Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

This is one of those years when the fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve are one and the same. It seems like we should already be at Christmas itself, doesn’t it? Yet we’re not quite there—at least not until the evening—which is reflected in the choice of this Sunday’s Gospel. Obviously, it speaks strictly to an early part of the Christmas story—when the Angel Gabriel appears to the young woman named Mary, telling her she will give birth to the Son of the Most High God. So now we will focus especially on Mary, her identity, and what she means to us in our lives. That said, here’s a story to help us get into that theme.

A congregation I served as an interim pastor was relatively new: It had been founded in 1980. Pastors who establish such congregations—who send out mass mailings and knock on house doors in the neighborhood and help purchase the land for a building—are often the ones who give new congregations their names. In this particular case, the minister chose “Abiding Presence Lutheran Church.”

For some reason, the bishop at the time told him to suggest two other names. Being somewhat stubborn, but with a good sense of humor, the pastor came upwith the following alternatives: first, “Den of Thieves Lutheran Church” and, second, “Mary Immaculate Lutheran Church!” You can probably guess the name the congregation finally ended up with.

While not nearly as inappropriate as “Den of Thieves,” the other possible choice—with the name “Mary” in it—still sounds jarring to the ears, obviously because we think of it being used only for Catholic parishes. But why is that? Mary is a saint is a saint from the Bible, and, historically, many Lutheran churches are named after such persons—St. John, St. Matthew, St. Mark, Luke, Peter, Andrew and James. Of course, all of them were among the twelve disciples. But again, not Mary. That fact probably has to do with her very special place in the culture and dogma of the Catholic Church, which Reformation Protestants have sometimes regarded almost as idolatry—almost as worship of her—and so in most ways rejected her “specialness.”

Here are three doctrines that they have usually taken exception to. The first has to do with one of those “suggested” names for that mission church I mentioned, namely, “Mary Immaculate.” That’s the dogma that not only was Jesus born without sin, but also Mary herself. Here’s a brief quotation: “…the most Blessed Virgin Mary [was] from the first moment of her [own] conception, by a singular grace and privilege from Almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ,…kept free of every stain or original sin.” [i] In other words, she “was exceptionally holy…”

A second understanding of Mary is that she was a virgin not only before Jesus’ birth, but rather her entire life, meaning that she never had any other children. So what we read in the gospels about Jesus’ mother and brothers once wanting to speak to him is not to be taken literally. Catholics believe that the word “brothers” refers to family members in general.[ii] Again, this perpetual virginity of Mary is not a view held by Reformation churches.

The same with yet a third doctrine—the Assumption of Mary—that she may not have died a completely natural death, but rather was “assumed” into heaven. Once again, a belief that Reformation churches do not subscribe to.

So, is there anything about Mary that Catholics and traditional Protestants do agree on? As a matter of fact, yes! It happens to be the earliest belief about her and her role in the story of salvation. And that role, that identity was fulfilled in becoming the Mother of God. It’s that simple—almost. It’s important to know that that title does not in any way mean she existed before the beginning of time itself. What it does mean is she gave birth to the both human-and-divine Jesus Christ—“he who saves us.” And so Mary is sometimes also known as “the Christ bearer”—she who brought the Messiah, God Incarnate ,into the world.[iii] As it is written in one of the major theological works of the Lutheran church: “…we believe, teach, and confess that Mary conceived and bore not only a plain, ordinary, mere man but the veritable Son of God; for this reason she is rightly called, and truly is, the mother of God.”[iv]

What an honor, privilege, and responsibility she was given.

When the angel came to Mary, telling her the role she was to play in the divine drama, that was, in fact, her call from God. It was to be, in a manner of speaking, her vocation. But it’s not only what she did that mattered—that she first accepted and then fulfilled that call—but it’s also in the way that she accepted it. In other words, although she was at first perplexed, at first confused by the announcement of the angel, she understood just enough to say, “Yes”—just enough to say: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Like many others in the Bible, she accepts the call given her by God. And she does it with humility and with trust—a trust that does not demand that all the details be spelled out ahead of time, or, in obeying God, that she will be spared from most of the trials and tribulations of life. The angel doesn’t promise that to Mary. If anything, she might have more of them. But God will give her the strength she will need. Will give her a willingness, an obedience like that of her son, who so many years later prays in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will, but yours be done.”

In other words, Mary is completely devoted and faithful to the word of God. As one biblical scholar has written: “…Mary is the most Christ-like human being in [the entire Christmas story].”[v] What that means is that for usall of us—Mary may serve as the best example, the best model of the Christian life. And in that sense, we as members of a Reformation church, should give heran extra-special place in our lives—as one we can turn to for inspiration—and not just sometimes, but on a regular basis.

As I was preparing this message, another thought came to me, a thought related to what I was saying at the beginning—about how strange it would be for a Reformation church to be named after the Mother of God. “Is it possible,” I asked myself, “that there may actually be some with that name in our tradition?” With the wonderful resource of the internet, I immediately checked it out. And was not disappointed!

·        In Germany, there is a St. Mary’s Lutheran Church, which was Catholic until the year 1531, when a colleague of Luther took it in a “new” direction.

·       There’s also a St. Mary’s Lutheran Church in London and another in South Wales.

·        And another in Ontario, Canada.

·    In the U.S., there are a total of 3! One in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Another in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. And, last, one just outside Westminster, Maryland. We could take a field trip sometime and go see it!

And so, in the Lutheran tradition, we also revere Mary. Not quite like our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers do, but still nonetheless. She is indeed the Mother of God and a fellow believer who inspires us to trust whatever it is Jesus may be calling us to be and to do.

That is our “almost-Christmas” message for this fourth Sunday in Advent. Amen.


[i]https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/resources/mary/general-information/the-four-marian-dogmas.

[ii] Matthew 12:46-50 and 13:54-58; Mark 3:31-35 and 6:1-3; and Luke 8:19-21.

[iii] “Christ Bearer” can be somewhat interchangeable with “Mother of God,” although each comes from a specific title found in ancient Greek. Any number of books on traditional Christology cover this subject. For an overview, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theotokos. After much theological controversy, this doctrine was firmly established at the Council of Ephesus (431) and refined at the Council of Chalcedon (451).

[iv] “Formula of Concord” (1577), in The Book of Concord, trans. and ed., Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1959): 488. Also see p. 595.

[v] I am indebted to Mark Allan Powell of Trinity Lutheran Seminary for this theme of emulating Mary as a fellow believer. See https://wwww.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2268.