Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 22, 2019
Like many American boys, I was raised by my father on stories of sports heroes. He told me where he was when Kurt Gibson hit that home run in the 1988 World Series. He showed me a golf tee that Arnold Palmer had used. And with awe, and wonder, he told me about that famous hockey game between the United States and the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics. Disney made a movie about it, so you can probably sense where this is going. A bunch of American college kids against the mighty Soviets. And in the days of the Cold War, the game was much more than about hockey. Anyway, it was a Friday February 22. Before he left for work that day, my dad carefully set the VCR to record the game so he could watch it after work. If you’re not sure what a VCR is, that’s okay – just know it’s how dinosaurs watched movies.
That day he went into media blackout. No radio. No conversations with co-workers. Complete and total ignorance so that he could go home and watch the game without being spoiled. Carefully, he rewound the VHS tape and watched that preposterous, unbelievable, unimaginable game that somehow, some way the Americans won. As the game was ending, Al Michaels made the famous call, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” It still sends chills down my spine.
A miracle – something that happens in this physical world that can only be explained by the supernatural. Something so extraordinary, so utterly fantastic – like some college kids taking down the Soviet Union – that it can only be attributed to another realm.
And so we come to Joseph, who is engaged to a woman named Mary. They have not lived together but they are pledged to each other. All seems to be going along as normal until she is found to be with child. Joseph, do you believe in miracles? Well, maybe. That is, until an angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in a dream by night and all is revealed. Joseph is to take Mary as his wife and to raise this child, for the child is a gift from the Holy Spirit. A miracle.
This miracle of the virgin birth is a crucial element in Christian tradition. We have even attached an honorific to Mary, the Virgin, to celebrate this preposterous, unimaginable, unbelievable gift from God. Over the years, over the centuries, this doctrine of the virgin birth has been kicked around as theological football. It’s been used as a litmus test to sniff out heretics, doubters, and skeptics. If you think that I’m about to drop a bombshell on you, I’m not. Every day I affirm the belief of the church and I affirm my own belief in the creed – “He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” This is the mystery of the incarnation, that Jesus was begotten, not made, and is one being with the Father. A miracle.
But I ask us to peel back a few layers. So, we’re saying that God can conceive a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. Great. I mean, didn’t we already know that? If God is who we say God is, and if God created the entire cosmos, then begetting one little baby seems almost routine for God. Don’t get me wrong, the virgin birth of Jesus is miraculous. Mary’s faithfulness, her willingness to carry this child and to raise this child for God is a miracle beyond measure. Joseph’s courage to care for mother and child, to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus, to raise Jesus as his own flesh and blood is a sign of miraculous faith. But we can’t stop there. Mary and Joseph ought to point us to another miracle.
Notice, that the angel insists that Joseph name this child, “Jesus.” There’s nothing out of the ordinary about that. That’s the name “Joshua” just translated differently from Hebrew. It was a common name then as it is now. That name, Jesus or Joshua, simply means, “he saves.” He saves. And notice that the prophet Isaiah calls this child, “Emmanuel.” That means, “God with us.” Now we’re getting somewhere.
The miracle is that God does not abandon us. The miracle is that Jesus saves. The miracle is that God is with us. It ought to send chills down our spines that God Almighty – the creator of all that is, seen and unseen – would dare to love us, to care for us, to be with us, to live and die with us. It ought to knock our socks off that God Almighty has chosen to be with us. That is the miracle. Every day in our prayers, every Sunday at church, when we consider this incredible grace from God we ought to be at least as floored as my father was when he watched the “Miracle on Ice” on that ancient VCR.
Think of this miracle – that in order to see God we do not have to look up to the heavens. We do not have to appease some distant deity who looks disdainfully down on us measly humans. No, God comes down to our level, God stoops to our place so that we can look at the man Jesus and see the fullness of the Almighty. Just revel in this for a moment – God does not despise our crude flesh. No, God loves our flesh because God created us and God came to us in the same. We so often tell ourselves that once we die we’ll be free from our bodies so that we can live with God. But in reality, the story of the incarnation, the story of Christmas, is the complete opposite. God takes on a body so that we can fully live with God here and now. God chooses to save us, to be with us, even in our flesh, even in this world, not just the world to come. The preposterous, the unimaginable, the miraculous is true – that we live with God not only in spirit but also in body. For God is with us.
We who have been raised in the Church can so easily forget this grace. We’ve become so accustomed to the creeds, the ceremonies, the rituals, that we lose sight of the miracle. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made. We open up the holy scriptures and read the same stuff every Christmas, and all the thrill has gone out of it. As if my father had gone home that day thirty-nine years ago only to have watched the Soviet Union win that hockey game. Because that would have been the expected thing.
As you make your final preparations for Christmas – the last trip to the mall, another run to the grocery store for that one thing you forgot – I hope you get your socks knocked off. Go home today and read this story again from Matthew and yell at least as loud as Al Michaels did that you do believe in miracles.
And not just that you believe in them, but that this gift, this grace, this miracle from God does something to you. See, my dad watched that game all those years ago and while it gave him great memories, I don’t think it changed his life. I’ve watched plenty of sports in my day, countless games, matches, rounds, and I can say, some of them have been thrilling. Some of them have been agonizing. Some of them have been downright boring. But not one of them has changed my life.
But this, this little child, conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary has. And that is a miracle. When I met Jesus, when I felt the Holy Spirit in my own heart, my life was changed forever. It knocked my socks off. And it didn’t happen at some altar call, no one witnessed to me, I didn’t get slain in the Spirit. No, I met Jesus, the Holy Spirit came into my heart, during the humdrum rituals, ceremonies, hymns, and creeds of the Episcopal Church. This thing that we do on Sundays, sometimes with great enthusiasm, sometimes out of rote memory, blew my heart wide open. And it still does today. To me, the words we say, the hymns we sing, the things we do together are just as mind-boggling and grace-filled as they were in the beginning, are now, and will be forever.
There’s a miracle in this – that God is revealed in the ordinary things of life – a song, a piece of bread, a cup of wine, an old story, and even a little child named Jesus, our Emmanuel. And there is the greatest miracle of all – that God is with us.