Dec.21, 2008 Luke 1:26-38
The Psalmist acknowledges that we are 'fearfully and wonderfully made' (Ps 139:14). However in our fallen state sometimes a wrench gets thrown into the works. A news story relates how a pediatric neurosurgeon in Colorado Springs, Dr Paul Grabb, operated October 3 on a 3-day-old infant who was healthy except for having a microscopic tumour on his brain. The doctor was surprised when, while removing the growth, he discovered it contained a nearly perfect foot and the formation of another foot, a hand, and a thigh! Dr Grabb says, "To find a perfectly formed structure (like this) is extremely unique, unusual, borderline unheard of." (Some of us suffer from the condition of occasionally finding our foot in our mouth but not in our brain!) Thankfully little Sam Esquibel has recovered well and you'd never know anything was wrong except for a scar.
In other areas of genetic wonder - this week on the radio I heard scientists are debating whether or not to bring back the woolly mammoth: apparently some think it could be accomplished through manipulating the woolly's DNA that has been salvaged. Genetic advances are taking us into strange and wonderful new territory - some of which may be best uncharted. Soon instead of stray cats and squirrels meandering through our backyard we'll have hulking woolly mammoths being chased by sabre-tooth tigers!
Over the centuries skeptics have pooh-poohed the idea of a 'virgin birth'. But the more we learn about genetics and culturing life in the test tube, the less incredible it seems. Gabriel's announcement to Mary is still wonderful - and on a much higher level than finding microscopic feet inside a brain (which is rather grotesque by comparison). But the truly exciting part about it is not the method by which Jesus is born, but what this miracle baby represents.
Who knows why the angel Gabriel got picked to take part in the Annunciation? Maybe it was his turn on the roster for telegram duty that day. Anyway, his message to Mary begins with an emphasis on the grace God's bestowing by selecting Mary to be the earthly mother of our Lord. V28, "Greetings, you who are highly favoured!" And v30, while she's still shaking in her boots at the appearing of this heavenly visitor, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God." The root for 'favour' is akin to that for 'grace': 'to peruse with grace, to honour with blessings'; the notion of sweetness, charm, loveliness, joy, and delight. The selection of Mary for this task has nothing to do with her intelligence or social standing (she is, after all, a lowly young peasant maiden, not up there in the 'household word' category like Britney Spears). Instead it's all about God's undeserved, un-papparozzied favour - choosing someone you'd never have suspected of qualifying to foster the King of kings. Luke's emphasis is on Mary RECEIVING favour (unlike the traditional Catholic view which sees her as 'full of grace' to bestow on others).
But isn't God's favour bestowed on Mary just like His grace to you and me? That's how God delights to operate. We were 'dead in transgressions', our minds 'blinded by the god of this age'; we were 'by nature objects of wrath'. Then as Paul describes it: "because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ' and raised us up with Him "in order that in the coming ages He might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God..." (Eph 2:7f) Grace is how God operates - else none of us would stand a chance.
Apart from God's merciful intervention, in our depravity we're as badly off as the driver of the vehicle that OPP officers came upon stuck in the snow Dec.14 shortly after 3 a.m. The Citizen reports, "The driver was steering, while three occupants were trying to push him out.The driver told police they were coming from a party and that he was the designated driver.Believing he had been drinking, police demanded a roadside breath sample, which he failed..." Further samples at the detachment confirmed our so-called 'designated driver' had nearly two times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood! Small wonder he was in a snowbank.
Only grace can help us undeserving, stuck-in-a-rut sinners be changed from debauched and 'designated sinners' to those who are saved, filled with the Spirit and on the path to heaven, courtesy of Christ.
