There’s a downside to all of this, and we’re all aware of it, no matter what our age may be. The downside is that sometimes we feel we are walking in quicksand. There seems to be no certainty, no stability, no foundation on which we can stand. The future is unknown, and some aspects of it are truly scary. Those of us who are older wonder whether we can keep up, and sometimes that strikes terror in our hearts. We fear for our children and our grandchildren, just as our parents and grandparents feared for us and for our children. But we feel that we have more justification for it. We’ve lost a sense of permanence, and the very transitory nature of things has undermined the values of our society. We long for a simpler time when people could sit down by the riverside and be contemplative.
I suspect that most of you have said or thought these same things from time to time. But something leapt out of today’s Scriptures, all 5 of them, that stands in stark contrast to the catena of things I’ve just cited. It’s the concept of permanence, of inviolability, of things unchanged and unchanging, of eternal verities, things that are unambiguous, things that are promised without qualification. Who would not wish to build his or her life on the foundation of such things? Imagine suddenly knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that something is “forever” after all!
That’s what our Scriptures are saying. Grab your insert page and follow along with me. You might be slightly surprised that you didn’t notice these things as they were being read. After all, they’re things of incredibly great importance. They provide the missing bedrock in our lives. They provide the foundation on which our faith and hope should rest. They are things eternal, unchanging, assured beyond the shadow of a doubt. They’re the “forever” things for which we long and that Hallmark vainly promises to deliver!
First there’s II Samuel, where King David, the prophet Nathan and the Lord God are having a fascinating conversation about the impermanence of God’s house on earth while King David is enjoying a magnificent house of cedar now that his wars of conquest are over. But look at the final verse of this conversation, verse 16: God uses the word “forever” twice in making a covenant promise to David: “Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever.” When the infinite God Himself says “forever,” what do you think He means? This statement certainly doesn’t sound like it has any contingencies. David’s house, kingdom and throne were to be “forever!”
Next we leap forward 1,000 years to the teenage Virgin Mary, who seems to know her Jewish heritage and history remarkably well, being firmly grounded in God’s Holy Word. She heard the promise of Gabriel that her child would “reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom (would) have no end.” Soon afterwards she said to Elizabeth, “Behold, from henceforth all generations will call me blessed. His mercy is on those who fear Him throughout all generations. He, remembering His mercy, has helped His servant Israel, as He promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed forever.” Mary’s use of “all generations” is a common figure of speech in Hebrew that actually means “forever,” “l’dor va’dor:” from generation to generation. Having just received a promise from the angel Gabriel, Mary is completely confident that what God has promised, He will do. And He will do it “forever,” as He promised in Isaiah 51:8: “My righteousness shall be forever, and My salvation from generation to generation.”
What does Paul affirm about permanence in his letter to the Romans? He writes about “the mystery that has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith.” And realizing that, Paul can’t help interrupting himself with a mini-doxology: “to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever.” What Paul is saying is that even the mysteries that God chooses not to reveal all at once are founded in His eternal nature and His infinite perspective. And that makes the vicissitudes of our times completely moot!
You probably haven’t been counting, but these passages contain eight “forever’s,” three “all generations,” one “eternal” and one “no end.” That’s a lot of permanence. But promises of permanence require an anchor: they must be founded in facts, they must be focused on someone or something that guarantees the promised result; otherwise they provide no real assurance. And yes, every single one of the promises in today’s Scriptures has as its focus the Person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah, the Son of David, the One Person in Whom all these promises have been, are being, and forever will be fulfilled.
Even though today is Christmas Eve Day, and Christmas feels so near that we can barely hold it off, today is still the 4th and last Sunday of Advent, a day set aside to think about Mary, the Mother of our Lord. In 431 a.d. the Council of Ephesus, the 3rd of the four great Church councils that established our orthodox faith, confirmed the teaching already held for over two centuries that Mary should be called the Theotokos, the God-bearer, on the basis of the fact that her Son, Jesus, was both God and man: one Person with two natures, divine and human, intimately united in one substance. The focus, as it always must be, was not as much on Mary as on her Son, Jesus.
Some post-Reformation churches have thrown out the baby with the bathwater in reaction against the Medieval elevation of Mary as the “Mediatrix.” As we know, Scripture clearly teaches that there is only “one mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 2:5). But the Second Vatican Council in 1964 issued a clear statement, unanimously reaffirmed in 1996 at Czestochowa, that the teaching of the Catholic Church “neither takes away from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficaciousness of Christ (as) the one Mediator." That’s the true belief of the whole Church. Anything either more or less is in error, a distortion or even a caricature of what is actually taught.
