"Theotokos — Bearer of God" - Sermon on Luke 1:39-45 by Joe Ellis — Dec. 19, 2021
Do you have anything in your home that has the quality of being deeply cherished? — The sort of cherishing that comes not because of how expensive it is, or how fancy or how high tech it is — the sort of cherishing that comes through age, because the people you love, loved it, the sort of cherishing that comes as stories are told about the object — maybe it’s a painting, a necklace, a set of tools? For me, it’s our kitchen table. Our kitchen table was my Granny’s — my Mom grew up with this table. When Mom comes over, she sometimes tells stories about who would sit around that table when she was little — the bus driver before he started his route, the hired farmhand, and stories about her brothers and sisters. She tells me about the dip in the table that came from when Granny let a candle burn too long. And the story continues, our family is writing our own story over these years with more marks and treasured times together.
The people of Israel had something in their possession that was far more precious than anything else. It is hard for us to imagine just how much respect, awe, love and reverence they brought to this one object. This object was treasured by many, many generations. This object carried with it many, many stories. It was made by one of the greatest craftsmen their nation had ever known. It says in Exodus 31 that Moses instructed Bezalel to construct it. The instructions on how to make this object are found in sacred Scripture, given to Moses by God himself — it was the Ark of the Covenant. To someone who didn’t know its history, the person might not know what to think of the Ark. Essentially, the Ark was a box just over four feet long, two and a half feet wide, and two and a half feet high. The box was beautifully done, covered with gold — inside were placed the ten commandments, Aaron’s staff that had miraculously flowered, and a jar of manna. Reminders of God’s faithfulness. There were pairs of rings on either side of the Ark to make the Ark portable. This might give you a bit of an idea of why the Ark was so special — but we haven’t gotten to the heart of the matter. You see, on the lid was a slab of Gold — And perched on the lid were two winged creatures, called cherubim. In a way, the Ark wasn’t so different from a kitchen table — it was a place for conversation and meeting. The lid of the Ark had a special name — it was called The Mercy Seat. The lid was called a “seat” because there, above the wings of the two Cherubim, the Lord God would take his seat and there he would speak with Moses. The Ark of the Covenant was so deeply special not because of the gold, the beautiful statues of Cherubim, or even what was inside the Ark. Like a kitchen table, the Ark was a place of conversation and presence.
The deep sense of presence never departed from the Ark. In the early days of the nation of Israel, even before Saul and David came on the scene — the Ark went everywhere with the people of Israel — they even took the Ark into battle. Once the people of Israel were doing battle against their enemies, the Philistines — the passage in 1 Samuel 4 reads, “So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of Hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim.” When the Israelites saw the Ark come into the camp, they let forth a mighty shout throughout the camp — the Philistines heard the noise and said, “The gods have come into the camp!” Yet this particular time, the unthinkable happened: Israel was defeated and the Ark was captured.
It was not the defeat that devastated the people. What was truly devastating was the capture of the Ark. Upon hearing of the Ark’s capture — Eli, the priest and judge of Israel, fell backward, broke his neck and died. His daughter-in-law, who was at that moment giving birth, heard the news and cried out, “The glory has departed from Israel.” It wasn’t long before those who had captured the Ark were made uncomfortable by what they had captured. They returned the Ark with little golden statues with boils and mice, hoping that these little pictures of the plagues they received since taking the Ark would abate God’s wrath.
Many years later — King David felt that the Ark should be in the city of David — hoping that with the Ark in the royal city, Jerusalem might be blessed with the Presence. David gathered all the people to go up to the hill country of Judah and bring home the Ark. As they brought the Ark back to Jerusalem, David and all the house of Israel danced before the Lord with all their might, with songs, and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. The Ark of the Covenant was out in the open, joyfully for all to see. As you read stories about the Ark in those days, you’ll see that, for the most part, the presence of the Ark was welcomed with so much joy, celebration and blessing. After all, it was the throne of God.
Eventually, the Ark was placed behind closed doors. The joys of dancing and song in the open air was replaced with a deep, deep reverence and solitude. The Ark was placed in the deepest, most sacred part of temple — the Holy of Holies. Only once a year would the Ark be viewed with just one pair of eyes. The High Priest was to visit the Ark only one time a year on the day of Atonement. On that day he would appear before the throne of God, with fear and trembling. The High Priest would wear bells and be tethered to a rope — that was so that if he fell dead before the holiness of the Ark, the people would hear the bells stop jangling and would drag out his dead body. On the day of Atonement, the Priest would come before the Ark and sprinkle blood over the Mercy Seat to make atonement for the sins of the people.