After greeting Mary and trying to calm her misgivings about encountering a mighty creature from another dimension, the angel Gabriel proceeds to the heart of his announcement: a summary of how outstanding this baby will be that Mary will be privileged to bear. In v31, it will be a son, to be named Jesus - like the Old Testament "Joshua" meaning "Yahweh is salvation" or "God saves". Vv32-33 have sovereign phrases piled on each other, as a herald might proclaim the excellence of royalty as they enter a top-level meeting: "He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end." Let's unpack that a bit more. "He will be great" - literally 'mega'. Elsewhere the Bible calls Him 'King of kings and Lord of lords'(Rev 19:16) - boss of bosses. Quite a contrast to the peasants who would be bringing him up. "He will be called the Son of the Most High": clearly a title of divinity, associated with God Himself. One who brings down 'rulers from their thrones' and sends 'the rich away empty' but lifts 'up the humble' (Lk 2:52f).
Jesus is predicted to be great in POSITION - David's throne; reign over Jacob; a kingdom. He will also be great in PERMANENCE - look at the time terms: "He will reign...forever; His kingdom will never end." Enduring always. The most 'real' thing there is in eternity - but are we living our lives as if that Kingdom is relevant?
Around Christmas time we often hear Isaiah 9:6f, which is another verse highlighting how great Jesus truly is: hear the echoes in what Gabriel has just told Mary. "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever." (Isa 9:6f) Seven centuries before the miracle baby even arrived, Isaiah was already extolling this most important person in all history. He's the key, the treasure at the heart of the Christian religion; and to have Him inside, governing our personal lives and giving us perspective when this world knocks us for a loop, elevates us daily. As the apostle Paul wrote, "To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." (Col 1:27)
Amazing that an angel would appear; astounding that God would be putting in place someone to be King forever in David's royal line. But v35 brings us to the most remarkable aspect of how this is going to come about: through the unique, miraculous power of God Almighty Himself. Mary asked how it could be that she would give birth to a son while having kept herself a chaste young single woman, waiting for the consummation of her upcoming marriage to righteous Joseph. Gabriel answers, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God." Wow! Now that's never been heard of before. The angel's language would remind a Jew of Exodus 40(34f) where the cloud of the Lord's Shekinah presence covers or settles upon the Tent of Meeting, filling it with glory, so much that Moses couldn't even enter the Tent. Similarly at Jesus' transfiguration in Mark 9(7), a cloud appears and 'envelopes' Jesus, Elijah, and Moses who are talking together, and God's voice endorsing His Son comes from the cloud. Clearly Mary's pregnancy is to be a very special 'one-off' arrangement by divine intervention.
Why a virgin birth? Isaiah 7:14 prophecies "the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and shall name Him Immanuel." Parts of which match up word-for-word with v34 here, "You will be with child and give birth to a son and you are to give Him the name Jesus..." Basically Gabriel's announcement marked the fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy. The Greek version of Isaiah 7:14 in the Septuagint uses the word "parthenos" meaning a marriageable maiden or virgin. So a major part of the 'sign' aspect that will distinguish this singular birth is the fact that no earthly man is involved. Kind of like the baby being found in a manger - makes it easier to spot when it's the only one happening!
But another reason for the virgin birth is hinted at by Gabriel in v35: the words can be translated more literally, "therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God." (NRSV) To be a pure and innocent sacrifice for our sins, Jesus had to be absolutely holy, not even a tinge of 'original sin' or generational sin. God holds men especially responsible and accountable for sin as leaders in family units - witness Adam being called up on the carpet first even though both Eve, then he, ate of the forbidden fruit in the garden (Gen 3:11). So the virgin birth forms sort of a 'buffer' between Jesus and attributed sinfulness from the ancestors.
As a merciful concession to perhaps bolster Mary's faith, Gabriel throws in as evidence of God's power that Mary's elderly relative Elizabeth (John the Baptist's mother) who 'was said to be barren is in her sixth month'. God's powerful touch was already doing amazing things! Gabriel closes with a summary statement that Jesus would re-iterate later in his life: v37, "For nothing is impossible with God." What a statement! It sets Christianity off as markedly optimistic in contrast to other religions which emphasize 'fate' or 'karma', being locked-in to a certain caste because of deeds done in some supposed previous life; and from other religions such as animism where humans are subject to unsympathetic idols that make us suffer at a whim.
