The Rev. Paul J Cain, Jr.
Past, Present, and Future
Fourth Sunday in Advent, 18 December 2011
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
It has been an interesting day for Mary. After all, an angel doesn’t announce the virgin birth of the Son of God every day. It only happened once. St. Luke carefully investigated everything from the beginning, and here we have it:
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32He 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 father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
35And the angel answered 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 called holy—the Son of God. 36And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Let’s look at this text from Mary’s perspective: past, present, and future.
Past. Mary was descended from the great King, David, just like her future husband. All of Scripture has been building up to this conversation between the Lord’s messenger, the angel Gabriel, and Mary. All of Old Testament history showed the Lord’s faithfulness to His people from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Israel, and how this family line would lead to the one promised of old. The savior, first promised in Genesis’ Garden of Eden would come from the tribe of Judah and the line of King David. The time has fully come.
It has also come for Mary’s relative Elizabeth. She is six months along with John, later called the Baptizer, the one who will prepare the way for the Lord, Mary’s child.
Present. Mary was a young Jewish woman engaged to be married. She had an honest question of the angel, for Mary knew where babies came from. The Lord, through an angel, told her that her future held no ordinary birth. In faith she said, Thy will be done.
Future. “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 called holy—the Son of God. 36And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Mary’s Son was named Jesus, according to the name given to Joseph by the angel. Jesus would do what His name meant: He would save His people from their sins. That includes you, too. He was the sinless Son of God and son of Mary. A virgin birth was not impossible for God. Jesus taught, healed, and cared for the people before His crucifixion and death. A physical resurrection was not impossible for God.
What does this text have to do with your past, present and future?
Past. Our past includes Mary’s past, present, and future. Over two thousand additional years have passed. Hymns bring the comfort of the Word of God into our hearts, minds, and lips. We hear, sing, and celebrate the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ, and the forgiveness He delivers today. By faith we hold onto the same promises of God. Our Gospel text has inspired many Christian hymns. You’ve heard a few of their histories this morning. Several more are in store for you.
There’s another piece you’ve probably never heard. Why December 25? Gene Edward Veith answers that The origin of Christmas had nothing to do with paganism.
According to conventional wisdom, Christmas had its origin in a pagan winter solstice festival, which the church co-opted to promote the new religion. In doing so, many of the old pagan customs crept into the Christian celebration. But this view is apparently a historical myth—like the stories of a church council debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or that medieval folks believed the earth is flat—often repeated, even in classrooms, but not true.
William J. Tighe, a history professor at Muhlenberg College, gives a different account (in his article "Calculating Christmas," published in the December 2003 Touchstone Magazine.) He points out that the ancient Roman religions had no winter solstice festival.
True, the Emperor Aurelian, in the five short years of his reign, tried to start one, "The Birth of the Unconquered Sun," on Dec. 25, 274. This festival, marking the time of year when the length of daylight began to increase, was designed to breathe new life into a declining paganism. But Aurelian's new festival was instituted after Christians had already been associating that day with the birth of Christ. According to Mr. Tighe, the Birth of the Unconquered Sun "was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians." Christians were not imitating the pagans. The pagans were imitating the Christians.
The early church tried to ascertain the actual time of Christ's birth. It was all tied up with the second-century controversies over setting the date of Easter, the commemoration of Christ's death and resurrection. That date should have been an easy one. Though Easter is also charged with having its origins in pagan equinox festivals, we know from Scripture that Christ's death was at the time of the Jewish Passover. That time of year is known with precision.
But differences in the Jewish, Greek, and Latin calendars and the inconsistency between lunar and solar date-keeping caused intense debate over when to observe Easter. Another question was whether to fix one date for the Feast of the Resurrection no matter what day it fell on or to ensure that it always fell on Sunday, "the first day of the week," as in the Gospels.
This discussion also had a bearing on fixing the day of Christ's birth. Mr. Tighe, (drawing on the in-depth research of Thomas J. Talley's The Origins of the Liturgical Year,) cites the ancient Jewish belief (not supported in Scripture) that God appointed for the great prophets an "integral age," meaning that they died on the same day as either their birth or their conception.
Jesus was certainly considered a great prophet, so those church fathers who wanted a Christmas holiday reasoned that He must have been either born or conceived on the same date as the first Easter. There are hints that some Christians originally celebrated the birth of Christ in March or April. But then a consensus arose to celebrate Christ's conception on March 25, as the Feast of the Annunciation, marking when the angel first appeared to Mary.
Note the pro-life point: According to both the ancient Jews and the early Christians, life begins at conception. So if Christ was conceived on March 25, nine months later, he would have been born on Dec. 25.
This celebrates Christ's birth in the darkest time of the year. The Celtic and Germanic tribes, who would be evangelized later, did mark this time in their "Yule" festivals, a frightening season when only the light from the Yule log kept the darkness at bay. Christianity swallowed up that season of depression with the opposite message of joy: "The light [Jesus] shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).
Regardless of whether this was Christ's actual birthday, the symbolism works. And Christ's birth is inextricably linked to His resurrection. WORLD Magazine, December 10, 2005.
Present. We should remember that there was only one Christmas. This year, we celebrate an anniversary, a birthday of our Lord. We celebrate the eternal Lord entering into history and into our human flesh. But Jesus is not just a part of our world some 2,000 years ago. He is part of your life now. He has promised to be with two or three gathered in His Name. He comes to you in His Word, the Holy Bible. He has washed many of you in the waters of Holy Baptism in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. His Holy Spirit daily and richly forgives all of your sins and the sins of all believers in Christ. And He gives you not merely bread and wine, but also His very Body and Blood for the purpose of forgiving your sins.
The Church sings Hosanna, because we want our Savior, Jesus, to save us now. We know He has saved us from sin, death, and the power of the devil, so we can trust Him to save us from our fears, temptations, health problems, frustrations, and money woes—everything we carried with us into church this morning. We have reason to rejoice in the Lord. Life will be tough, but you have a Lord who is with you every step of the way. He will never leave you or forsake you.
Future. 2011’s anniversary of Christmas is still in your future. You have a whole week to get through first. But then again, you have seven days to get through every week, right? Life comes at us hard and fast. Jesus knows that. You know that. I know that. And that means that you have need of what Jesus gives. The Gifts of Christmas and Easter are delivered every Sunday right here. And God’s Word is to be your daily bread, for man does not live on mere bread alone.
Your Lord is with you. He is called by the name Immanuel, because He is God with us. His gifts of Word and Sacrament are here for you and your family. Your Christian friends and your pastor here at Immanuel are here to support and encourage you.
Comfort has come in Christ. You hear this comfort in the hymns, liturgy, and sermon every week. This morning, Jesus came, comes, and is coming for your benefit. He is God in the flesh. Jesus was born in the flesh in order to suffer, die, and rise again for you. His advent in the Supper He instituted delivers to you the salvation won on the cross for you, sustaining you in all your trials and tribulations until His Second Advent at the end of time. Past, present, and future, Comfort has come for you in Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.