Yet one day, God desired for the Ark to leave the Holy of Holies. God desired for the Ark to depart from that most sacred inner chamber and once again enjoy the freedom in the open air. So God brought his Ark into towns and cities so that normal people could look upon the Ark and watch with joy as the throne of God made its way into their midst. On that day, the Ark was changed once again into the likeness of a kitchen table — the Ark became a place where people could meet, encounter and fellowship with their God. Your mind might be searching for this story, you also might be wondering what all this has to do with the Scripture we read this morning from Luke.
You see, strange things happen in the season of Advent. Advent is a mysterious time when God does strange and wondrous acts. When you read the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, you’ll see a mysterious transformation take place. The Ark of the Covenant, the throne of God is transformed into an expectant mother. The Ark becomes a throne of flesh, embodied in Mary, the mother of God. The Ark’s carrying poles, its golden sides, the statues of cherubim are changed into the soft hair, the sweet smile, and the warm touch of this expectant mother. In Luke’s Gospel, Mary becomes the Ark, the throne of God. The transformation takes place in this way — the Angel Gabriel approaches Mary, and says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” Mary responds with the immortal words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Soon after, she was transformed, she became the Theotokos — the bearer of God. Mary became the throne, the one in whom God was pleased to dwell.
Through Mary, the Ark of the Covenant leaves the Holy of Holies and enters once again into the open air. Mary, the bearer of God journeys through towns, streets, and into homes. As David danced before the Ark on its way to Jerusalem — in the same way Elizabeth’s unborn baby, John, leaps for joy in Mary’s presence. As the people rejoiced in song when the Ark came into their midst — so Elizabeth bursts into song when Mary enters her home. For Mary is indeed the Theotokos, the God bearer. The connections don’t end with this scene — as you keep reading Luke, you see Mary make the same journey made by the Ark when it was under David’s care — Mary stops in Bethlehem, David’s hometown, and from there she journey’s to Jerusalem, David’s city, to present her child in the temple. The Ark, the throne of God is once again travelling the highway bringing joy to the people.
Note when Elizabeth says to Mary — “Blessed is the one who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Elizabeth’s words ‘Blessed is the one’ aren’t limited only to Mary. — Mary is an example for those who believe that God will do what he said he would. Elizabeth is blessing those who respond to God’s promise with the heart of Mary, and we will say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” It includes us when she says, “Blessed is the one who trusts that the Lord will do in them what he said he will do.”
You see — there is a sense in which we are not that different from Mary. Mary trusted in God’s word, and she became the throne of God. Many of us know well the words of Jesus spoken in the Gospel of John 14:23 — “Those who love me and keep my word, my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Jesus promises that when we believe we will become like Mary. We will become Theotokos — bearers of God, bearers of Christ. For Jesus has indeed promised us that we who trust in Him will be filled with the presence of God.
In this way, we will also represent the Ark of the Covenant — God has seen fit to make his home in us, to make us his throne. We have also become pregnant with God — we carry His presence with us into streets, into shops, into homes and around kitchen tables. Remember the peace, the joy, the hope, the safety that would come to Israel when the Ark was nearby? Let this be what we bring with us when we are filled with the presence of God. Our world is in such a deep state filled with uncertainty, despair, anxiety and fear. This world feels like a stormy sea and we are shaken with every piece of terrible news that greets us in the morning. The world needs Christians who’ve learned to be bearers of Christ. Christians who’ve learned to bring with us the presence of God wherever we go — Let the impact of our presence be the same as that which the Ark had upon Israel and which Mary had upon Elizabeth and baby John — peace, joy and hope.
Years ago, I had a supervisor who told me that he and his wife didn’t know they were pregnant until the contractions started and the water broke. Let’s not have this be a picture of who we are as Christians. Let’s not be ones who live in total ignorance of the work of God in the deepest parts of our self. Let’s not go through our day and our life wholly ignorant of the presence of God growing within us — lest we quickly be overwhelmed in this dark season. Instead, let us be a people who regularly spend time with God, meditating daily on his Word, becoming present and aware of the deep movements of God germinating in our soul. Let us take time to nurture and sustain the growing of God’s Word within us through attention, care, and time spent in God’s presence. As we do, God’s peace will transform our presence. Like the Ark we will bring the presence of God with us, bringing comfort and hope to a fearful and anxious people. Like Mary, we will bring joy to those we greet. This Advent, let us attend to Christ who is growing within us. God has called each one of us to be a Theotokos — a bearer of God. Let us bring His Presence into the open air.