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Next Sunday, we will be celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, the Christ. But as everybody knows, or should know, babies don't just happen. Even those that may not be well-planned still take about nine months.
And those that ARE well-planned are greeted with eager anticipation by their parents and lots of other relatives and friends. And nowadays it's even possible to know the sex of the baby before the birth. Which seems to me to take all the fun out of it.
My sister Jane knew in advance that she was NOT going to have a fourth son, but would have a daughter.
But when SHE was in the womb, her four brothers had her named Jeff; only to be disappointed when she was born that the all-male basketball team was out of the question.
So SOMETHING must have happened before Jesus was born. And sure enough, according to the twenty-sixth verse of the opening chapter of the gospel according to Luke, "In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth."
Now, I think that it is really significant that Gabriel was sent. So far as we know from the Bible, Gabriel appeared to only two other people: to Zechariah earlier in this opening chapter of Luke, and to Daniel.
In the eighth chapter of Daniel, in the fifteenth and sixteenth verses, we read, "When I, Daniel, had seen the vision, I tried to understand it.
Then someone appeared standing before me, having the appearance of a man, and I heard a human voice by the Ulai, calling, "Gabriel, help this man understand the vision." And then, in the twenty-second verse of the ninth chapter of Daniel, "He came and said to me, "Daniel, I have now come out to give you wisdom and understanding."
So Gabriel is a special messenger, one sent to provide understanding. And Gabriel has been sent "to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary."
Now, we don't know where Mary came from. Indeed, her only claim to fame is that she is engaged to Joseph, because HE is of the house of David, the family from whom it was foretold that the messiah would come.
Much is made of the fact that Mary was a virgin. However, I would suggest that if we understood the culture of the time, we would realize that this wasn't such a big deal. For starters, Jewish children, and they WERE children, married very young, probably in their early teens. A seminary professor of the Bible told me that she suspected that Mary was about fifteen. And those marriages were arranged by their fathers.
It was altogether possible that a bride and groom hardly KNEW one another before they were married. And finally, these children led very restricted, socially limited, lives. The chances of their being sexually active before they were married was slim or none.
So Gabriel arrives. "And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be."
Well, she hasn't won a sweepstakes, although I can't help think of those silly letters we get, saying, "Greetings, you may already have won..."
You know, Gabriel could have said, "I have good news, and I have news that may be a bit difficult to understand." But no, Gabriel jumps right in as if it's all good news. Well I would be perplexed too! Here's an angel showing up to say CONGRATULATIONS!
And Mary is wondering, "For what?"
I know that whenever I hear a friendly but strange voice on the phone, I immediately become defensive. I wonder, "What does this person want to sell me?"
And how often, when we hear even our FRIENDS being more friendly than usual, do we become suspicious that they WANT something from us?
So when Mary hears this strange angel saying, "Greetings, favored one!" she may probably be thinking, "UH oh."
But how does Mary understand those words, "The Lord is with you." Is this part of the good news of being a "favored one"? Or is it a cushion against the news that the angel is to be passing on later? Is it a means of saying, "God will protect you"?
The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God."
So Gabriel KNOWS she is baffled by all of this, and I think that he IS trying to soften the blow for what is to come. And when he says, "Do not be afraid," I think that he's admitting that there's plenty of which to BE afraid.
But let's take that clause, "you have found favor with God," and see what all it might mean. "God is with you"? "God is on your side"? And for us Christians, that IS a means of confronting our fears. BELIEVING that God is with us, that God is protecting us, that God is on our side. And indeed, were not ALL the children of Israel favored? Shouldn't WE consider OURSELVES favored children of God?
Must we be as special as Mary to believe that?
And then the angel Gabriel presents Mary with the meat of the message:
"And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus."
Well, the first part of this message should be no big deal. When young Jewish women married, they were expected to have children early and often. But the angel has gone beyond that. Specifically, she WILL bear a son. And the angel has even NAMED him.
And Mary might be wondering, "Do angels appear to ALL women to announce their children? Is this NORMAL, or have I been singled out?" And all this noise about being "favored" probably suggests to Mary that she HAS been singled out. This is NOT a routine visit.
As for the name, I happen to like Matthew's version better. Matthew tells us that Joseph was told, "you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
But Gabriel goes on to say, "He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.”
Well, every mother thinks her children are great. But you can't get much greater than "Son of the Most High." And what must Mary have thought of that? What did it MEAN to her? The Son of God? A Divine Person? And what does it mean to take the throne of David? That was almost a thousand years ago! And the Israelites haven't had a king in over five hundred years!
Now, WE know about prophecy, and what God promised David. But did Mary know that? Gabriel certainly isn't mentioning anything about prophecy to her. So all of what is being told her MAY be absolutely new to her, and maybe even a bit shocking for her.
Gabriel continues, "He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
Now I can handle that. I think I understand it. I REJOICE in it! But what did MARY do with it? She has been told that her son will take a throne, will be a king. And he will reign FOREVER! But in order to REIGN forever, doesn't one have to LIVE forever? And Gabriel doesn't speak of the kingdom of Israel, but of HIS kingdom that will have no end.
Theologically, we can put all this together, because we have all of scripture to work with. But I can't help wondering what Mary made of this. Gabriel has established some MAJOR claims for Jesus.
In short, he has told Mary that she will give birth to the greatest person who has ever lived or who WILL ever live. And what questions does Mary have for Gabriel regarding all of this?
Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"
That's ALL she has to say? Gabriel has delivered this earth-shaking, divine, transcendant, eternal message, and all Mary can say is, "Is this physically possible?"
It's as if Jesus himself were preaching to you about eternal life, and as his message ran a bit longer than usual, you looked at your watch and thought to yourself, "I really don't have time for this. I need to get home and take care of some things."
Gabriel is speaking from an eternal, heavenly plane; but Mary is still stuck on her earthly plane.
And where are WE this Christmas? Is Christmas just Mary and Joseph and the baby and the shepherds and the magi; or does all this carry ETERNAL meaning for us?
Well, the angel has an answer for Mary: "The angel said to her, "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."
And Gabriel has pulled her OFF that earthly plane. If we're going to achieve the divine ends that Gabriel spoke of, there will need to be divine means. And I believe that passage should speak to us in our Christianity. "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you." We don't need to give birth to experience the Holy Spirit and the power of God.
But at this special time of year, I believe that for many it would be helpful to ask, "Where is the Holy Spirit in my life? How is the power of God working in my life?" Those questions could be the divine means to the divine ends of Christmas.
And then, Gabriel changes the subject. "And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren."
And the son that Elizabeth is carrying will be known as John the Baptist, who will prophesy the coming of Christ and baptise him in the Jordan.
But Mary's and Elizabeth's births are not the first impossible births that God has pulled off. Perhaps most remarkable was that of Sarah, who, when she heard that she would bear a child, laughed. But she did, and she named him Isaac.
And just as God would sacrifice his son Jesus, born of the virgin Mary, so God would test Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac, born of the barren Sarah.
And then Gabriel concludes his message by saying, "For nothing will be impossible for God."
And it's as if Gabriel were saying to Mary, "You're not the ONLY one that God is working with. God is working with and through others to achieve holy ends. And if God can bring a child to a barren woman, God can also bring a child to a virgin."
So just as Gabriel was delegated by God to bring understanding to Daniel, so he was again delegated by God to bring understanding to Mary. But DID Mary understand?
"Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her."
I don't know if Mary FULLY understood. But maybe that's not important. Maybe what IS important is that she put her full faith and trust in God: "let it be with me according to your word." And let us do likewise.
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