26 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.
The annual tournament for the National Chess Association was held this year at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel right here in beautiful Staunton, Virginia. Chess enthusiasts came from far and near to participate in, or just to watch, this tournament of some of the greatest chess players in the world.
I enjoy playing chess, so I called up my friend, who is a reporter for the local paper, and invited him to go with me to the tournament. When we got to the hotel, we walked through the front door and into the main lobby. When we entered the lobby we saw two well-known chess players arguing about who was the best. Like two-year-olds, they went back and forth, “I am!” “No, I am.”
The next day my journalist friend had an article on the front page of the paper, but rather than writing about the tournament, he wrote about what we saw in the lobby when we first arrived. The title of his article was “Chess nuts boasting in an open foyer.”
There is a really good chance that if you are a Christian you have heard this passage before. This is the standard text for the final Sunday before Christmas. We find Mary, not much older than a child herself, being visited by an angel who tells her that she will soon be having a baby. But Mary was understandably confused by this because she had never been with a man. She was betrothed to a guy named Joseph, but they had not done the things that need to be done to have children.
Mary was being too rational; she was overthinking this one. Because she wasn’t going to be having Joseph’s baby. She was pregnant with the son of God. Of course, this makes much more sense…right? If you have grown up in the church, you probably know the story so well that you haven’t given it much thought. But this was a pretty new idea to Mary.
But sometimes people get caught up in the details that the text leaves out. People want to know things like, “Did Jesus look like Mary? Did he have her nose?” The question here is whether or not Jesus had some of Mary’s DNA or if she simply provided the womb. Often people argue for different positions depending on other presuppositions. For instance, if you believe that Jesus did share DNA with Mary, if Jesus was Mary and God’s son, then you also probably need to believe that Original Sin is passed on through the male parent. Women don’t pass on this trait. Therefore, since God was Jesus’ father, and God is not subject to Original Sin, Jesus was also free of this.
The point that I am trying to make is that a lot of people spend a lot of time missing the point. The point is that Mary knew the troubles she would face, and she still took on the responsibility of bringing Jesus into the world.
She accepted this gift of life in her womb with very little hesitation. And she knew that it would cause her trouble. She knew that the punishment for adultery was to be stoned until dead, and she also knew that the whole, “But I am a virgin, and this is God’s baby” excuse probably wasn’t going to get her too far. She knows that she could lose her future husband, lose her family, and even lose her own life over this. But her answer is clear we she is presented with the idea of bringing Jesus into the world. She says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”
Consider it this way. Next Sunday, December 28, after the morning worship service, Sonya, the children and I will pack up the Subaru and head north and west. I grew up in northeast Ohio in the northern part of Wayne County, where we will be going to celebrate Christmas. People there know me, they know my parents, and they know my family. Even if I don’t know someone personally, there is a really good chance that I know someone that they know. We’re talking about a community of about 1,000 people. Chances are I’m going to see people that I know every time I go back to Ohio.
There are no hotels in my hometown. You don’t have to drive very far to find one, but in the immediate area around the place I grew up, you can’t find a motel, hotel, or inn. And being the frugal person that I am, I wouldn’t want to pay to stay somewhere anyway. So when we travel to Ohio, we stay with my parents. If for some reason my parents weren’t able to accommodate us, I have two brothers who have homes of their own and my grandfather has some space in his house as well. The best man from our wedding lives in the area, as does a good friend of mine from seminary. If I needed a place to stay, they would probably help me out.
When Sonya and I were married close to twelve years ago, her out-of-town family stayed in the homes of friends from our church, and at no charge. I would think that these same friends would offer me a place to stay if I really needed it. And depending on who the person is, some may even be more inclined to offer me a place to stay when they find out that I have young children. It would be easy to tell me to get lost, but who would turn away a friend or family member that needed a place to stay, especially in Ohio at the end of one of the coldest months of the year, when they have children?!
You would assume that if I returned to the home of my ancestors for a brief period of time accompanied by my wife and young children, someone who shares some connection with me would offer me a place to at least get out of the cold.
Now assume that rather than having children my wife was 9-months pregnant. Who in my hometown would turn us away? Maybe a few would, but not everyone.
