This story from Luke’s gospel is familiar to us. Not as familiar, of course, as the story of Jesus’ birth, but familiar enough. So let’s talk about what we know…
The angel’s name is Gabriel, and while it is hard to think of an angel in terms of gender, that’s not exactly a name for a female. So, we will refer to Gabriel as “he.” Gabriel is sent by God, according to the gospel of Luke, to a town in Galilee called Nazareth. His purpose is to pay a visit to a young girl named Mary. Mary is betrothed to a man whose name is Joseph. Joseph is of the house of David.
That’s important, that Joseph is descended from King David. In fact, it’s a very important bit of information that, because of our familiarity with the story, we tend sometimes to read over quickly. Luke is not a novelist, he’s a historian. But still, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, it’s important for a writer to establish his or her characters early. You want to get your readers emotionally involved with the people in your story. So, you provide as much information about them as quickly as you can. You fill in the blank spaces, whet our appetites for more, and keep us involved in the game.
We’re still very early in Luke’s gospel, but already he is concerned with bloodline. Actually, he’s more interested in how the elements of this unfolding story fit into the framework of a larger story; namely, how God has chosen to enter the world in human form… and in whom God chooses to do it. Luke wants his readers to know how, as the story unfolds, what is about to happen is connected with what has already occurred, with what they already know to be true.
Gabriel is going to give news about a birth, and it’s important for us to know that the child to be brought into the world is a descendent of David, king of Israel, the man after God’s own heart. That’s very important.
Gabriel informs this young girl that she will conceive a child, that she will bear a son. Notice, if you will, that he doesn’t get her permission. He doesn’t go to her parents, who aren’t even mentioned. Remember, this is the first century. Mary is her father’s property. I know, I know, we don’t think that way any more, but they did. If you wonder why Jesus didn’t have much to do with social convention, just realize that he’s a chip off the old block. God doesn’t let that kind of stuff get in his way either. So Gabriel bypasses the folks and goes directly to Mary herself.
But he doesn’t get her permission either. He just lets her know that as far as God is concerned, this is a done deal. Another thing as well… She doesn’t even get to name her own child. That too has been decided already. I guess, when you’re favored by God – as Gabriel tells Mary she is – you give up the right to such things. After all, Gabriel tells her, her son “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 ancestor David.”
Who can argue with that?
So now it’s beginning to make sense. Now we see how the pieces fit together. The dots are starting to connect. Jesus, who is descended from David through his earthly father Joseph, will assume the throne that for so long has been abandoned to petty political forces. Not only that, but Jesus will reign over the house of Jacob – now the lineage goes back even farther than David, all the way to Jacob – and his kingdom will never end. God has a plan to restore the house of Israel through the lineage of David. God is now beginning to fulfill the promise he made to David through Nathan centuries before, that God would build David a house… a throne that would be “established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16).
You can see the recognition in Mary’s eyes. Even though she is not allowed in the area of the synagogue where the men are taught, she has learned a number of things in her few years on earth. She knows full well about the hope of Israel, that the long-awaited Messiah would come and reclaim Israel’s dominance in the world. Could it be true, that this is the time it is happening, and that she is the one who has been chosen by God to give birth to this new king?
But just as the recognition of it all starts coming into focus, things get blurred again. Reality sets in and questions arise in her heart, not to mention in her throat. Wait a minute, “How can this be? I’ve never known a man. I’m betrothed, there are laws about this sort of thing. How about filling in the blanks for me, Gabriel.”
According to Luke, this is what Gabriel told Mary, “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 holy; he will be called Son of God.”
May I paraphrase? “Leave all the details up to God, little lady, leave it all up to God.”
He then tells her about her cousin Elizabeth, who is also with child… in the sixth month, to be exact. He doesn’t come right out and tell her to pay Elizabeth a visit, but we know she did. That was without doubt a good idea. Elizabeth is older and can help her young cousin wade through all the obvious difficulties involved in such a sticky situation. You see, Elizabeth will understand in a way that no one else can. Her priest husband Zechariah has been visited by an angel too. And while he can’t talk about it at the moment, he can at least confirm for Mary that this isn’t all a dream. Angels really do come calling. They really do.
These are the elements of the story that we know.
But somewhere, along the way, we have to think about what we don’t know. And what we don’t know is what happened after the angel left the room.
