Sermon Text: Luke 1:26-37
I will be reading from Luke 1:26–37:
Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”
But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give 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.”
Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”
And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”
You have had the unspeakable privilege to have heard the unvarnished Word of God Almighty. Please receive it in your minds and in your hearts this day. Let’s pray:
Father, many times in the Advent season we have considered the contents of these words that we have just heard from sacred Scripture. Do not allow our hearts to become dull and listless at the repetition of the hearing of these things, but rather may our joy increase as we move from life to life, from grace to grace, and from faith to faith by the hearing of Your Word. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
An Extraordinary Announcement
Once again, the archangel Gabriel was dispatched from the presence of God on a mission to give an announcement of extraordinary importance. He had been selected by God to give a similar announcement to Zacharias, who staggered before its content, wondering how the message could possibly be fulfilled. Zacharias thought he was too old and his wife was beyond the age of childbearing.
If Gabriel had his hands full with Zacharias, the announcement he was going to give to Mary was even more extraordinary. At least in antiquity, in the pages of the Old Testament, there were historical precedents of women who were barren and past the age of childbearing for whom God quickened their wombs and granted sons. At no time in the history of the world, however, had any woman ever had a child while she remained a virgin. This would be the first and last time in all history that such an event would take place.
We are told in the text that, during the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth. It was a tiny village situated almost halfway between the Mediterranean Sea twenty-two miles to its west, and the Sea of Galilee fifteen miles to its northeast.
This little village of Nazareth, of no grand significance historically, was visited by a heavenly messenger who came to a virgin who was betrothed to a man. Betrothal, of course, was more serious than engagement. To break a betrothal necessitated a divorce among Jewish people, though the couple had not yet actually been married or consummated their union. Mary was promised and betrothed to a man named Joseph, who was of the house of David.
Mary, Full of Grace
When the angel came to Mary, he greeted her with these somewhat strange words: “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” Those of you from a Roman Catholic background may immediately notice these words as being familiar, as they are part of the rosary.
The words are uttered, “Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed are thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” The translation that I just read has the angel saying: “Rejoice, highly favored one.” In the Latin Vulgate, translated by the church father Jerome, the words used there are gratia plena, which means, literally, full of grace.
The angel recognized that Mary had received an abundance of grace that no woman prior to this moment in history had ever experienced. Her favor with the Lord was without equal. With this greeting, Mary was stunned and bewildered: “What can this possibly mean? Who is this angel who says that I am filled with grace, that I am highly favored, that I am supposedly supremely blessed, and that the Lord is with me?”
Imagine this young girl, hearing these words from an angel. The angel said: “Mary, God is with you. God is with you right now in an extraordinary measure. He has come to you with a plentitude of grace, and you have been highly favored in His sight.” When she saw the angel, she was troubled at his saying, and she wondered, “What manner of greeting was this?” In her wonderment, the angel spoke to her again saying: “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus.”
The Son of David
Just as the angel instructed Zacharias about the name of his son, so the angel instructed Mary what her son shall be named: “He will be great. He will be called the Son of the Highest. The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. You are going to have a son, and your son will be great, and not only will He be your son, but He will be known as the Son of the Most High God. Not only will He be known as the Son of the Most High God, but He’s the Son of David, the one that God promised would be David’s son and David’s Lord. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of His kingdom there will be no end.”
“What? My son, a king? How can I handle these things? It is not enough that I am going to have a son, but He’s going to be called the Son of God, and not enough that He’s going to be the Son of God, but He’s going to be a king. Not only is He going to be a king, but He’s going to be a king on the throne of David forever and ever.”
This young girl was a godly woman. Surely, she knew the pages of the Old Testament Scriptures. Surely, she understood that David’s son, whose kingdom would last forever and ever, would be the Messiah of Israel. “Are you telling me that the baby you say I am going to have will be the Messiah? And you tell me not to be afraid? You tell me to rejoice. Yes, this is joyous news, but it’s terrifying at the same time.”
So, Mary said to the angel, “How?” You would think that she would have said first, “Why?” but she says: “How? How can this be since I know not a man? Mr. Gabriel, maybe you have the wrong address. I am a virgin. I’m not a sophisticated biologist, but I know something that every woman in Nazareth, every woman in Galilee, and every woman in Judea knows, and that is: the stork doesn’t bring babies. I can’t have a baby. I’m a virgin. How? How can this be?”
God’s Governance of Creation
Let me pause here for a second. Mary is responding like any child of nature would respond. Even in her day, people assumed there were such things as natural laws, those laws of nature that act independently from the sovereign providence of God. This is the view that we have of nature today.