We need to remember that Bethlehem was a city of about 5 to 600 people at the beginning of the 1st century. This puts Bethlehem right there at about the size of my hometown. Yet we are told in Luke’s gospel that when Joseph and Mary went back to his hometown because of a census, they could not find a place to stay. You would have to assume that even if Joseph and his family had lived away from town for a number of years, decades, or even generations, that Joseph would still have some kind of connection in this small town.
Perhaps that is why there was no room at the inn.
Sure, the city was filled with people from out of town because of the census. But I wonder if there was no place for Mary and Joseph to stay because she was rejected on account of what looked like infidelity. Did Mary and Joseph’s trouble with finding a place to stay have anything to do with her pregnancy and the social stigma that came along with being an unmarried teenager in the 1st century and for Joseph not following through with what was commanded in the Law?
So when we talk about the faith of Mary, I hope that we do not take for granted the separation that carrying the son of God caused between her and her family. She was rejected by the people that loved her the most. Nowhere in the Bible do we read anything about Jesus’ grandparents. Only a second cousin, John the Baptist, whose parents also received a divine message, is mentioned.
Sometimes we Christians in the 21st century think that we have it tough. Someone wants to say “Happy Holidays,” or call it a “Holiday Tree,” and we claim that we are being persecuted. Most of us don’t know what it is like to really suffer for Jesus. Rather than focusing on what little “suffering” we may endure for Jesus, I think we can learn a thing or two from Mary. Mary did not seem to worry about her own suffering. She did not seem to focus on the price she would have to pay. Rather than focusing on the pain and suffering that she may have to endure, she focused on the blessings.
One thing that I think is often skipped over when we focus on Mary is that she had a life before she became pregnant with the savior or the world. For obvious reasons, that whole giving life to Jesus thing seems to define much of her life. But notice that before she even agrees to this whole idea of giving birth to Jesus, how does the angel address her? Gabriel says in verse 4, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
You who are highly favored? That’s a strange sentence, isn’t it? The word in the original Greek is χαριτόω, which when conjugated in the form we find it in this passage literally means something like “one who is blessed.” I preferred this translation because I don’t think God has favorites, like God loved Mary more than someone else. What the angel is recognizing isn’t that God prefers Mary over other young women. He is recognizing that she has already been blessed by God.
We think of Mary responding to the angel Gabriel and because she accepts this calling that will likely de-rail her entire life plan she is blessed by God. But she was blessed before she ever met Gabriel. And because she is blessed, she accepts this calling that will forever change her life and the world as we know it.
This makes me think of a passage from the Old Testament that we don’t usually associate with Advent: Genesis 12. In Genesis 12 we find what is commonly referred to as the “calling of Abraham.” In this story, God calls a man named Abram and invites him to go to a place that God will show him. And if Abram does this, God will provide him with land, livestock, and something that had eluded him for 75 years: a family.
I am reminded of this story for a number of reasons. The first is that Abraham had things pretty well figured out. He had money and livestock in his home country, and at 75-years-old, he had probably come to terms with not having a family. But he left behind the known and the comfortable for the unknown. And he did this on nothing more than faith.
The other thing that I am reminded of in this story is the promise that God makes Abraham to bless him. And one of the reasons God says that he is going to bless Abraham is so that Abraham can be a blessing to others. The end of chapter 12, verse 3 is as clear as can be, “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Mary wasn’t blessed by God because she was faithful. She was faithful because she was blessed. And through Mary, all the world has been blessed.
Christmas is a wonderful time to reflect upon all of the blessings in our lives. I know that this has been a hard year for many people. This may be the first Christmas you spend without a loved one. Perhaps you are needing to cut back on your spending this year because you lost a job or your wages were cut. Maybe you lost a home, or lost some kind of security. But as long as you have air in your lungs and food in your belly, you have been blessed and have something to be thankful for.
I want to leave you all with this video of a former professional football player who had it made. Millions of dollars, fame, attention. And he sacrificed it all to help others. Because he had been blessed, he was faithful and chose to be a blessing to others. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOL2zTgweMs
May we take time this Christmas to recall the ways that God has blessed us. And may we use those blessings to step out in faith, even when it makes no sense to those around us, so that we may be a blessing to others. Like Abraham leaving his home and becoming a blessing to all nations. Like a professional football player leaving a career to grow potatoes just to give them away. Like a betrothed virgin who said, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”