In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name 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 father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” 35 And 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 called holy, the Son of God. 36 ¶ And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing will be impossible.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
– Luke 1:26-38
The setting is Nazareth, a small town in the north of Israel, not too far from the Sea of Galilee, but far removed from the centers of power in Jerusalem. Nazareth was then, as it is today, a tough town whose claim to fame is that it’s a stop on a major highway. It’s not a big town, but it’s a place with a reputation for sin and violence. Back in Jesus’ day people used say, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
In the sixth month of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy the angel Gabriel was sent by God to Nazareth with a message for Mary. Gabriel is not just any angel, he is one of only three archangels mentioned in Scripture: an angel in charge of other angels. Mary was a poor peasant girl, probably around fourteen years old. She was betrothed to Joseph, which back then was less than a marriage but more than an engagement. Joseph was a distant yet direct descendant of King David… but he lived far from a royal life.
So in this converation between Gabriel and Mary we see the greatest of the great in conversation with the least of the least. What really jumps out at me is the fact that Gabriel approached Mary directly… because in those days it was unheard of for a man (or anyone who looked like a man) to speak to a woman alone, especially an unmarried woman. It was simply not done. Gabriel should have spoken to Mary’s father, or perhaps her older brothers, or at the very least an older woman in the family.
God is very much aware of human cultural taboos, but in this case He decided to set them aside and sent Gabriel to Mary directly. And neither Gabriel nor Mary seems uncomfortable with this, although Mary is a bit stunned at first. (Who wouldn’t be?)
Gabriel opens the conversation by saying, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” A more modern translation might read “Greetings, you are blessed! The Lord is with you!” – which is a very unusual way to begin a conversation!
Mary’s initial reaction is fear, which is how humans generally react to angels in scripture. Real angels don’t have wings or feathers and while they are often bearers of good news they are far from cute. So Mary is frightened but she is not so scared that she’s unable to puzzle over what the angel is saying. Her mind and heart are fully engaged. And she shows her quality in standing quietly on her feet in a situation where many prophets of the Old Testament were face-down on the floor.
Gabriel says to her:
“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 for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Imagine hearing those words for the first time.
Mary, like all Jewish girls, had been raised to believe that someday a woman of Israel would give birth to a Messiah who would save his people, and who would sit on David’s throne forever. She knew the prophecies. And now here was an angel from God telling her that SHE was that girl – that God loved her very much and had chosen her out of all the women in the nation to be the mother of His Son.
What a woman Mary must have been! She didn’t reach for the nearest chair to sit down or steady herself… she receives this stunning news with an attitude that’s almost like, “OK, no problem”. She was, as an online friend pointed out recently, a woman of incredible chutzpah. And this kind of total chutzpah in the face of eternal reality is the kind of character God seeks… and blesses.
Mary has just one question, and it is a very practical one: “how will this happen, since I don’t have a husband?” Mary wasn’t afraid to talk about the facts of life with a messenger from God! This is an example all of us, myself included, can learn from: God is not at all embarrassed by our bodies, our physicality, or the way our bodies work. It is not a Christian thing to think that spiritual things are higher than physical things – that idea comes from ancient Greek philosophy, not from the God of Israel. Our God sees us holistically and is unashamed to take on human form and do all the things that we do in our bodies.
Gabriel is equally direct in his answer:
“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 kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”
With God nothing is impossible. Have you ever stopped to consider how many people turn to God for healing, or protection, or things like that and yet have problems with believing in the Virgin Birth? The greatest miracle God performs is our salvation, setting the captives free and bringing the dead to life. That’s what’s happening here. For God nothing is impossible.
And Mary, this young teenage girl, having taken it all in, replies with calm humility, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She knows this isn’t going to be easy. She knows she is going to have to explain this unexpected pregnancy to Joseph, and he isn’t going to like it. She knows what she’s doing is risky. But she says “yes” to God, and in doing so gives us a role model for living. Each one of us can follow her lead in saying to God: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according to His Word.”
“O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” AMEN.