NOTHING is IMPOSSIBLE with GOD. Literally, "No word (rhema) is impossible for God." Let that be the bedrock of your consciousness - no matter how beaten-down you feel at the moment, how much your RRSPS or stocks have sunk, how unkind your associates, whatever illness or stress you may be under. God's power spells possibility and hope. God is a rewarder of those who trust in Him (Heb 11:6). What positiveness that causes to spill into our lives! What so-called 'impossibilities' is the Lord waiting to pop with a pin in your life?
We've been focussing on God's goodness in various aspects - the graciousness of His choosing, the greatness of His Son, the power of His touch. Now we turn to Mary's response to the news, noting the blessing that comes through belief.
V38, Mary doesn't protest or question like aging Zechariah (1:18): she gets her mind and attitude and commitment in line with God's plan. She answers simply, "I am the Lord's servant...May it be to me as you have said." No ifs, ands, or buts; not even a "What will the neighbours think?!" - although the implications and shame of pregnancy before completion of the betrothal contract and formal marriage must have been obvious to her. (Thankfully God already had a plan to clue fiancé Joseph in on what was really happening, as Matthew [1:20f] tells us.)
Mary accepted and adjusted to God's dramatic intrusion into her life and plans. That shows a humility, gentleness, and trust on her part. How many people would instead resist and rebel against such unilateral interference with their life, their destiny? And Mary had no clue what suffering, grief, and misunderstanding would develop from what her boy would eventually go through.
Not a word of protest. "May everything you have said about me come true" (NLT); "Let it be with me according to your word." (NRSV) Mary had a healthy respect for the dynamic power of God's 'rhema', God's creative word. See how by her choice of words she puts herself in a position of submission: "I am the Lord's servant" - doulos, literally "female slave, bondmaid". "I owe it to You, Lord, whatever You say; You're in charge, You're the boss." Can we learn to pray like that - to have that same receptiveness in our spirit to what God is wanting to show us next? Can our pride handle that, letting Him be in control rather than calling the shots ourselves?
The rest of the chapter emphasizes how blessed this woman is in her utter trust in God who's moving so radically in her life. V42 when Mary arrives at cousin or auntie Elizabeth's, the latter exclaims in a loud voice, "Blessed are you among women...!" V48 Mary herself sings, "From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me..." But note particularly how Elizabeth wraps up her response in v45, "Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!" Can you trust God's promise, even when it doesn't seem feasible at the time? Even when it's going to stretch you and maybe change your life forever - nothing's ever going to be the same again? Believe and be blessed in the Lord's promise.
We trust people frequently in life, often without even thinking much about it. That's not always wise - a news item featured a fraud who sold highly-accurate diplomas to people who wanted to pursue vocations without actually doing any schoolwork! But how many of us have examined closely, for instance, our doctor's or dentist's diploma?
Lately I've been spending more time than usual in doctors' offices due to a case of pneumonia, and needing a second round of antibiotics when the first round didn't 'fizz' on the harmful bacteria cozying up in my lung. I have complete confidence in my doctor and the pharmacist even though I haven't checked out their credentials. Someone has written: "Faith is central to all of life. For example, you go to a doctor whose name you cannot pronounce and whose degrees you have never verified. He gives you a prescription you cannot read. You take it to a pharmacist you have never seen before. He gives you a chemical compound you do not understand. Then you go home and take the pill according to the instructions on the bottle. All in trusting, sincere faith!"
Can we extend at least the same degree of trust to our Maker? Next time like Mary we're challenged by something unusual God wants to do in our life - let's remember His credibility established by the whole of Biblical history, and discovery the blessing of believing. "Nothing is impossible with God!" Let's pray.