Last week when Gil was speaking about the gospel, he explained that news is something that impacts us personally. The first two chapters of Luke are filled with news and announcements about Jesus at the time of his birth, or before he is born, or in the case of this morning, before he is even conceived. Jesus impacts everyone personally, but to some, particularly Mary, who we are looking at today, the news about Jesus impacted them in a particularly unique way. Normally news reports on things that have happened in the past, or simply speculates about things. But much of the news about Jesus in the opening chapters of Luke is very different: This news is true and real, but is either given in advance of things happening, or immediately as they happen.
Conception and Birth in General
The conception and birth of planned or hoped for babies is rarely easy. It is often a time of fear because unlike Mary we are not given news in advance about conception, birth, or the future of our children. For some people conceiving a child at all is an impossibility, or near impossibility. For others, numerous miscarriages are devastating, and there may become an intense fear each time a baby is conceived that it will just become another miscarriage.
Actually, with medical advances, we can have some news about our babies before they are born. We can learn the gender if we want, and we can learn sometimes when things are going wrong – In those cases it’s unclear whether knowing this news is helpful or not.
In the news that Mary is given she is told she does not have to worry about difficulty conceiving, or miscarriages, or still birth. But she does end up with a whole bunch of quite different worries.
At the point of Gabriel’s visit though her mind is probably a million miles away from the concept of having children. Although she is engaged, engagement was pretty different to what we think of it today. Mary was a young girl, likely only 13 or 14 years old, living with her parents, and probably making the most of what was left of her childhood before she became Joseph’s wife.
The New Testament and angels.
At a casual reading of the conversation between Mary and the angel, as Luke describes it, it sounds like a pretty ordinary conversation. But it’s not an ordinary conversation, and it’s not ordinary to be visited by angels. Especially when the visiting angel is bringing a message from God.
The New Testament does hint that angels are among us, but that we are usually unaware of them, and they don’t usually introduce themselves as angels. Hebrews 13:2 tell us to show hospitality to strangers, because by doing so some people have shown hospitality to angels without realising it. I have heard various stories of strangers turning up in moments of difficulty, providing help, then seeming to disappear – these might possibly be angels.
But if an angel introduces themselves as an angel, and brings a message, well that’s a whole new ball game. When someone meets an angel with a message, it likely means that their life story is colliding head on with the front line of action in God’s unfolding story, and that, I think, is pretty scary. Angels, or angelic beings, do appear in the New Testament from time to time, often in dreams, and often at key moments in the ongoing journey of the gospel to various people groups. And there are a couple of occasions in the New Testament of dramatic rescue of apostles from prison with the help of an angel. But the main appearances of angels to people other than Jesus, physically, and in person, and bringing messages, occur around the conception, the birth, the resurrection, and the ascension of Jesus.
Mary and the Angel
So, Mary is just an ordinary, young girl, who is about to have her life turned upside down by prophetic news via an angel about a yet to be conceived baby.
I reckon Luke’s retelling of the encounter between Mary and Gabriel sounds fairly ordinary because it is a summary of the conversation. Some of what happened, and some of was said, or felt, is missed out. Luke tells us that the angel that talks with Mary is specifically the angel Gabriel. Gabriel doesn’t introduce himself with his name in the recorded conversation, yet Mary knows he is Gabriel, so that is one indication that this is a summary. And it’s not the only one as we’ll see later. There is a lot of mystery left in this passage. Luke gives us what he knows about the story in the best way he knows how. Much of the dialogue that we have reflects Old Testament Scripture and that is to show the prophetic and Divine nature of the encounter: It shows us that this story is a key part of God’s unfolding story, and something of deep importance to humanity is about to happen, and Mary is directly in the centre of it.
It’s not as clear in the English as it is in Greek, but the Gabriel comes to Mary indoors, nothing more is said about how he comes to Mary. His initial greeting also says very little, whilst also saying a lot, and it leaves Mary greatly confused and anxious. The problem with translating Greek into English is that it can be quite hard to get the feeling of the words across into the new language. Most Bibles have Gabriel saying ‘greetings’ to Mary, but that’s just because the common word for greeting changes so often in our culture. The Greek word is ‘chairé’ which is basically the typical, ordinary word of greeting in Greek. The Message version goes for ‘good morning’ which is a bit more relaxed than ‘greetings’ because nobody says ‘greetings.’ Gabriel probably says something much more normal like the equivalent of ‘hi.’
