2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

index

Sermon Ideas For Samuel 7:1-11, 16 Romans 16:25-27 Luke 1:26-38

One of the projects I undertook during my sabbatical several years ago was the total re-landscaping of our home here in Southgate. It took me about a month, but when I finished, I was extremely pleased with what I had done. Since that time a few of the plants have withered and died, but almost everything has grown to handsome stature. People still compliment me on the project. And following the advice I gave in a sermon about a month ago, I always say, "Thank you."

But there is a sense in which the compliments are humiliating to me. You see, I don’t entirely deserve them. Yes, the Japanese black pines are statuesque. Yes, the various bellies are bushy and at this time of the year full of red berries. Yes, the dwarf nandinas and leatherleaf mahonias are striking. But I didn't make them grow; God did. I merely dug the soil and planted them. From then on, nature took its course. And by "nature" I mean God. The compliments people express to me humiliate me, because I have become increasingly aware that apart from the miraculous goodness and grace of God, my yard wouldn't amount to anything at all.

My experience with the yard is only one example of what has happened and continues to happen in nearly every area of my life. "What a lovely family you have!" people tell me. "Thank you," I reply, remembering all the work that went into being father, son, and holy husband in good times and in bad. Yet deep inside I know that my efforts were small compared with what God did through me, and sometimes in spite of me. "That was an excellent sermon!" people say. "Thank you," I reply, recalling how hard it was for me to understand the text and then apply it meaningfully to life today. Yet deep inside I am painfully aware that many of my sermons are much larger than my ability to create them. Were it not for God working extraordinarily through the ordinariness of my life and talent, my sermons wouldn't amount to anything at all.

I know from conversations with many of you that you have experienced much the same thing in your life. Whether you are an architect, a musician, an attorney, a teacher, an accountant, an executive, a student, a physician, or any of a thousand other occupations, there are times when people compliment you for something you have done well. And yet, even as you say, "Thank you," you realize deep inside that for all you put into the effort, the result was a happy accident which turned out well by the sheer grace of God.

Knowing that is the very foundation of faith itself. Knowing yourself to be an instrument of God's grace is humiliating, but it is precisely that humiliation that produces genuine gratitude to God. And that gratitude is at the very heart and center of faith.

The Bible tells story after story about faith that is forged by humiliation and gratitude. In the first lesson for today, David declares that he will build a temple for God. After all, David has united the twelve tribes of Israel into a powerful nation. He cleverly captured the city of Jerusalem other conquerors could not, and he made it the capital of Israel. Then one day David thought to himself, “I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Thereupon David decided to build a proper temple for the ark of the Lord. But David's plans never materialized. As any confirmation student can tell you, David wanted to build a temple, but he would not be able to do so. It would remain for his successor Solomon to undertake and complete the project.

David assumed that he would be able to construct a temple for God, but through the prophet Nathan God replied that instead he would build a house for David—not a house made with human hands but a kingdom that would be established forever. In this moment David was humiliated when God made it clear to him that all of David's past accomplishments as well as this future one he now intended were not David's doing, but God's. The next chapter of Second Samuel tells how David came to terms with this humiliation and how the humiliation produced in David profound gratitude and faith.

In the second lesson for today, Paul speaks of God strengthening the Romans in the gospel which Paul has proclaimed to them. This little phrase slides by so quickly, we can easily miss the humility Paul is expressing in it. It is not Paul who strengthens the faith of the Romans. Nor is it the Romans, who by greater effort in believing can strengthen their faith. It is God who causes the gospel to take hold. It is God who makes the seeds of faith grow and blossom. It is God who guards and strengthens the gospel which Paul has proclaimed. Paul knows well the humiliation of being nothing more than the means by which the gospel is proclaimed. When the gospel is efficacious, Paul is grateful to God because he knows that it is God who has made it so. That is why Paul ends the passage with the exclamation, “…to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ...be glory forever!”

Finally we come to the gospel for today which tells the story of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel informs Mary that she will conceive and bear a son named Jesus, who will be the ultimate king of all the world. In order to understand this story, we need to recall the marriage customs of the time in which Mary lived. In those days a marriage was arranged by the girl's father. She would become betrothed, but then she would live at home for a full year. At the end of that year the groom would come to take her to his home, and the wedding celebration would last a whole week. Legally, the marriage was sealed when the betrothal occurred. In other words, if Joseph had died before the wedding, Mary would have been considered a widow. Betrothals normally occurred when a girl was twelve or thirteen years old.

So here's the picture in today's gospel. A very young teenager named Mary who is engaged to a man named Joseph is home one day, minding her own business, when an angel shows up. The poor girl is startled by his appearance, but even more startled by his opening words to her: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Mary draws back in skepticism, wondering what this smooth-talking stranger might be up to.

But Gabriel, unlike the angels in popular movies today, seems to know very little about subtlety. Instead of approaching the subject indirectly, he tells Mary outright that she is going to become pregnant—not eventually after the wedding, but right now. He tells her she will name her son Jesus and that he will assume the throne of David and become the king of all the world. “How can this be?” Mary asks. Gabriel replies that the power of God will overshadow her, for nothing is impossible with God. Whereupon Mary, despite all that she has been told, despite the repeated warnings of her parents about talking with strangers, and despite her better judgment, declares, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be for me according to your word.” And with that, the angel departs from her.

This little episode launches a whole series of crises. When Mary's pregnancy begins to show, she flees to her cousin Elizabeth who is miraculously pregnant with John the baptizer. When Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant, he decides to divorce her privately rather than have her publicly stoned to death for adultery. But then he changes his mind after a most mysterious dream.

It is true that Mary has been chosen, that is, favored by God. But what a strange kind of chosen-ness it is! Mary is to be blessed by having a child out of wedlock who would later be executed as a criminal. By today's standards we think that being favored by God means having the good life—wealth, social standing, and better-than-average health. But today's gospel portrays blessedness quite differently. Blessedness begins with humiliation. Humiliation then gives rise to gratitude and finally to faith. Faith that is produced by the avoidance of humiliation is not faith at all, but triumphalism. Whom the Lord would bless, he first abases. Faith is not some easy, onward and upward flight from struggle. Faith is forged on the anvil of adversity.

When a child is born, people often compliment the parents on what a lovely child they have. The parents beam. And yet when they are honest with themselves, the parents know deep inside that it is not they alone who have produced the child, but God working in, with, and through them. The joy of becoming father or mother to a child is matched by the humility of knowing that you did not do it without God's help.

The sacrament of holy baptism embodies this theme and carries it to its deepest level. For in baptism the parents relinquish their primary claim on their child and acknowledge that their child belongs to God and to no other. God, in his goodness and mercy and perhaps with a wry sense of humor, then gives the child back to its parents with the instruction that they love and care for the child on God's behalf. The humiliation of being parents gives rise to gratitude to God, and from that humiliation and gratitude comes faith itself. As in baptism the child enters into Jesus' death and resurrection, so also the parents die to all temporal and personal claims upon the child and are then raised to the level of God’s claim upon them and their child for all eternity.

It has often been said that a miracle is nothing more than some ordinary thing being acted upon by God in an extraordinary way. In that sense you and I are living miracles, for we follow in the tradition of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of Saul, David, and Solomon, and of Peter, Paul, and Mary. But most of all, we follow in the tradition of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose humiliating birth, life, and death, are the necessary basis for his resurrection and ascension. As we live in Him and He in us, we, like many who have gone before, allow God to do great things through us.

Edwin D. Peterman

Christ the King Lutheran Church

Houston, TX

Rev. Peterman is the author of Practically Preaching—Who Do You Say I Am?—Sermons for Year B—Mark. For additional information go to www.practicallypreaching.com .