As I mentioned, today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday before Christmas. Or perhaps better said Christ Mass. We join in the heavenly chorus of praise for the good news that God is fulfilling in the coming of his Son, Jesus Christ.
But far from the setting of some grand cathedral with shining lights and the ringing of bells echoing throughout, the story unfolds in Nazareth. It’s a city but more like a small village in the Galilean region of northern Israel, far from Jerusalem — the center of Jewish social-culture and political power.
That’s where God sends this angel known as Gabriel. He’s sent to visit Mary. Except before Luke ever identifies her as Mary, he identifies her as “a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph.”
Now the story is getting good. Although Mary is a virgin, which will be even more clear as the story gets told, the word virgin also implies a young woman who is of a marriageable age. It seems like a small but important detail because now, the story not only takes place in a setting of no significance but we also have a woman of no social significance.
Think about it for a moment. Before this story, Luke tells us about the foretelling of Elizabeth giving birth to John the Baptist. Elizabeth is said to be “righteous” and “blameless” before God and in regards to the Law (1:6), but Luke doesn’t offer such commending words for Mary. She’s just a young woman and in a strong patriarchal society that values age, is ruled by men in a stratified economy, she’s a powerless poor young woman for a little town that anyone would miss with the blink of an eye.
So it’s understandable why Mary is confused. The angel comes to her saying, [v. 28] “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” But then immediately Luke tells us that Mary was “confused” or as the NRSV reads, “perplexed.” The greeting of the angel may sound fairly emotionless but the greeting is literally one that speaks of grace, of bestowing a favor upon someone. Yet the angel is speaking to her, a young virgin woman without any social-standing among her society.
Sensing her confusion, the angel says to Mary, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you.” It’s almost humorous because in the same breath that he tells Mary not to be afraid, the angel continues says that she is going to conceive and give birth to a son she is to name Jesus. He then says to Mary that her son will be the “Son of the Most High” and will receive the throne of David, ruling over the house of Jacob forever without any end to his kingdom.
That’s messianic language right there. Such language invokes the message of Israel’s prophets and the promise of messianic hope that the prophets proclaimed to exiled Israel. Essentially, the angel is announcing the fulfillment of this messianic promise that God is going to send a Messiah to restore the kingdom. It’s a message that says God is making good on his promise of salvation.
But I’m not sure Mary heard a single word after the Angel told her she was going to conceive a child. After all, Mary’s only response is, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”
It’s a good question. After all, she’s a virgin.
When my brothers and sisters and I when we were young, my mother would always say keep those pants zipped up and you won’t have to worry about having a child. She was right. Biologically, it’s impossible to be a virgin and conceive a child. Which begs the question of how is this even possible?
It’s a fair question to ask. In fact, it’s fair to ask the other important question too. How is a child born to Mary going to restore the kingdom of God and make good on the promise of salvation? That might seem like a simple question to us but in Mary’s day such a question was legit because the powerful Romans were in charge and they ruled with brute force. Even King Herod was in bed with the Romans and only had power because of the Romans. Added to this is the fact that other Jewish leaders, some even claiming to be the Messiah, attempted to lead revolts, only to be crushed by the brute force of Rome. So to hear the angel say what he’s saying raises the question of how is this even possible.
But listen again to how the angel responds. He says to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant.”
That’s how. It’s the work of God through the Holy Spirit, not the work of humans. God’s work. And there’s one more thing the angel said to Mary, “Nothing is impossible for God.”
With those words, Mary believed. Her response to the angels words are, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”
But how about us? Do we believe? As I ask that knowing how sometimes people want rational arguments for the credibility of faith and I get that, to a point. But if we’re not careful, such a demand can actually be a way fo resisting faith.
Mary didn’t get the luxury of having all the scientific and philosophical arguments for how God could restore the kingdom through the birth of Jesus through her virgin body. The angel simply told her that God was at work just as he was with Elizabeth becoming pregnant and that was enough. Mary believed. That is, she trusted God enough to say “Let it be…” even though everything about this story is beyond all possibilities to the human mind.
But isn’t that what it means to believe? Isn’t that the kind of faith we’re called to have? To believe God can accomplish what is impossible for us to even fully understand?
The season of Advent is to remind us that the Lord, Jesus Christ is coming to restore the kingdom, so that there will be “on earth peace among those whom he favors.” But it’s easy to wonder sometimes if that’s really so. We’re twenty years removed from the most violent, war-waging, century in world history. We live in a nation that has been at war for about 225 years of its 244 year existence, where a hymn, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, sang “Glory!Glory! Hallelujah!” were first sang as a song of victory during the American Civil War.
That’s why, at least sometimes, it’s really tempting to wonder if this is at all possible. To wonder if God can really bring about his peaceable kingdom through the birth of a baby to a virgin woman of no social-political significance at all. And sometimes in the wondering, God, in his grace to us, reminds us that nothing is impossible with God, that God is restoring his kingdom through Jesus. Perhaps such a reminder is this song, Your Peace Will Make Us One, by Audrey Assad.
Believe! In the form of a helpless baby, Christ has come. His name is Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Born to Joseph and Mary but born so that God and sinners may be reconciled; born so that man may no more die, to raise the sons of earth, to give them second birth. Through crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation, this is more than possible because it is the work of God. So believe and let this bread and wine that we are about to share in together remind us all that this salvation is possible because it is the work of God and nothing is impossible for God.
* This message was originally preached for the Newark Church whom I serve with as Lead Minister/Pastor.