December 20, 2020 Fourth Sunday in Advent The text is Luke 1: 26-38.
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 3 1And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 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. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 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. 36 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. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 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.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Marriage among the Jewish people in the first century was a three-part affair. Initially, the couple was betrothed to one another, through an arrangement arrived at by their parents. This was generally when the bride and groom were still young children. When they reached marriageable age, they would be formally engaged; this was a legally binding status and would last for one year.
During this time each would live in their own parents’ homes, but it was understood that they would remain pledged to one another; each was expected to behave as appropriate for a committed, bonded relationship. At her end of the year there would be the official wedding ceremony, and the newly married couple would begin their life together as husband and wife. Only at this point would consummation of the marriage take place. So, the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she was to bear a child would have had unimaginably difficult consequences for her. She and Joseph were in the engaged period of the marriage process and it was expected that they would not have yet had relations. Thus, the angel’s proclamation was going to be challenging for Mary to explain.
In her time Nazareth was a small agricultural town; archeological evidence suggests there were no more than 400 or so people living in this town that was comprised of about ten acres. The population was likely made up of a few dozen family clans, with many generations living in close proximity. Mary was probably related to quite a few of the residents and it’s a pretty sure bet that everybody knew everybody else’s business. It would be an understatement to suggest that a young girl finding herself in Mary’s situation would face a multitude of problems; for her, her family, and for Joseph. The word, “shame” is the first to come to mind. The ordeal that Mary would likely endure if Joseph had chosen to expose her, would be difficult for anyone, let alone someone in her specific situation. In the Middle Eastern culture of first-century Palestine the average age for a girl to marry was between twelve and eighteen. Bible scholars agree that Mary would have been fourteen or fifteen years old when Gabriel came to her. She was also a peasant girl living in an extremely small town, made up of people with strong Jewish religious piety. She must have been terrified at the news the angel brought her.
And as seems to happen every time an angel appears to someone in Scripture, Gabriel tells Mary, “do not be afraid”. Let’s take a closer look at this encounter, shall we? An unmarried teenaged peasant girl is visited by an angel who tells her she is to become pregnant through the Holy Spirit and bear the Son of God; and by the way, “don’t be afraid”.
But she asks only one question, “how can this be, since I’ve not yet moved in with Joseph?” Gabriel assures her that the Holy Spirit will be at work within her, and that with God nothing is impossible. She has found favor with God. And, it seems that immediately, her fears are alleviated; Mary responds by saying, “here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word”. Her initial disbelief that a virgin may give birth is replaced with her proclamation that she is fully onboard with this seemingly impossible situation. Shame and fear are replaced with faith, trust, and obedience to the will of God. This transformation from impossible to possible, from doubt and disbelief to trust and faith, is brought about by Mary’s realization that there is a difference between who she thinks she is and who God calls her to be. What she thought she was capable of and what God knows she is able to achieve; what she anticipated her future to hold and what God’s will is for her life.
And, isn’t this really the true expression of faith, unwavering trust that the impossible will come to be? Granted, it’s a most extreme example; virgin birth, impregnation by the Holy Spirit, Mother of the Son of God. Mary’s obedience to the will of God is itself nearly impossible for us to fathom. But she did believe and obey. And through her faith and willingness to serve God Jesus became human; and his life, death, and resurrection secured salvation for the world. And over 2,000 years later, we will once again celebrate the birth of this same Christ-child later this week. And all this, because a poor, small-town peasant girl possessed faith strong enough to believe the impossible could happen, and that she realized that God knows us better than we know ourselves.
So, it seems there are two different, but related concepts that we should explore, based on Mary’s response to the world-changing event that she was an integral part of. And both are based on her faith, and our understanding and response to ours. These are the belief that what we know to be impossible may be made real through God’s will, and our realization that who we believe ourselves to be may not mirror God’s view of us. Mary’s initial disbelief turned to faithful obedience; this is transformation.
Her question to Gabriel, asking how it could be that she has been favored by God shifted to acceptance that God held a much different view of her than she did of herself; this is also transformation. Again, both of these are examples of her faith changing Mary’s understanding and acceptance of things she previously thought to be true; impossible becomes real, and poor peasant girl is selected by the Father to carry the Son of Good in her womb. The first is external, the second is an internal transformation; Mary experiences both. And it’s just possible that it was easier for her to accept that God is able to bring the Messiah to term in her by the Holy Spirit, than it was for her to acknowledge her favored status with God.
We’ve all heard of things that have happened that defy our accepted belief of what is possible. And for the most part we tend to be willing to suspend our disbelief in them. We know that it’s impossible for a single person to lift the weight of an automobile, yet there are eyewitness accounts of a parent doing just that to save the life of a child trapped underneath. More than one doctor has been unable to explain why a disease suddenly disappeared from a gravely ill patient. And, in 2004 the Red Sox won the World Series, after 86 winless years. Miracles do happen, the impossible can come to be. And these too, are examples of transformation; from not possible to absolutely real and true.
And, if we’re willing to accept that God can reverse the impossible externally, why do we find it so difficult to accept that He can transform us? Why do we sometimes find ourselves feeling that we’re maybe not quite deserving of God’s favor? Martin Luther struggled mightily with the feeling that he could never fully obey all of God’s Law. Then he discovered that through his faith in Christ that he was already transformed to become worthy in God’s eyes. He realized that, just like Mary and all of us that because of Jesus we all have found favor with God. The truth of this transformation of our righteous relationship with God began with Mary’s belief that she was worthy to bear God’s Son. Not because of anything that she did, she was after all still a poor peasant teenager; but because she believed that God viewed her, and all of God’s people as precious. And all have been transformed by this same belief; the faith that we profess in the Christ-child who will again come among us on Christmas.
So let us rejoice in Christ’s incarnation, knowing that it is the beginning of the change that occurs in us; the shift from unworthy sinner to redeemed, favored child of God. And let us take comfort in the knowledge that with God nothing is impossible; from the virgin birth of Christ Jesus, to the favor that Mary found with God, to the gift of faith that assures us that we too are worthy. Let us go forth, filled with joy and willing to share in Mary’s obedience. Going so far as to believe in the transformation that God is able to bring about. And like Mary, let us respond to the favor we find in God, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious and Holy God, help us to see the possible in the seemingly impossible; to share in the wonder and obedience of Mary; and to trust that we also are worthy of your favor. And we pray these things the name of Jesus Christ, the One who makes us so. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.