by The Reverend Bryn MacPhail
Scripture: Luke 1:26-38
Here we go again. Another Christmas will soon be here and our routine is pretty much the same. Our Christmas decorations are the same. The Christmas dinner menu is the same. Our hymn selection, and our order of service, is the same.
As creatures of habit, we run the risk of celebrating Christmas as if it were ordinary. We’ve done the ‘Christmas thing’ so many times before and, as a result, many of us approach Christmas and we are no longer thinking deeply about its meaning and its relevance for our lives.
And yet, I submit to you that the Christmas story should shock us; it is a one-of-a-kind story.
The story is so unique, so special, so powerful, that it requires angels—at seemingly every turn—to announce what is about to take place.
Zacharias the priest is in the temple for the burning of incense when the angel Gabriel appears to him. Do you remember Zacharias’ response?
‘Well, hello there Gabriel, great of you to join me! By the way, you look marvelous! How do you keep your wings in such great shape?’
No! This was no ordinary encounter. Luke explains that Zacharias was terrified by the mere presence of the angel (1:12). Such was the reaction of the shepherds in the field. These rough-tough shepherds, accustomed to all kinds of dangerous situations, are utterly frightened by the appearance of an angel (2:9).
We need to put away this notion that angels are serene, harp-playing, creatures who speak in gentle tones. No, the glory of angels is such that their appearance to human beings is nothing short of overwhelming for those who are met by them.
Gabriel appears this time to announce the impending birth of the Messiah. It is important to note that Gabriel makes this announcement in an unlikely context, to an unlikely recipient, while explaining that the conception of this Child is by an unlikely means.
Our text begins, "in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin's name was Mary"(1:26, 27).
The reference to "the sixth month" is likely a reference to the 6th month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, which is described, in the preceding verses.
The reference to “Nazareth” sounds ordinary enough to you and I, but it would have been shocking—if not scandalous—for a 1st Century Jewish audience to hear. The common expectation was that God’s Messiah would be from Judea, which was, ‘the heartland of God’s work through the centuries’ (R. Kent Hughes).
Instead, God chose the city of Nazareth, described as ‘a shoddy, corrupt halfway stop between the two port cities of Tyre and Sidon, (and) overrun by Gentiles and Roman soldiers (Hughes, Luke, 29). You may remember the statement made by Nathaniel in John’s Gospel, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (Jn. 1:46).
And we must not forget that Mary was an unlikely recipient of this grand announcement. Extrabiblical accounts agree in their presentation of Mary as a young peasant girl. How young? At most, Mary was a young teenager (Hughes, Luke, 31).
The Reformer, Martin Luther, commenting on God’s choice of Mary, remarked, “He might have gone to Jerusalem and picked Caiaphas’s daughter, who was fair, rich, clad in gold embroidered raiment and attended by a group of maids in waiting. But (instead) God preferred (to choose) a lowly maid from a (despised) town.”
Two thousand years ago, an unlikely young teenager, from an unlikely town was ‘touched by an angel’ . . . and the world has never been the same.
Gabriel greets Mary, saying, "Hail, favoured one! The Lord is with you"(1:28). Now, interestingly, of all the angelic appearances within the Christmas story, young Mary is the one person who is not portrayed as being totally frightened by the angel’s appearance. Instead, Luke writes that Mary was “greatly troubled”—not by Gabriel’s appearance, but by the angel’s greeting “and (she) kept pondering what kind of salutation this might be” (1:29).
Immediately, Gabriel attempts to put Mary’s mind at ease, "Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end" (1:30-33).
The child promised to Mary is no ordinary child. Gabriel promises that the child "will be great"(1:32). How great? Of Jesus, Gabriel says that He "will be called the Son of the Most High "(1:32).
That is to say that we are not celebrating the birth of a mere prophet, nor are we celebrating the birth of merely a good moral teacher. The Son of the Most High God is about to enter in to human history, and He is going to do it in a very unexpected way: Jesus, God’s Son, will be conceived in a virgin’s womb.
There is a vital connection between our belief in the virgin birth and our belief that Jesus is the Son of God. Some folks would like to believe in the latter without acquiescing to the former, but the words of the angel Gabriel do not allow us that option.
Mary responds to Gabriel’s question by asking, “How shall this be, since I am a virgin?” (1:34). Mary’s question differs from Zacharias’ question. Mary is not disbelieving; she is asking for more information. Her question is a biological one.
Accordingly, Gabriel’s answer addresses how the normal biological processes are going to be amended, "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"(1:35).
The word "therefore" connects the two statements. The New American Standard Bible does so in a more explicit manner, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the Holy offspring shall be called the Son of God” (1:35).
Now, in emphasizing that Jesus is God, I would not want us to miss the fact that Jesus was also fully human. Looking again at Luke 1:31: "Behold”, says the angel to Mary, “you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a son." We attach significance to the fact that the Son of God was conceived and was born because He did not have to come to us this way. The Son of God could have simply appeared on earth; He could have skipped childhood and simply shown up when it was time to fulfill His ministry. Theoretically, Jesus did not have to be born.
We see examples of this in the Old Testament where God appears in the likeness of human form and is referred to as “the angel of the Lord” (see Gen. 16; Gen. 22; Ex. 3). In these instances, God appeared on earth without the need of a human mother, and without human birth.
But now, the second member of the Trinity comes, not only as God, but also as a fully human person. And to be fully human one must be born as humans are born—through the womb and birth canal of a human woman. "You will conceive in your womb and bring forth a son" is to emphasize the humanness of Jesus.
The greatness of Jesus then, spoken of by the angel Gabriel, is based first of all, on His nature. Jesus was both fully God, and fully human.
At Christmas, we are celebrating that God came to us in a baby named Jesus. As the author of Hebrews describes Him, "(Jesus) is . . . the exact representation of (God's) nature, and upholds all things by His powerful word"(Heb. 1:3).
Because Jesus was fully God, we should do more than celebrate His birth. We must regard Him as God and worship Him. We must turn to Jesus as our Saviour from sin. And we must follow Him daily as the Lord of all things.
I don’t think it is too strong to say that we need to submit ourselves to Jesus.
As I consider what Christ came to this earth to do; as I consider that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” to die for us (Jn. 3:16), I begin to think more about how I can respond to that love. I begin to think more about how I should be celebrating Christmas, because I reckon that some of our Christmas routines do not do justice to the profundity of the occasion.
For Mary, the message of the angel Gabriel inspired her faith in God’s promises, causing her to reply, “May it be done to me according to your word” (1:38).
Have you ever said, and can you say today, ‘Lord Jesus, I am Yours. May it be done to me as You have said’?
Mary’s faith led to tremendous blessing. And we should want that for ourselves and for our family. We need not wait for an angel’s appearance when we have the testimony of God Himself, given in the Person of Jesus His Son.
Christmas should remind us, Mary’s words of faith should remind us, to begin each day praying, ‘Lord, may it be done to me according to your word.’
In other words, recognize that God has a plan for you. More than that, give yourself over to God’s plan.
Indeed, Christmas is our reminder that God has a plan — He has a good and perfect plan for each of His children. May it be done to us according to what God has said in Christ. Amen.
Sermons, Bible Commentaries, Bible Analyses on Annunciation to St. Mary
Malankara World Special on St. Mary
Malankara World Special on Shunoyo of St. Mary
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