notre dame montreal


The birth of Jesus - a baby chnages everything

Sermon for Advent 4 by Rev Dr Sam Cappleman

This is madness!

If you had to assign a piece of software or an app to each of the gospel writers, or gave them a choice of what they would use most often it would probably be quite straightforward.

For Matthew, with his attention to detail and logical approach it would probably be a spreadsheet which he would doubtless then also use as a database.

For Mark, with his focus on the immediate and the graphic, he’d probably go for a slide making package such as PowerPoint or the equivalent Apple package

For John, with his attention to the more spiritual and ethereal aspects of Jesus he’d probably be assigned the cloud.

For Luke it would be a Word Processor.  For a physician he shows great literary skills, especially in the birth narratives of Jesus and John.

And, whilst there are parallels between Matthew and Luke for the birth narratives, one of the fundamental differences is that Luke tells it from Mary’s perspective, unlike Matthew who, somewhat understandably for him, comes at it from Joseph’s.

Luke leads into today’s gospel passage with the story of the Elizabeth and Zechariah and ho they were told they would have their son John, John the Baptist.

And there are great literary parallels between the announcement of John’s birth and the announcement of Jesus’ birth (See H J Richards, ‘The First Christmas: What really happened’ and N G Wright, ‘The Real Godsend’)



Zechariah and Elizabeth

Mary and Joseph

Enter Gabriel

Enter Gabriel

Zechariah is ‘disturbed’

Mary is ‘disturbed’

Told ‘Do not be afraid’

Told ‘Do not be afraid’

Elizabeth will bear a son

You are to bear a son

‘You must name him John’

‘You must name him Jesus’

‘He will be great’

‘He will be great’

His task is described

His task is described

‘How can I be sure?’

‘How can I be sure, how can this be?’

A sign is given

A sign is given

For Zechariah the sign was that he could not speak until the baby was born. 

For Mary it was that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and that Elizabeth was pregnant too.

Why the parallels?  What are we supposed to see? 

Perhaps it was as the last remnant of the Old Covenant appeared, one of the key tasks was to introduce the new.  The old fell silent in Zechariah and the new found a voice in the person of Christ and begins to speak.

And what do we understand from the signs that God was giving?

Firstly, it was a sign that something was happening.  Israel’s story was about to change and take a new turn.

It was no longer the old way of life with its rules and regulations which constricted life, it was about new birth and freedom.  Renewal was coming to the old story at last.

It’s also a sing of a new act of creativity.  Just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters at the beginning of time, so He hovered over Mary in this new act of creation. 

A new creation is being formed through Jesus Himself.  Some would say that if a woman was involved in the creation of the old world, so Mary plays a crucial role in the recreation of the new.

The new creativity is seen very clearly in Like’s gospel.  After the introduction of John the Baptist, it’s possible to split the birth and early year’s narrative of Jesus into two pairs of four mini stories or episodes.

These are then sandwiched between two incidents at the Temple.
In the first we have an old man, Simeon, thanking God that his eyes had seen the salvation which God had prepared.  A light to the Gentiles and a life that would bring glory to the people of Israel as Jesus is presented in the Temple. 

The old is coming to the end and has been fulfilled.  It’s almost Johannine in its phrasing.  In the last we have a young man, Jesus, talking in the Temple with the teachers and law makers, bringing into being the new way of understanding the law and the prophets and the scriptures themselves. 

The new creation has started with the passing of the old, encapsulated in just 28 verses of Luke’s gospel.  But the sign is also a sign of God’s gracious intervention in the world in a new way.  Matthew gives and exhaustive genealogy as he introduced Jesus. 

But Jesus is not of this world.  He may come out of Jewish history and Mary’s womb but it is the Holy Spirit and God who bring Jesus to this world.  Jesus Himself is a gift of God to the world, a Godsend.

He was no less than the Messiah, the Saviour, the Emmanuel, and God with us.

In all the familiarity of the Christmas that is upon us it’s easy to forget just how radical the coming of Jesus into our world is.

It’s easy to become caught up in the ordinariness of the same Christmas rituals and practices that some of us seem to follow so slavishly year after year and not let the presence of Jesus touch us so that, just like Elizabeth, our hearts leap.

It’s easy to get caught up in the ordinariness of the same Christmas rituals and the rationality that drives our modern thinking that we miss the sheer madness of the Christmas story.

Elizabeth must have thought it madness that she was pregnant at her age.

Mary must have thought it was madness that he was pregnant with the Son of God.

Did God think when He sent His Son to be born a baby on earth, ‘This is madness?’

It is so easy to miss the sign.  God is not always rational.  He does not do what we might expect or predict.  He acts out of the ordinary, sometimes in seeming madness.

But He does act.  So that all can know the saviour who was born at Christmas, however irrational that might seem to some who feel they have no need of a saviour.

But come He does.  He breaks into lives in ways least expected, sometimes in ways that seem so much like madness that we ignore them and put things down to consequences.

Perhaps we, like Elizabeth and Mary, sometimes just need to let go and offer ourselves into the madness of God, a madness with doesn’t seem to make sense to our rational way of thinking, but in God’s perspective of eternity and salvation for all, makes perfect sense.

As He continues to restore and recreate His creation, we are all called to take our part in making real His incarnation in the world, however strange, mad and irrational that may seem at times.

To make real all that Mary speaks about in her song, justice for all, and freedom from whatever holds us captive and new life for all.


Rev Dr Sam Cappleman