, in isolation from her son. We do not need to go through Mary in order to get to Jesus, but we can join with Mary in pointing others to him.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God. Amen!