What do we learn about Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus, from the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel? Gabriel is said to have been sent to Mary by God, and his first words to her were, “Greetings, one full of grace,” words we have correctly heard all our lives as “Hail Mary, full of grace.” To substitute any other words is to take away from the Word of God, something we’re explicitly commanded never to do. In the original Greek there’s actually a play on words between the word “hail” and the single word meaning “full of grace.” This was something special and indeed extraordinary. Gabriel recognized it. Jerome translated it correctly into Latin as “Ave, Maria, gratia plena.” The Virgin Mary was full of grace.
But that’s not all: Gabriel goes on to say, “The Lord is with you,” which immediately causes Mary to wonder what sort of greeting this could be. Then Gabriel essentially reinforces what he already has said by adding that Mary has indeed “found grace before God,” something that is said of only two other persons in the entirety of Scripture: Noah, the one person who, with his family, was rescued from the flood; and Moses, to whom God spoke “as a man speaks to his friend.” This decidedly puts Mary in a very special category of persons: one who is full of grace, one with whom the Lord Himself is present, and one who has “found grace” before God. This is the language of heaven, and only an angel of the Lord could speak such words to Mary.
Just a few verses later in Luke’s Gospel we have the Visitation, Mary’s journey to see Elizabeth, whose pregnancy had been revealed to Mary by Gabriel. And how does Elizabeth greet Mary when she sees her coming? The first words from her mouth are, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Again we have something extraordinary being said to Mary. This was not the customary greeting of “chaire,” “hail,” that Gabriel used to greet Mary. The Greek word used here for “blessed” occurs in only one other place in the New Testament: in the account of the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, where we read, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord” (all 4 Gospels), and “Blessed is the coming Kingdom of our father David!” (only in Mark 11:10). It was enough to make John the Baptist leap in Elizabeth’s womb.
Then, using the more common Greek word for “blessed,” Elizabeth adds, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Elizabeth seems to know that when Gabriel told Mary that she, though a virgin, would give birth to the Son of God, her response was “Be it done to me according to your word;” whereas when Gabriel told Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah that his barren and elderly wife would bear a child, his response was, “How can I be sure of this?”
And what were Gabriel’s respective responses to them? To Zechariah, he said “You will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words.” But to Mary he said, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”
To say that Mary was the mother only of the human Jesus is to deny Scripture. Her union with the Holy Spirit and her being overshadowed with the power of the Most High are things entirely unique to her and attributed to no one else in history. She was chosen among all women to bear the Son of God, and it was in recognition of this that Elizabeth addressed her in the way that she did. And when Joseph expressed his uncertainty about Mary’s pregnancy, the angel told him that “what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20).
In Mary we have our perfect role model through the coupling of her humble servitude with her awareness of her place in God’s favor. Her response to Elizabeth is what we call “the Magnificat” from the first word in the Latin translation: “magnifies.” The Orthodox Church calls it “The Ode of the Theotokos,” of the God-bearer. Both in her words to Gabriel and again in her words to Elizabeth, Mary self-identifies as a doule, the feminine form of doulos, a bond-servant or handmaiden of the Lord. She refers to her lowliness, yet she then recognizes that all generations will call her blessed and that the Mighty One has magnified her.
I think it’s highly significant that these words of Mary are in immediate response to Elizabeth’s statement, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Gabriel had given Mary assurances of the double miracle that was to occur despite her virginity and the barrenness of Elizabeth. Gabriel said, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” That phrase, “nothing will be impossible,” is said only one other time in Scripture, when Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” In both contexts it’s faith that appropriates what God has promised so that the seemingly impossible may be accomplished.
Gayle calls these “the Gabriel moments” in our lives: moments when our faith is tested, perhaps even stretched beyond all reasonable limits. Mary passed this test with flying colors, and she becomes our foremost example of believing the impossible. She said, “Be it done to me according to your will.”
There are many things in our lives of faith that challenge us, that seem to defy logic, that veer directly into the realms of mystery and miracle. But we learn that this is the very sphere in which God operates. It’s where we will find Him doing His work on our behalf. He did it in the miracle of the Virgin Birth. He did in the miracle of the Incarnation. He did it in the miracle of the Cross and the miracle of the Resurrection. And He will do it in you this morning if you open your heart to His grace by faith. God gives and we receive, miracle upon miracle. Be open to a miracle in your life this Christmastide, and watch God work. Just say, “Be it done to me according to your will.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen