We would like to think that we are in control of our lives. We make plans that have the purpose of accomplishing goals. We do this in relation to marriage and family, job and career. Surely, Mary had done this as well. From all that we know about the culture of first century Judaism, Mary was most likely in her early to mid teens. In her case, plans had been made, but that’s not to say she had made them. She was betrothed to a man named Joseph. No doubt, her parents had arranged the marriage. Now while that is certainly very different from what we are used to and seems strange to us, it is worth considering the fact that for several thousand years this method has produced marriages that turn out to be lasting and loving; and it still does today in other parts of the world.
Mary was betrothed – an engagement which was in fact a legal transaction. We know from the New Testament that Mary’s parents had chosen very well. Joseph was from the lineage of King David. We learn from Matthew’s Gospel that he was faithful to God’s Word, and was a thoughtful and compassionate man. Mary was looking forward to her marriage to Joseph; to having children and a family.
Mary’s life was taking a clear course, until the angel Gabriel appeared to her. He said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” Understandably, Mary was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to understand what it meant.
The angel went on to say, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 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 father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Now there are three things to note here. First, Mary is described as “favored” by God, and it is an angel who announces this to her. Second, she is told that she is going to conceive and have a son who will be called Jesus. And third, she is told that this son is going to be the Davidic king whose reign will never end. She is told that she is going to give birth to the Messiah.
Mary’s response to this was to say, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” When hearing her response, it is impossible not to the think back to last Wednesday when we heard Zechariah direct a question to Gabriel. After hearing the announcement that Elizabeth was going to have a son he said, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” We saw that Zechariah was demanding a sign that would confirm the veracity of the angel’s announcement. It was a question based in unbelief.
Mary’s question was very different. She perceived that Gabriel didn’t mean that this would happen at some point down the road after she was married to Joseph. Instead, Gabriel was there to announce the news because it was happening now. So Mary asked how this was going to happen because, after all, she was a virgin. She didn’t ask for proof that the angel’s word was true like Zechariah. She believed God’s word delivered through Gabriel. Instead, hers was a question that asked how God was going do this thing that seemed impossible.
Gabriel answered, “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 called holy--the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Gabriel told Mary that the Holy Spirit would cause her to conceive. Though a virgin, she would be pregnant and give birth to a son. Because of this amazing action by God, her son would be holy. He would be called the Son of God. This was a term that could refer to the kings descended from David. But in this case it meant far more, because in fact it was the second person of the Holy Trinity – the Son – who was taking on flesh in the womb of the virgin. The One conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary was – and still is – true God and true man.
How was Mary to respond to this news that no woman in the history of the world had ever heard? She said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Mary received it in faith. She believed God’s word and expressed her willingness to be God’s servant in this – to be his instrument.
In our text, Gabriel addresses Mary as “favored one” and says that she has “found favor with God.” This favor is a matter of God’s grace - that God had shown her the favor of using Mary in this way. As Mary would say to Elizabeth, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
Mary had been given a role that no other woman has ever had. She carried and gave birth to the incarnate Son of God. She is not just the mother of our Lord. The Church confesses she is the Mother of God – the mother of the incarnate Son of God. And for that reason Elizabeth was entirely correct when she said to her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
But what about Mary’s plans? Mary was planning on marrying Joseph. Only then would she become one flesh with him, and no doubt she trusted that in the natural course of things they would have children together. But now things were not going to go according to her plan. Instead, it was going to be God’s plan. God’s plan meant that she would now be a pregnant, unmarried girl. It meant that she would have to try to explain her situation to Joseph. It meant that should could never be just a wife and mother like all of the other girls.
Like Mary, we make plans for marriage and family, job and career. And then things happen that we didn’t expect; things that we certainly don’t want. Our plans are dashed, or changed, and it becomes clear that for the foreseeable future life is going to be different than we expected.
These are things that prompt fear and anxiety. They threaten our trust in God’s loving care. Yet as we face these things, our text provides the model for our response. And it also provides the reason we can have confidence in this response.
The model – the way we need to respond, is faith. When Gabriel told Mary that she would conceive through the work of the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Messiah she said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She believed and trusted in this word that came from God. As Elizabeth said about her: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
We respond with faith in God’s love and care; in his ability to guide our life and use circumstances in ways that we do not expect. And the reason we can do this with confidence is the baby whom the angel Gabriel announces to Mary. God has revealed his saving love in the birth, death, and resurrection of the incarnate Son of God. Through this amazing action of sacrifice and love he has redeemed us from sin and the devil, and defeated death.
As we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Lord, let us not forget that the story of Christmas is also the story of how Mary’s life was sent on a course that she had never planned. Rather than objecting or complaining, she responded in faith, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” We too are enabled to do this through the work of the Holy Spirit because of what God had done for us through the One conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary.