Luke 1:26–38 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” 34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.” 38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
“This is the best Christmas gift anyone could give us.” That’s what Tim League said one year ago in neighboring Atlanta, Georgia. Billy Donnelly was even more excited. In a blog put out the same day he called it, “A Christmas Miracle.” They weren’t alone other. Maybe their exuberance was the highest. Maybe their headlines and their talking points the most emphatic, but I still remember how many news outlets carried the news with those type of words. You know what they were talking about? Not to editorialize too much, but they were talking about what is widely now considered a cinematic blunder called The Interview. You remember how that went? Sony got hacked and North Korea was mad because it made fun of them so Sony stopped the release of the movie. Until a Christmas miracle happened and the movie was released on Christmas Day. Now that the movie has actually come out a Twitter user named Stryker probably reviewed it best by saying that overall it “was a really horrible movie.”
I’m not sure anybody would claim that movie anymore as a Christmas miracle. Least of all Luke. But then again, I’m not sure he’d claim Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life either. It’s not that I don’t think Luke wouldn’t enjoy a good Christmas movie. It’s just that I’m fairly certain that he wouldn’t recommend them as a way to access the real spirit of Christmas. And Luke should know. Luke’s the go to guy on Christmas. Mark says nothing about it. Matthew says only enough to establish Jesus’ true identity. And John – well – John is a whole different and profound ballgame. But Luke? Luke takes Christmas and bottles it all up and lets it shine out completely in the single character of Mary. He lets us listen in on her thoughts. He lets us hear her struggles. He lets us sense her doubts and her hesitancy. Really, that’s what’s going on here. Luke is setting up Mary as the quintessential Christmas miracle, the vignette, and the perfect picture of how Christmas happens to us. And why? So we can celebrate the greatest Christmas miracle of all.
Although, honestly, it starts out feeling a whole like more like an economic and spiritual nightmare. Because we start in Nazareth, a city full of nobodies and in a region known only for its encroaching dark paganism and idolatry, Galilee. It’s in this economically and spiritually impoverished area where we find “a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph.” (v. 27) And this Mary? Tradition holds that she was probably somewhere between 12 and 16 and may also have been Joseph’s ward. Perhaps she was even an orphan Joseph was planning to marry when she was of age. And, remarkably, to this teenage girl comes one of only two named angels in the entire Bible. To her comes the archangel, Gabriel. And despite the fact that this highly capable archangel had likely taken an angelic course in human sensitivity training probably hearing, “They’re fragile, Gabriel, and when you show up your immortality and perfection is really going to scare her. Make sure you tell her right away not to be afraid!” Despite the fact that Gabriel was as approachable and kind as was angelically possible – he did say “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you!” (v. 28) – despite the fact that he did everything possible to allay her fears and help her think his visit to her was totally and only good, Mary thinks it feels like she’s living her nightmare.
And you know what did it? It wasn’t the angelic presence that got Mary. That’s what got those Christmas Eve shepherds. But Mary? What got her attention and what got her all worked up were, “his words.” (v. 29) Being highly favored doesn’t sound all that menacing. It raised questions for Mary I’m sure, but what almost certainly got her worked up the most were the words, “The Lord is with you.” (v. 28) Now that is a cause for alarm. At least it is if you spiritually know yourself well, which is a knowledge I’m pretty sure we’d rather not have. As a human race we’re actually sort of sociopathic about it. That’s why history has largely disregarded what here is probably Mary’s eyewitness telling of how weak she was in this moment – how fragile and troubled and doubting she was at the mere suggestion that the Lord was with her. I was reminded of how far we’ve fallen from Luke’s actual history by a historian named Paul Maier. In a book called In the Fullness of Time he says that back in 1854 the Roman Catholic Church decreed that Mary was both sinless and immaculately conceived. These are ideas that – no pun intended – Mary never would have conceived of. Not in a million years. But you know what the truth is? This rewriting of history probably says just as much about us as a human race as it does about Roman Catholicism.
We all want to believe that we’re better than we actually are and we don’t want to believe that being a Mary means owning up to our personal nightmare. We’d much rather watch Christmas movies and rewrite doctrines than do that. So we don’t have to admit what Luke’s actually saying. So we don’t have to notice that even the Lord’s own mother when first confronted with the idea of the Lord’s presence didn’t say, “Yeah, ok. Sounds good!” or confidently muse, “It’s about time he showed up. He’s left me hanging for a little too long.” So we don’t have to see that she panicked probably thinking that God’s holiness would incinerate her not-so-holy-self or melt her sinfulness into oblivion. So we don’t have to look in on her inner anguished dialogue – that’s what Luke meant with the word that’s here translated, “wondering.” (v. 29) She was probably saying to herself, “If he’s with me, he’ll see my thoughts and he’ll know the real me, and I’ll be in big trouble.” So we don’t have to come to grips with that fact that this wasn’t just a teenager with a low self-esteem or a beggarly orphan acting out her socio-economic status. So we don’t have to see ourselves the way Mary viewed herself.
It’s almost amazing how clairvoyant and forward looking Luke is on this point, isn’t it? It’s almost like he knew us. Like he knew we might try to dodge this spiritual bullet. Like he knew we’d try to make it all about trying make Santa’s good list. Like we’d fail to see that everybody made God’s list, but not the good one. Like we’d fail to see our spiritual connection to a Mary whose scared and agitated reactions were not the reactions of some witless teen, but were the clear headed and instant reactions of an orthodox and sincere Christian believer. Do you see what Luke’s up to? Luke wants us to get past the Christmas veneer. To get past the Christmas egg nog and the nice holiday work parties and the Christmas greetings. To find out that the Lord is on his way and just for a moment to say, “Uh oh. That may not end well for me.” Do you see that? Luke wants us to doubt our personal holiness and with deep repentance realize our guilt.
Then and, I might add, only then will we understand the true Christmas miracle. “Do not fear, Mary; you have found favor (or grace!) with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” (v. 32) Do you see what the angel is really up to here? Do not fear, Mary. You have found grace. You will conceive. You are to call him Jesus. Do you see it? This is all for her. To boost her up. To give her confidence. To help her understand. And so he gets personal. He uses her name and then it’s you, you, and you. But that’s actually not the most personal part of the whole deal. Really it isn’t. It gets a whole lot more personal than that… although I’m sort of wondering if I should really call the invasion of her womb something personal. I’m not sure what that is, but I think it’s something more than personal. Which, by the way, if we understand that explains her reaction to this invasion. Having the promise of a fetal, embryonic, kingly Jesus of unknown origins suddenly invade your womb isn’t exactly the type of information that will at first calm the nerves or relieve the doubts. So she understandably asks, “How will this be since I’m a virgin?” (v. 34) And the answer comes, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (v. 35)
And I think that probably did it for Mary. I think that did it. Because Mary recognized that kind of talk as creation talk. Creation was the time before when the “the Spirit hovered.” (Genesis 1:2) Creation was the time before when there was a great darkness that needed piercing with the Spirit’s perfect potentiality and the pure creativity. You can bet your bottom dollar that Mary knew that and that Gabriel’s announcement let her know that this time it was going to happen in her womb. Here the Spirit was going to leverage all his creative power to deal with human darkness through Mary’s conception. Here the Spirit would hover and come down and intervene to conceive the ultimate new man, God Most High. Here the Spirit would cause eternal God to take up Mary’s genetic structures and DNA strands to live in the place of all us unholy ones. He would be the second Adam. The second Mary. The second me and the second you. He would be the me I’m not and the you you aren’t either. He would be holy. He would be righteous. He would be the perfect person who would glow with Christmas spirit more than just a few weeks per year. He would be a true Christmas miracle. He would be the incarnation of God.
And that is a great Christmas miracle – one worth pondering our entire lives. And John 1 is in our Bible’s and it’s there for that reason. But that’s actually not Luke 1’s greatest miracle. True, it’s here, but it’s not Luke 1’s greatest miracle. There’s another miracle here that Luke wants us thinking about – arguably the greatest Christmas miracle of all. It’s what the angel was driving into Mary’s heart this whole encounter. “You are highly favored. The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, Mary. You have found favor. You will conceive. The Holy Spirit will come on you. Your relative will have a miraculous child too.” Do you see it? At the intersection of the person who considers themselves personally guilty and the incarnation happens the greatest Christmas miracle of all. Faith that that incarnation was aimed especially at you. And that is the greatest miracle of all. Really it is. Half the time we’re sort of sociologically blind to our sin and then when we wake up to it even just a bit it can scare us so badly that we have just a terrible time believe that grace is for us. And to at the same time know both? To be a Mary? To be a person who simultaneously understands he should be incinerated and melt in the presence of God, but also believe that that same God sent his Spirit to hover with pure creative power over a young mother named Mary to conceive the second me – a me who would give me the holiness I could not get myself? This is the true Christmas miracle: to believe in both personal sin and personal grace.
And of the two, believing grace is the greater miracle. For Mary, God’s power or holiness was never in question. Mary knew it and sensed it to a powerful degree. It was never what Gabriel tried to help her grasp. What Gabriel drove at; what he preached about; and what he said was all aimed at answering a much higher question: Is this all-capable and holy God for me? Is he for the me whose economic prospects are exactly those of a housemaid from Nazareth? Is he for the me who’s marriage prospects are spectacularly tanking in the moment? Is he for the me who’s self-knowledge of guilt somehow always seems to vacillate between shallower than a kiddie pool and deeper than the Mediterranean? As Gabriel spoke; as the Spirit hovered; and then as Mary held her Son she came to believe the same gospel that’s true for us all. That the Holy One had come to be the second me. To be holy. To be right. To be just. To be me for me before God. And to whatever extent we ponder on him we will access the true Christmas spirit. Not that Miracle on 34th Street is bad or It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t worth watching. But Luke would say that Christmas happens when I – even with all my dark self-knowledge – believe that the Spirit hovered for me and the Christ was conceived for me. Luke would say that that faith is the greatest Christmas miracle of all. Amen.