Yesterday was a little bit different from the average Sunday. It snowed from Friday night straight through to Saturday night, and then the temperature plummeted. We had seven inches of snow and everything was frozen solid. We debated canceling church, but in the end we decided to hold services and just see who came. We got eight people (three of whom were my wife, my daughter, and me.) It was still a success. Whenever God’s Word is offered, He promises to bless it. It is never without fruit, even for a handful. Jesus said, “Wherever two or three come together in My name, there I am with them.”
As I gazed out at the nearly empty church, I wondered: is this a vision of the future? Is this what the Christian church could turn into? Our church seemed emptier with just a few people in it than when I’m the only one in the sanctuary. It emphasized how few we were. The churches in Europe, massive edifices built for the glory of God, routinely have a few old people in them — and nobody else. They simply don’t feel a need for it. America is heading that way, if we’re not already there. God has already promised a famine of His Word if we do not care for it or love it with all our hearts; how long do we have? (Come, Lord Jesus!)
After church I ate lunch with Christi, and then started shoveling snow. I shoveled out our entire driveway. It took four hours. I was beat by the time I was done. Today I took the snowblower in to be repaired — no way I’m doing that again if I can help it. I spent most of Sunday shoveling. It took me an hour and a half to warm up. Ridiculous. I’m actually not sore today, which surprised me…maybe tomorrow.
So yeah…the sermon. This is one that I preached in Port Washington two years ago and resurrected for this Sunday. I swapped out this text for the Gospel for this past Sunday (*cringe*, I know — family things came up and my schedule changed about four times in two days…sometimes it happens.) It still fits though (I wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t.) The Annunciation is a fitting text for Advent, especially later in Advent. Mary’s example of quiet faith is one worthy of emulation by us all. She simply accepts what God tells her, and that’s it. It’s not like she participates in our salvation or anything like that, except in an incidental way; she did get to carry the Savior in her womb and that’s a huge honor which cannot be minimized, but at the same time she was just a person like we are. She still had a sinful nature — I cannot go against clear words of Scripture about the universality of corruption of the natural human heart to the contrary. At the same time, we don’t want to go the Protestant route (notice I didn’t say Lutheran) and tear Mary down and almost push her out of the story entirely. Christ took on human flesh through her, and that’s no small thing. Mary often gets treated shamefully by people who really should know better. We shouldn’t worship her (and no, not all honor to Mary really honors Jesus — sometimes that’s true but by no means always), but let’s not disrespect her either. She never asked to carry God’s Son in her womb, to be the mother of God, but she also wouldn’t want anybody to honor her above her Son, or even equal with Him. Christ alone receives all glory for our salvation.
Mary is one of those topics that I feel out of step with with a lot of what’s called Christianity in America today. I sense there’s a better way about a lot of things (not just Mary), and I’m still searching out what it is. We need to consider the testimony of the historic Church as well. We are fools to ignore history, because ahistorical people make lots of dumb mistakes, and their really terrible mistakes come when they think they’re being smart and innovative. Real, authentic Lutheranism has less and less in common with generic Protestantism the more you look.
At any rate, may the Lord Jesus bless your heart with understanding and faith this Adventide.
In the sixth month, 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 be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name 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 the house of Jacob 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 upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] 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 barren is in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (luke 1.26-38 niv)
Every generation has a day about which everybody living remembers where they were and what they were doing. For some it’s Pearl Harbor, or V-E or V-J Day. For others it’s the day Kennedy was shot. For others it’s 9/11. Some events have burned themselves into the memory of millions in an instant. These events become part of our shared heritage. The same thing happens with individual people too. Some events shape a person’s life. They’re unforgettable. Being laid off from a job, news about the death of a loved one, the day you got married, the day your child was born – these are the kind of things you can remember like they were yesterday. Mary’s going to have one of those moments today. She’s going to get the most astonishing news anybody’s ever heard. But she – and we – will learn that God’s power can’t be stopped. Nothing is Impossible for God – Believe It!
Luke begins our account in his usual detailed fashion: “In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendent of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” It doesn’t seem like the angel showed his glorious form fully to Mary. We know that angels often would look like people in the Bible, so perhaps this is one of those times. At any rate, it’s what the angel says that will get Mary’s attention, not how he looks.
“Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you!” Huh? Is he talking to me? This is confusing to Mary, because she knows she’s not anybody special. She’s just a young girl, someone you wouldn’t look twice at. She knows she’s not a super-saint, not a hero of faith like Moses or David. In fact Mary is conscious that she needs God’s help and mercy every day, and his forgiveness when she falls short. It’s precisely this awareness on Mary’s part that is the cause of her confusion. Here she is, someone who has to rely on God for forgiveness and strength, and yet the angel is addressing her as someone who has found favor with God.
It gets better. The angel tells her, “You’re going to have a son.” Then the angel starts describing what this Son will be like, and he sounds more like God than a man. He’s going to be the Son of the Most High, which is a title for God. He’s going to sit on the throne of his father David, he’s going to rule like David did – but better. David ruled only for forty years; this child will rule forever. His reign is never going to end. He will be king over the house of Jacob to the end of time, and beyond. Nobody will be able to knock the crown off this child’s head.
