It’s not Christmas yet. It’s still Advent. In today’s Gospel there are still nine months to go. First there is John the Baptist, then Jesus, six months apart. It is the sixth month with John the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth, when the angel Gabriel “was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.” Galilee, Nazareth, virgin betrothed, Joseph, house of David. Did you get all that? Are you confused yet? The angel told Mary that she has been blessed and favored by God to serve as the mother of the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God whose name will be Jesus.
I have a question I don’t think I’ve ever thought of before, and you may think it to be a bit strange. It came to me as I was studying today’s Epistle from the end of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans when he mentions the concept of “the obedience of faith.” And the question is this. Would Mary have conceived and borne Jesus if she had heard the word of the angel but didn’t believe what he said? I’m not asking whether she understood how what the angel said was to be. She clearly didn’t understand it. Faith is not identified (not the same thing) as understanding. I’m asking to what extent did God require Mary’s cooperation in the whole thing. When it comes to faith, you know, God doesn’t push or force Himself on anyone. You can’t make another person believe. And though faith is the work and creation only of God in a person’s soul, He desires such a cooperative relationship with human beings that He created us with the awesome ability to say “no,” to disbelieve, to reject Him, to turn our back on Him. Fortunately, Mary did not say “no.” She said, simply, obediently, faithfully, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Today, as we make our last-minute preparations for the celebration of Christmas, on the basis of this text I’m asking not if you are ready but if you are believing. In all your circumstances, with all the pressures or problems, the confusions or conflicts, the busyness or loneliness of your life right now, your hopes and fears, your highest wishes and deepest disappointments, are you ready, nonetheless, to believe the Christmas gospel, to stop and listen and hear and say those words of the mother of our Lord for yourself, “let it be to me according to your word” with the obedience of faith?
Well, I guess that depends on what “it” is that is being asked of us to believe. Certainly none of us have been or ever will be asked by God to serve Him in the same way as Mary. But faith in her Son at once holds before us deliverance, salvation, healing and hope even as we are or seem to be at times overwhelmed by doubts and darkness, sin and hopelessness. Christmas, you know, can be an especially difficult time of the year for those who have recently lost a loved one to death, or any manner of other life-changing tragedies or circumstances. If Christmas serves merely as a retreat into nothing more than an emotional safe zone for a short time, that’s one thing. But the gospel of God coming to save us is the greater thing. And as this gospel is spoken and heard, preached and received, God is at work giving the obedience of faith, which is to take God at His word and believe in His deliverance, much and most of the time in spite of our present circumstances, shortsightedness or the surrounding darkness.
Luke says Mary was a virgin (v. 27-28). Mary says she was a virgin (v. 34). Yet she is told she is going to conceive in her womb and bear a son. Her betrothed husband, Joseph, will not be involved. Talk about changes to the wedding plans; this angelic greeting radically changed all the young couple’s expectations. How this was to be was explained by the angel, “the Holy Spirit” and “the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” Whether Mary was able at the moment to make the connection with the prophesy of Isaiah 7:14—(“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”)—still, they would eventually and St. Luke wants us to know this, too.
But it is what is said about this Child that preaches the purest gospel. He is the incarnate Son of God the Father. And as it is the father in good Jewish tradition who has the right to name his children, Mary and Joseph are told by the angel, “you shall call his name Jesus.” Jesus. Yeshua. Hebrew for “God saves.” In this holy Child will come the salvation of the world; salvation from sin, death, Satan and hell through the forgiveness, the taking away of all sin. From Mary the Son of God takes on our human flesh and blood in order that He may be the one and only perfect sacrifice for all sin through His death by crucifixion and mighty resurrection from the dead, and open the kingdom of heaven to all.
The angel says, “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” This is why we heard today’s Old Testament reading from Second Samuel, the promise to the great King David of a dynasty; the Messianic promise that the Savior would be born of the house and lineage of David, and that his kingdom would be established literally forever into all eternity. Jesus is the culmination of the Davidic line. All the promises of God in the Old Testament are now coming to fulfillment in Christ. Mary is (and we are) to know that God’s ancient promises are being fulfilled and that she is serving both God and all mankind if she will only allow it.
In addition, she knows that for what the angel has announced to happen will take nothing less than a miracle. And isn’t that the way of living by faith as we know it? How many times have we not found ourselves confronted with seemingly impossible circumstances and situations from which there appears to be no escape? What are the odds of the success of the surgery? How is this illness or this development going to change my life and my long-range plans? Can I survive the current economic downturn or the threat of unemployment? Mary asks, “How will this be, since I know not a man?”
Gabriel’s response is not as much an explanation as it is a promise, a sign and reassurance. For how and when will the Holy Spirit come upon her? What does it mean that the power of the Most High will overshadow her? But then, again, I cannot explain to you how the Holy Spirit works through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, through poetry and liturgy and song, in sound and in silence, through water and bread and wine. All I know is that these are God’s promised means of grace. Infant baptism works! The Word works! People actually believe the gospel and admit to it and lay their lives on the line for it and even put their money where their faith is for the way, the truth and the life that are Christ Jesus our Lord.
So, yes, there is mystery here. “In, with, and under” the words of the angel, faith was borne in Mary’s heart, and the obedience of faith. “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Now, what do you say?
Let it be to me according to your word—your word that says, “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you” (Ps. 55:22); your word that says, “those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever” (Ps. 125:1); your word that says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28), your word that says, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord” (Ps. 118:17).
Let this Christmas be for you a time for the miracle of the obedience of faith.