He calls her ‘favoured one’. ‘Favoured one’ basically means that she is specially favoured by God, in terms of being chosen for a task. The final part of the greeting, ‘God is with you,’ implies that God will be with her to help her in the task that has been chosen for her task. Putting that together, an angel comes into a young teenager’s house and says to her something along the lines of ‘Hi there, you who are specially chosen by God, The Lord will be with you and give you all the help you need.’
It’s no wonder she is puzzled and anxious about the greeting. It’s as though she has been spoken to in a way that sets her apart with some of the great people of the Old Testament, using some of the same language of finding favour with God. The Old Testament tells us that the likes on Noah, and Gideon had found favour with God.
She doesn’t yet know what task she has been chosen for, but the whole concept of an angel coming right into to your house, and telling you God has set you apart for something that seems to be very important, would be very very scary. Especially when you have no idea what it might be that you have been chosen to do.
Gabriel tries to reassure her by telling her a bit more about her task. She will have a baby boy. But no ordinary baby boy. While we can know something about our babies before birth, no modern technology can tell us about how our children will grow up, what they will be like as people, or what job they might do. If, in some cases, it might be better we don’t know in advance what our pregnancy will be like, that is even more the case with our kids as the grow up. We are meant to work it out as we go along, otherwise we might be too afraid to have children. But Mary is given prophetic news about her child after the birth because…well because this child will change the world. Just like an angel coming into your house with a message from God is mind-blowing. This child is also mind-blowing.
Who is this Child?
Using terms from Scripture Mary is told the news that her child is the coming Messiah and that she is to name him Jesus meaning ‘God saves’. Essentially, she is told that she and her child, Jesus, will be fulfilling Isaiah 7:14 which says ‘the virgin[b] will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.’ In other words, he will be known as ‘God is with us.’ No wonder he will be called ‘great’. But then Gabriel goes on to explain more about what it means that he will be ‘great.’
He will be called ‘the son of the Most High.’ Coming first in the explanation of his greatness, this sets the importance on his sonship. Not just a prophet of the Most High – but a son. That implies something much deeper and closer to God than that of a prophet.
Add this together with the names associated with the child: Jesus, meaning ‘God saves,’ and Immanuel, meaning ‘God with us,’ and something beyond comprehension seems to surround this child: Something very closely connected with God himself. The Most High is a common name for God in the Old Testament, and is often closely connected with his works on earth including creation. It is used to show that the Lord is the ultimate and final power on earth. And Jesus will be called the Son of this highest power.
But the mind-blowing nature of Jesus doesn’t end there. Gabriel says that He will receive the throne of David. In other words that meant he would be King of Israel in the family line of the ancient King David. And even more than that, his Kingdom would never end. The last Davidic King, in fact the last King of the descendants of Israel, had been Zedekiah, King of Judah. His reign had ended just over 400 years before Gabriel brings this news to Mary. But the end of the Davidic line of Kings was only meant to be temporary. This temporary end was prophesied by Ezekiel at the time of Zedekiah
There were a number of prophesies in Scripture, even going back to the time of David himself, saying that the Kingship of Israel, would be returned; but also, that a great descendant of David would come and rule the Kingdom of Israel forever. Included in these prophecies was the idea that this future King would be the messiah, sent to rescue the world.
The news given to Mary says that her son will reign over Jacob’s descendants, but if you remember the story of the wrestling match, you’ll know that Jacob was renamed Israel. One such prophecy about this never-ending reign is Isaiah 9:6-7, which is in a similar place in Scripture to the one about Immanuel. This prophecy reads:
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 Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness 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 for ever.
As a result of the prophecies in Scripture, the nation of Israel had been waiting over 400 years for the Messiah, the Son of David, who would restore the Kingdom of Israel. And Mary is right at the heart of the fulfilment of all those prophesies.