You know how it is… someone asks you a tough question, or you’re faced with a difficult situation. Later, you slap yourself on the forehead and say, “I wish I’d said this…” You never think of the right – or clever – response at the time. It only comes later. “I wish I’d said that…”
Was that the way it was with Mary? “Why didn’t I ask Gabriel this while I had the chance?” “Will Joseph stick around? Will my parents still love me? Will my friends stand by me or will I get dragged into town and stoned..? Will the pregnancy go all right? Will the labor be hard? Will there be someone there to help me when my time comes? Will I know what to do? You say the child will be king of Israel, but what about me? Will I survive his birth? What about me?”1
All the angels in heaven couldn’t possibly prepare Mary for what she would be experiencing. That’s just not the way it works. You’ve got to go through it before you know what it’s like. The only way you really can understand it is in hindsight.
A PASTOR SAYS: “When there has been an emergency I have used the sermon as the outline for my own. Everything is appropriate to my congregation––challenging and interesting information that speaks to them, not down to them. Thank you for a very useable resource.”
A thousand sparks to spark your imagination!
When we were in seminary, Gerry and Julie Claybrook, our best friends, lived in the apartment above us. Julie was the clinic nurse at the school, and one of the routine things she did was advise expectant mothers. And in seminary there were quite a few of those. “When you reach this stage, this will happen,” Julie would tell the nervous mothers-to-be. “When you get to this point, that will happen. This is what the birth will be like, etc., etc.” That was part of Julie’s job, and she did it quite well. She was then, and is now, a very compassionate and understanding person.
Then Julie conceived her first son, Kyle. A couple of weeks before her due date in February, she called Nita Taylor, another of our seminary friends. Nita had given birth in October to her little girl Amy. “Nita,” Julie asked her, “what’s it really like?”
“Gabriel, what’s it really going to be like?” Oh, how Mary wishes she had asked that when he was still there. Now, Gabriel is gone. The answer man – or, angel – has left the room. But it wouldn’t have done any good for her to have asked. It really wouldn’t. You see, we never know what to expect until the time for expectation is over. We never know what to expect until it happens and we’ve experienced it for ourselves.
That’s true in regard to just about everything that ever happens to us in life. And it’s true when it comes to the faith journey we all find ourselves on. You can make all the plans you want, but what is they say..? Life gets in the way. Life happens.
That was certainly true for Mary. Again, let’s talk about what we know. There was the temple incident when Jesus was twelve, when Mary and Joseph had to go back to Jerusalem to retrieve their son. They found him in the temple, and they found him hardly less than contrite about the whole thing. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
There was the wedding at Cana. “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” Sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it?
One time Jesus was teaching in Capernaum when Mary came with her other children to ask him to come home. When he hears they are outside the house calling for him, he looks at those who are seated around him and says, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Frankly, if we didn’t know any better, we’d think there were problems between Jesus and his mother. But Gabriel had said nothing about that possibility. Oh no. And Mary hadn’t thought to ask (hand to the forehead). Not at the time anyway. If such thoughts came to her, it was after the angel had left the room.
All this, not to mention what happened at Calvary. She was there, Mary was, I will remind you. At the foot of his cross… she was there.
My guess is that if you had an opportunity to ask Mary, “If you had it to do all over again would you have still said yes?” she would tell you that it was the greatest honor any woman could possibly receive… that even with the pain she had to endure, the uncertainty that came with raising this special child, the sense of estrangement that came with knowing that while he was her son he didn’t belong to her as much as he belonged to the world, the pain of seeing him die like a criminal… that despite all this, had she to do it over again she would still have said yes. She would still have said yes.
Would you? Would I? I think – I really do think – that is a question we should try to answer this Christmas. There comes the time for all of us, for each of us, when God comes calling. How we respond is eternally important. What we do after the angel has left the room tells the real story, does it not?
So, the next time an angel comes into your room and says, “Have I got a proposition for you!” just say yes. Then, put on your seatbelt and get ready to take a ride, because when the angel leaves the room, life is about to happen.
Lord, as life happens to us, may we find your presence to be as real as did Mary when she was visited by the angel. And when you ask anything of us, may our response be the same as hers. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995), pp. 151-152.
––Copyright 2005, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.