4th Sunday of Advent

December 22, 2002
See Also: 

Year A
Year B
Year C

Advent Candle Liturgy

John Cobb on Incarnation
Daniel Day Williams on incarnation
Preaching Christmas

Reading 1: 
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Reading 2: 
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Reading 3: 
Romans 16:25-27
Reading 4: 
Luke 1:26-38
Alt Reading 2: 
Luke 1:47-55
By Bruce G. Epperly

Luke 1:26-38, 46-55
On this last Sunday in the Advent season, it is essential to confront the scandal of Christmas. According to traditional Christianity, “the word was made flesh” – the Divine took birth in human life. God became one of us in the life of Jesus of Nazareth – fully human and fully divine.

While we rightly challenge super naturalistic images of a transcendent sky God injecting itself into the human drama like a CD into a player, it is essential that we take seriously the message of Christmas, “God is with us for our salvation.” In reflecting on the birth of Jesus, we must avoid the extremes of super naturalistic literalism, on the one hand, and enlightenment liberalism, on the other hand. Beyond these theological dead ends, we must seek a vision of the Divine as lively, personal, and immanent. We must affirm a God whose aim at wholeness and beauty is reflected in countless ways, an ever-present God who is both universal and variable in shaping the cosmic adventure. A fully immanent God, concretely involved in our lives, yet constantly doing a new thing.

In many ways, the story of the conception of Jesus is an embarrassment to enlightenment liberals. Repulsed by the notion of a supernatural virgin birth and the violation of natural law, enlightenment liberals flatten the birth of Jesus in such a way that it is simply a naturalistic event. Yet, what we call natural is dynamic, lively, and multi-dimensional. In a lively, experiential universe, God freely expresses the Divine will in novel, intense, and unique ways. Divine activity is never restricted by the limitations of one-dimensional rationality.

Still, how can we read the stories of the birth of Jesus with a straight face? Can we be open to a world in which angels appear in everyday life? Can we be open to impossible possibilities – wondrous possibilities which come to pass as a result of the interplay of Divine creativity and human openness?

The Visitation to Mary is not about physiology but about openness to Divine possibility. God’s messengers visit a young girl, challenge her with a new vision of the future and she says “yes!” Upon that “yes,” the future of the world depends. Although neither fundamentalist Biblicism nor Roman Catholic supernaturalism can explain this event in an age of science and rationality, still we must assert that something remarkable happened. Along with the resurrection, the story of the birth of the Jesus presents us with the vision of a surprising, multidimensional, lively universe in which acts of power burst forth in the midst of ordinary life.

While we must be open to impossible possibility, the heart of the angelic visitation involves the interplay of Divine and human creativity. Neither Mary’s womb nor spirit is passive before Divine omnipotence. Rather, the empowered and courageous Mary says “yes” to God’s Holy Adventure and nurtures the child until his birth. And, from this birth, the world is transformed and healed.

Mary was a risk-taker. Accepting this Divine possibility is a matter of life and death for Mary politically, socially, and physiologically. But, still she says “yes.” She aligns herself fully with Divine possibility, allowing God’s highest possibility to take birth in her – mind, body, and spirit.

Beyond the question of the virgin birth, we must ask another “hard question” – what would have happened if Mary had said “no” to the Divine possibility. Would the Divine have gone elsewhere? Or, would God have waited for another unique confluence of possibility and openness?

Perhaps, more importantly, we are confronted by one final “hard question”: how will we respond to God’s lively possibilities in our own life? Will we say “yes” when the Divine voice bursts forth in our own lives? Will we, with Mary, affirm, “Here I am, servant of the Lord” and let God be born in us today?

In the course of life, there are certain “holy moments” – Christomorphic moments – in which the Divine and human aim are one. In such moments, miracles happen – the lame walk, the blind see, the sick find healing, the dead find resurrection, and the poor have good news preached to them. “Nothing is impossible with God.”

Yes, Christmas is the season of miracles. Divine possibility is born in the midst of life – the life of Mary and our ordinary lives.

O Holy Child of Bethlehem
descend on us, we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in
born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
their great, glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us,
our God, Emmanuel.


Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.