Mary’s head is swimming. The angel is reeling off these grand, glorious, shining promises from God and she has no idea how any of this fits together. Questions about herself and about her child are racing through her head. She’s going to be pregnant and have a son? She’s not even married yet! She and Joseph are betrothed, which is a binding promise equivalent to marriage, they’re not living together yet or having children. It’s not possible for her to have a son yet! And what about this child? He’s going to be a human baby obviously, because Mary is human, but how will he reign forever? Is God going to let her son live forever? How will he get to be king? Her family had no power brokers or famous or influential relatives. Besides, the Romans are in charge right now and they’re not going to just politely leave if someone asks nicely. What does ‘Son of the Most High’ mean? It sounds like God is his father, but how is that even possible? God is infinite. The highest heavens cannot contain him. How can he have a son like people have sons? What’s going on?
Mary sits there for a moment, trying to absorb all this. Then she asks the million dollar question: “How will this be?” How is this even possible? I know that what you tell me is true, because you’re God and you cannot lie to me. I want to believe these promises – they’re so great! They hold out so much. They’re so wonderful. But I just don’t see any way for this to work! This doesn’t even seem possible, given the way things are right now. How is this going to work out, Lord?
Have you ever asked a question like that? There are times in our lives when everything seems to flip upside down. There are only questions and no answers – or the answers are ones you’d rather not think about. Our lives change constantly, full of doubt and uncertainty. This can get really stressful because you never know what’s coming. Sometimes we just want to know, so that we don’t have to endure the constant uncertainty.
When we run into problems and trials like these we may remember great promises from God’s Word – grand, glorious, shining promises. The kind of promises Christians share with each other when they don’t know what else to say. We know God is with us and that he’s got a plan and he’s using all things for our good. Yet we look at the mess that our lives seem to be, and we ask, “How will this be?” How will you help me here, Lord? I don’t see any way that this can turn out well. I don’t know how this is going to go.
I want to believe your promises, Lord, but I’m not sure yet. Can I see some details? Just a couple would be fine. I’d like to know what’s coming. Can you give me something more than just telling me you’re with me? I want to believe that but it’s not good enough all on its own. I’ll trust you, if you can show me what you want to do with me. Then I’ll put my trust in you. What kind of trust is that? A faith that wants to see details of God’s plan before agreeing to trust in him isn’t really faith at all. It’s doubt. It only seems reasonable to our flesh to ask for more from God before we trust in him, but that’s refusal to trust God. Unwillingness to simply take God at his word – nobody will be saved who has that in their heart. Not you, not me, not anybody.
So how do you answer the doubts that put off faith, that defer it until God can show his plan to our satisfaction? The answer that Mary got to her question is the answer to all our doubts as well. Gabriel doesn’t really tell Mary a whole lot. What he does tell her doesn’t explain much, but it’s all the answer you ever need to dispel doubt. “The Holy Spirit will come upon 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.” In a miraculous way, in a way we can’t even begin to understand, the infinite, almighty, eternal Son took on flesh and was contained in the womb of a virgin. God and man were united, the all-powerful and the tiny, the eternal and the frail. Jesus flexed his almighty power and chose to enter the world he created the same way we all do: by being born as a baby. He came to reign in holiness. Everything he did was holy, right, and good. That baby, the Son of the Most High, was going to grow to be a man, and that man was going to go to a cross and die to give you everything you need. Then he was going to rise from the dead because now you are holy, righteous, and good. He came because we needed someone to sit on David’s throne, to make us his holy people forever. You are part of God’s holy people, the house of Jacob – your sins are all forgiven and you’re going to live forever, just as Jesus, your King, does. That baby in Mary’s womb answers all of your doubts. Jesus is the answer for your doubts, because he overcame all obstacles – even death itself – and proved that nothing stops God’s power.
Nothing is impossible for God. God says: Don’t worry about how! Leave it to me! I can do anything; I can do everything. I can give a child to a woman that everybody thought was barren. I can bring my Son into the world despite having a virgin for a mother. I can do things that nobody else can do, and I’ll do them for you. Whatever your problem is that’s beyond understanding – even how you’re going to be freed from your sins, even how you’re going to find peace for your conscience, even how you’re going to live after you die – God says: I will take care of it. I provide for you, every day. I forgive your sins. I heal your diseases. I protect your life and I keep you safe and watch over you by my almighty power. I hear all your prayers and answer them in better ways than you can even dream of. I heal your hurts and I give you peace that takes away pain and I give you strength to keep going. I the Lord do all these things. I can do anything, and I will – for you.
Mary didn’t understand how it was all going to work out, but then again, she didn’t have to. Faith is like that. It doesn’t need details. You need nothing else if you have God’s promise to hold on to. So look to God’s Word, cling to his promise, and leave the rest to him. Nothing is impossible for God. So believe it! Amen.