We tend to think that what we call the laws of nature, like the law of gravity, the law of inertia, and so on, are laws inherent to the created universe that operate independently from the power, providence, and sovereignty of God. It is for this reason, historically, that theologians have defined miracles as actions of God that are contra-naturam, against nature. We must stop for a minute and realize that what we call natural laws are simply the ordinary way in which God governs His creation. God governs His creation according to a pattern that He establishes. That pattern, for example, includes the regularity of things falling when you drop them because of gravity. But even gravity has no power whatsoever apart from the sustaining power of God Himself.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are Christians. We believe in the Lord God Almighty, who reigns over everything, who sets the planets in their courses, who sends the birds south in the winter. But from Mary’s perspective, from the perspective of the natural, there was no way that this announcement could come true. It was simply against the laws of nature.
The Holy Spirit’s Power
The angel has the answer to Mary’s question, “How?” He takes the time to carefully explain it to her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you.” In biblical terms, the Holy Spirit is often called the dynamis, the power of God. We get the English word dynamite from it. That is the Spirit of God, in which God invests His supernatural, sovereign power. It is by the Holy Spirit’s brooding over the waters that the original creation came into existence.
If we go back to Genesis 1, we see: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep.” In that uncreated state in Genesis, the universe is described as formless, amorphous, empty, a vacuum, and enveloped in total darkness; that is, until the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.
As the Spirit of God brooded and hovered like a hen broods over her eggs and her chicks, while the Spirit of God is brooding over this unformed state, God spoke: “Let there be light.” And the lights came on. The earth became filled with all kinds of creatures, and the earth was formed and shaped and structured by this omnipotent Creator.
It’s as if Gabriel is saying: “Do you remember Genesis, Mary? Right now, there is nothing in your womb. There is no form; it’s empty and dark. But the same Spirit that hovered over the darkness in the beginning will overshadow you, and by His omnipotent power you will conceive. The One whom you will bear will be the Holy One, the One who is other from every other creature ever born, the supremely sacred and consecrated One, and He will be called the Son of God. Your relative, Elizabeth, has also conceived a son in her old age. She who was called barren is in her sixth month, for with God, nothing will be impossible.”
Nothing Is Impossible for God
In every seminary class I’ve ever had, I had those students who came up with the tired conundrum, “Professor, do you believe that God is omnipotent?” “Yes.” “That God can do all things?” “Yes.” “Nothing is impossible for God?” “Yes.” “Well, can God build a rock so big that He can’t move it?”
If I say, “Yes, He can build a rock so big that He can’t move it,” that would be something that it is not possible for Him to do, so He would not really be omnipotent. If I say, “No, He can’t build a rock so big that He can’t move it,” then again, I’m skewered on the horns of this dilemma. I’m not only saying that God is not omnipotent, but that there are certain things that He can’t do.
There is a right answer to that question, and it’s very simple. Can God build a rock so big that He can’t move it? Of course not. Why not? Because He’s omnipotent; because no thing is impossible with God. To be omnipotent does not mean that God can do anything. God can’t die. God can’t lie. God can’t be God and not be God at the same time and in the same relationship.
God can’t stop being God. As long as He is God, He controls and has power over whatever He makes, whatever He creates. That’s the theological lesson the angel is reiterating to Mary. With God, nothing is impossible. All things are possible. That is, God has power over everything in His creation, including Mary’s empty womb.
The Transcendent Reality of God
I remember speaking in Pittsburgh in the shadow of Carnegie Mellon University many years ago. It was a dinner followed by a lecture, and I was seated by a professor of physics at the dining room table. I was speaking on “God Talk,” on whether human language is adequate to communicate anything meaningful about God. The physicist, being something of a skeptic, said: “As a theologian, you have a tough ticket tonight. You fellows dealing with philosophy and theology have a difficult time speaking meaningfully about the concepts that you use.”
I said: “You should be sympathetic to that. You should be able to relate to that difficulty.” He asked, “What do you mean?” I responded, “Well, you’re a physicist, aren’t you?” He said, “Yes.” I asked: “Don’t you have the same difficulty? Tell me, what is energy?” He smiled and said, “Well, energy is the ability to do work.” I responded, “No, no. I’m not asking you what it can do. I am asking you what it is. Tell me its ontology. What does its being consist of?” And he answered, “Energy is MC2.” Then I said to him: “I don’t want to know its mathematic equivalency or how it can be measured. Don’t you see? I am asking you what it is because every day you talk about energy as if it were some thing, something real, some entity.” It took less than two minutes to turn this physicist upside down. He had to smile and say, “You’ve got me there.” I said, “Yes, it’s a concept you talk about all the time, and we’re supposed to assume that we know what it is. I don’t know what it is. For all I know, it’s the Holy Spirit.” I still don’t know what it is, except when I lose it.
We need to think in terms of the transcendent reality of the One who is speaking, the One whose name will be called Jesus, because He will be saving His people from their sin. You might have noticed that I didn’t read the last verse of this portion of Scripture with respect to Mary’s response. It’s so important that I want to wait for next week. So now we consider the announcement of this child who was born to die, to save His people.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.