Closer than We Expected

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We’re almost there! Our journey to the insignificant town of Bethlehem to celebrate the coming of our Savior is coming to an end. It’s been a journey marked by both repentance and rejoicing. Of expectation and excitement. And now, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, we’re on the last leg of our trip.

Our last stop is a house in the Judean hill country, where we meet two pregnant cousins, Elizabeth and Mary, neither one of which should really be pregnant: Elizabeth, because she’s way too old; and Mary, because she’s way too…well, virgin.

We still have a little ways to go on our journey, but in the meeting of these two unexpected expecting mothers, we’re even closer to Christmas than we expected. In one sense, the celebration of the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God – that miracle of all miracles, when the God of the universe became one of us in order to die for us, has already begun at the house of Elizabeth.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Mary and Elizabeth are already rejoicing because Jesus is already there! The eternal Son of God has already broken into history to begin His journey to the cross. The Savior of the world might be the size of the tip of a pen, but He is most certainly there and everyone in the house recognizes His presence.

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The Nativity in the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. Photo: Concordia Seminary Facebook.

On this last stop of our Advent journey, we see the long-expected Messiah in an unexpected way – He is hidden in the womb of His mother Mary. Jesus is hidden to the eyes of the world, but He is most certainly there.

Jesus is most certainly present in the world today, as well. But sadly, too many people don’t recognize His presence because He’s not present in the way we think He should be. If Jesus is really here – we’ve all wondered –  why doesn’t He stop mass murders, put an end to terrorism, or heal my sick neighbor that has cancer? If Jesus has really come to bring peace on earth, why do I feel anything but peace in my heart about getting together with my family over Christmas? If Jesus is really here, why do I feel so alone?

We doubt God’s good and gracious presence in our lives, because we look for Him in all the wrong places. Jesus comes to us, but not at all in the way we would expect him to. It defies all human reason to look for the God of the universe in the womb of a 13 or 14 year- old virgin. Or to look for Him walking the dusty roads of an insignificant town in Palestine. The very last place we would expect to find our God made flesh is on a dirty cross between two criminals. But, that’s exactly where we find Him.

We find Jesus on the cross paying for the sins of the world, beating death, and the devil. This was the reason He took on flesh to begin with. He rose again from the dead, proving He has already dealt with the source of all of our pain and all of the suffering in the world. He has already begun to restore all things, to make all things right. He lives and reigns in glory and grace.

Even now, our Lord Jesus rules and reigns over His Church in ways we wouldn’t expect. He doesn’t come to us in mountaintop spiritual experiences or in flashing lights. Even after His resurrection, Jesus is present in the lives of His people today, in the same way He was present the first time He came – hidden from the eyes of the world. He comes in to us simple, ordinary ways. He comes to us hidden in the preached word, in the water of Holy Baptism, in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

I love the way that Dr. Gene Edward Veith talks about this, hiddenness of God when he says,

It seems strange to think that Christ is actually present in such a saving way in that little Styrofoam-like wafer of bread or in the small sip of astringent wine. Or that God speaks to us in a literal book of ink, paper, and binding. Or that the pastor’s sermon is used by the Holy Spirit to create faith in our hearts. These are rather spectacular claims for what goes on in an ordinary church service, with its weakly sung hymns, babies crying in the background, and everyday people fidgeting in their pews.

[But you] might say the same thing about the central event of Christianity. God came down from heaven to live as an itinerant Jewish carpenter, who ends up getting executed by torture! One would think that He would come as a king, accepting the veneration of His people and conquering His enemies. That He came in weakness, humiliation, rejection, and suffering is, to say the least, unexpected. (The Spirituality of the Cross)

But the fact that God comes to us hidden in the word, the water, wine and bread, doesn’t mean in the least bit that He isn’t alive and active, accomplishing His purposes in and through His people. Just as we saw in our Gospel lesson, wherever Jesus is He is the living word of God, and that means that He has tremendous power, even to create faith in the heart of the unborn John the Baptist.

The same is true for us today; we recognize the coming of Jesus, even here, even now, even if the journeys of our lives are marked by suffering and sadness, heartache and pain, God is with us. No matter the time of the Church year, when we gather around His Word and Sacraments, Jesus comes to us to give us the forgiveness He won on the cross, to restore our lives and our relationships. To feed us and strengthen us. To give us hope, peace, and joy.

And so we, like Mary, Elizabeth and John the Baptist jump for joy that God has already come in the flesh, albeit hidden from the eyes of the world. And we learn from them to wait for Jesus to come again to bring to completion what he already started, the second time He comes to make all things new, when He’ll hidden no longer. Even now, on this last leg of the trip, we can say with Mary, our souls magnify the Lord, our spirits rejoice in God our Savior.

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