The Virgin Birth
Mary’s Question‘How will this be’ implies that Gabriel has already told her that she will conceive imminently, without any man being involved. Just like Gabriel introducing himself this piece of information is not explicitly in the text.
The Virgin birth is one of the most important, but also one of the weirder aspects to the Christian faith. It is one of the reasons why some people have difficulty believing that Christianity is true and real. However, when you consider the nature of the child that was to be conceived in Mary, and all that has been said about Jesus, it would all lose its power if the conception was something ordinary. The conception kind of has to be as mind-blowing blowing as the prophetic news, otherwise it would be much harder to believe that Jesus is the messiah, the son of the most-high, God with us. This miracle of virgin conception and the meaning behind it is the reason for Gabriel’s visit to Mary.
We do not know how the virgin conceived. Like much of this conversation between Gabriel and Mary, Scriptural words are used to describe it. The conception of Jesus is a new creative act of the Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit who created the heavens and the earth at the beginning is again doing new things. This is a whole different kind of conception, something that the human mind cannot quite fathom; it is a conception entirely outside of the kind of creation by natural means we are used to.
Gabriel says almost nothing about how the miracle takes place, and that is because it is a mysterious event, and there are no words to describe it in a way that would make sense to Mary. But one thing is clear, there is no sexual act involved. The Greek word that is translated into English as overshadow is used in the Greek versions of the Old Testament to describe simply God’s presence, or a sense of God’s protection. Nothing more is said. In an unknown, and unknowable, miracle of God, Mary will conceive the promised messiah, the son of God, the everlasting King of Israel. And as a confirmation of this miracle, Mary’s relative Elizabeth also has a miracle pregnancy. And there the news ends.
Let it be to me
Mary must have been utterly shocked, confused, and rather bewildered, as well as afraid. She won’t be worrying about still births, but her statement ‘Ok, I am the servant of the Lord, let it be to me, according to your word’ is actually words of deep humility, and trust in God in the face of immense challenge.
First the challenge of being pregnant, long before she was ready and thinking about such things. Second, the challenge of coming to Joseph and telling him she is pregnant. She has no idea how he will react, and it is likely to be a very negative and strong reaction. And third, she is faced with the impossibly daunting task of being on the front line of God’s story. Giving birth to the Messiah. And likely raising a child who is the son of God and described as ‘God with us’, and who is not an ordinary child because his Kingdom will never end. Yet she not only believes, but accepts a challenge beyond comprehension. ‘Let it be to me’ is humbly submitting to God and trusting him with her life.
The miracle of the conception and birth of Jesus is matched by the miracle of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Just before his ascension Luke records a key conversation between Jesus and his disciples. At this point in time the disciples of Jesus are still trying to understand Jesus and his never-ending Kingdom. The conversation is recorded in Acts 1 and it says this
The apostles gathered round him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’
7 He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’
The favour that Mary received from God to be the mother of Jesus was not necessarily anything to do with her own goodness or particular acceptability for the task. God’s choice is always his, and he equips his people with all they need to do his will. The word favour means a kindness, a blessing: a kind of gifting. And God gifts us with all we need.
God has not chosen you or me to carry or deliver, or parent Jesus. But nonetheless you and I are chosen, and given favour, and gifts towards a task, and not because of any goodness in ourselves, but simply because we have been chosen, and given an honour.
We have a promise that one day Jesus will return. In the mean time we know that while the Kingdom of Jesus is not fully established, we have been given a task in the bringing in of God’s Kingdom. You and I are called to be witnesses of Jesus to the ends of the earth. In our case we are called to be witnesses of Jesus in Scotland. It’s a daunting task, but just like Mary we are told that God will be with us. Mary carried the son of God within her. We carry the Holy Spirit within us.
Mary gave her life to God and the question comes to us too: are we willing to give our lives to God, to use as he will, knowing that he will be with us and give us al we need to undertake his purposes. Are we willing to humbly submit to God and say as Mary did ‘I am the Lord’s servant.’?