Jesus’ birth foretold
26 When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27 to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29 She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”
34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”
35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. 36 Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. 37 Nothing is impossible for God.”
38 Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
Thoughts on the passage:
Over the next four Sundays we will be undertaking a journey to the manger. It will be a chance to look at the Christmas story from different angles as we seek to better understand the miracle of Christ’s birth. We will look at Mary, Joseph, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and the trip that Mary and Joseph take. We will draw from both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. The format for the next four weeks is informed by the book, “The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem” a book written by Adam Hamilton as a part of a sermon series he did for his congregation, the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection.
Our story starts with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the main character in the birth narrative. Mary lives in the town of Nazareth. While we have to make some assumptions because of the limited amount of information we have, it is assumed that Nazareth was a small town. It is not mentioned in several of the major historical records about the region of Galilee, which likely means it was a small town maybe with less than one hundred residents. Based on archeological evidence, it was likely also very poor, with many of the townsfolk living in limestone caves rather than proper dwellings.
The humble location of Nazareth, and by extension Mary as its resident, could seem an odd place for God to find someone to give birth to Jesus. On the other hand, it might be just the right place to look. After all, with her simple origins, Mary was more likely to be ready to humbly follow God rather than thinking too much of herself. Had she been born into a life of privilege and power, would Mary have been so willing to take a risk and take part in the work that God had for her to do?
We can see some of the faith of Mary when she is first told by the angel that she is going to give birth to a son. She does not rebel against doing this for God. Instead her question is about how it is possible since she has never had sex. She is ready to follow God, if God will just tell her what she needs to do. Would we have reacted the same way? She is not worried about the reaction of friends and family to her having a child or any of that. Her question is more about how it is possible. If this is what God wants her to do, she is ready. Her faithfulness is humbling.
The angel’s response also makes it clear that the real concern here is about what is possible. God knows that it might be hard to understand how you can have a child without have first had sex. Those of us who took health class in school would probably be wondering the same thing. To prepare Mary to trust in what God can do, the angel tells of another miracle that is about to occur. Her cousin Elizabeth, who everyone thought was unable to have children, is also going to give birth to a son. In this other birth, Mary will be reminded that with God anything is possible.
The most important part of this story is the last verse that we read: Mary’s consent. We can focus on the miracle of the two pregnancies that we learn about. We can be left pondering what the angel looked like or how this was at all possible. All of that is fine, but we should not let it distract us from the highlight of this text, Mary gives her assent to be a part of this.
In the #metoo era and a time when we need to be teaching everyone, men and women, about the importance of consent. We need to be reminded that this is reflected in scripture. Mary has a choice as to whether or not to bear the Son of God. Even when talking to God, Mary still has autonomy of her body. For that reason alone, we need to make note of her consent.
There is another reason we should take note of it. Mary choses to be a part of God’s work in the world. She answers the call that God has for her. She says that she is willing to do what it takes to follow God. It is not something that is forced upon her, rather she chooses to do it. Each of us has the same choice to make in our lives. We also need to choose if we are going to be a part of God’s work in the world or not.
Today we are celebrating two baptisms. Given that our scripture is about the birth a child this seems very fitting. It is also fitting because like Mary, our parents today are making a choice to say yes to God. Our parents are being asked if they want to be part of God’s work in the world. Through promising to raise their children in the faith they, like Mary, are choosing to be a part of God’s acts of salvation.
John Wesley, the founder of the United Methodist Church talked about the idea of prevenient grace. Wesley believed that God’s grace is at work in the world, and in our lives before we are even aware of it. Wesley then talked about justifying grace, which is the moment we accept this grace for ourselves through baptism. Finally, there is sanctifying grace, which is the ongoing work of God in our life.
We see all of those at work in this narrative today. First, God is at work in Mary’s life even before the angel shows up. The plan has already been put into place because her cousin is already six months pregnant. Then there is the point of justification, where Mary chooses to be a part of what God is doing and gives her consent. Finally, there is the on-going presence of God with Mary through the many challenges that lie ahead. God’s grace is not a one-time event for her, but rather something that is on-going.
In the baptisms of Thea and Olivia, we remember the grace that is working in their lives as well. It has been stirring in them even now before they are aware it. It will work in them in the baptismal water we sprinkle on their heads. It will also be present later when they are ready to give their own assent and confirm their faith for themselves. It will watch over them as they grow and live out their faith.
Are we ready to say “yes” to God like Mary? Are we ready to be a part of God’s work in the world? As we prepare for Christmas and the journey to the manger, let us open ourselves up to how God is asking us to say “yes” and be a part of the amazing things that God is doing all around us.
Questions to Ponder:
What are the ways that you have experienced God at work in your life?
What do you think made it so easy for Mary to say yes to God?
What is God calling you to help with this Christmas season?
Wondrous God, you come into our hearts in small and simple ways, like a child, born in a manager. As we get ready to explore again the miracle of your birth among us, prepare our hearts and minds to let you rule them. Take away from us all of the distractions and temptations to follow others instead of you. Help us to be faithful to you. Amen