Let It Be to Me According to Your Word
|The Annunciation by Caravaggio|
The text for today is Luke 1:26-38.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Six months have passed since Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah the priest that his wife, Elizabeth, will bear a son. That, in itself is an astonishing announcement, for both are very old, decades beyond normal childbearing years. It’s the kind of biological impossibility that might make the front page of the National Enquirer—“Elderly Couple Conceives! Father Speechless!”
But within the angel’s announcement is even bigger news. This son, whom they are to give the name John, will, by the power of the Holy Spirit, go out in the power and spirit of Elijah, calling God’s people to repentance and preparing them for the coming of the Lord. He will be the forerunner of the Christ.
Now the Lord sends His messenger on another mission. This time Gabriel goes not to the holy city of Jerusalem, but to the backwater town of Nazareth in Galilee, a garrison town in the northern high country, one not even worthy to be mentioned in the Old Testament. Gabriel goes not to the temple but to a house; not to an aged priest but to a young maiden. The promised son to Zechariah and Elizabeth is in answer to their many years of fervent prayers; the promised Son to Mary is a totally unexpected surprise to her, even as it is the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation established before the foundation of the world and His ancient promise of the Seed of the woman who will crush Satan’s head.
The angel says: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” Understandably, appropriately, Mary is troubled. Wouldn’t you be? It’s not every day that you see an angel. I wouldn’t expect to see one in a dozen lifetimes. I’m not that special. Neither are you. Nor really is this humble Nazarene girl who is busy planning her wedding. There’s not something special about Mary herself.
To be favored, or “graced,” is to be on the receiving end of God’s undeserved kindness. That’s what grace is, undeserved kindness, without any merit or worthiness in me. There is no need to make of Mary any more than she is. No need to make her sinless or to turn her virginity into some sort of credential with God. She is “favored by God,” fallen daughter of Eve though she is, she is nonetheless chosen by God for this unique honor and responsibility.
As Mary tries to figure out what this means, the angel repeats, “You have found favor with God,” emphasizing that Mary is the object of God’s favor not the reason for it. So there is no need to fear, for God is good and gracious. When He bestows something you can count on it.
And what will He bestow? Well, here’s where it gets a little dicier: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus. He 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 father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”
I’m sure that once she calmed down, Mary heard echoes of the prophets. She knew her Bible. She knew the promise to David through the prophet, Nathan, that a son of David would sit on the throne and establish his kingdom forever. What she finds out here is that out of all the girls in Israel, of all the daughters of Zion throughout history, she has been chosen by God to be the mother of the Promised One, the Seed of the woman, the Son of David, the Son of God.
Mary’s question is almost comical, a strange blend of naïve innocence and childlike faith: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” You have to love a question like that! Mary doesn’t doubt that it’s going to happen, she just wants to know the mechanics because, let’s face it, everyone knows that virgins don’t conceive, and when a girl shows up pregnant, there isn’t going to be anyone to believe she’s still a virgin.
In contrast to Zechariah’s skeptical question, Mary wonders in faith: “How will this be?” But even then, Gabriel’s answer requires faith. For how do you explain “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you?” Here, my friends, is the mystery of Christmas. If you can accept this miracle, then you can believe any of God’s other promises. The infinite God, the almighty Word through whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together, takes up residence in the Virgin’s womb and becomes man. The Creator becomes the creature. The fullness of Deity deigns to dwell bodily in the womb of a human mother. And God embraces and redeems our humanity from its most basic and helpless form, a zygote, all that He might go to die on the cross for the forgiveness of sins—the world’s and yours!
Martin Luther explains in a very clear and simple way how it happens that Mary becomes pregnant: “The angel Gabriel brings the Word: ‘Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son…’ With these words Christ comes not only into her heart, but also into her womb, as she hears, grasps, and believes it. No one can say otherwise, than that the power comes through the Word.”
Mary got pregnant through her ears. It sounds strange, I know, but it’s true. She hears the Word and conceives. And here she stands in counterpart to another woman, the first woman. Eve hearkened to the lie and she was deceived. The one who was named “the mother of all living,” brought sin and death and darkness by her doubt and disobedience of God’s Word. Mary hears the Word, believes it, and she conceives the One who is Life and Light and forgiveness and grace and mercy.
Mary is a wonderful example of childlike faith. “Let it be to me according to your Word,” she says. Now, that doesn’t mean that Mary’s knowledge of God and His Word is limited or unimportant. You only need to hear her Magnificat to realize that Mary is steeped in the Old Testament psalms and canticles. She knows her Scripture and Catechism backwards and forwards.
And it doesn’t mean that Mary suspends all reason either. After all, she does ask, “How will this be?” not “How can this be?” Mary simply hears God’s Word through the angel and she accepts it as true, no matter how impossible it sounds, because it is God’s Word, and He is totally reliable and able to keep His Word.
Such faith is a virtue, a good work; but it is a good work that God begins and completes in us. It is a good work that is not planned for in advance, but given spontaneously as a gift. Faith is not a work that can stand much scrutiny. It rises up unbidden. If we start to examine it too closely, it gets weird, even destroyed. That’s what makes Mary’s faith such a good example. Hers is a childlike faith, not planned, not examined, but a Word of promise simply accepted for the sake of its Source. Mary believes because the same Holy Spirit, who, working through the Word, conceives a child in her womb, creates faith in her heart.
Children have no awareness of the mortgage or utility bills or the cost of groceries. Children think the places they stay are their houses. They never wonder if they will have light or heat or food or be safe from harm. They never consider how those things get to be there in the first place. They simply expect those things to be there, and that Dad will come home at night after work and love Mom. That’s faith.
It is only when something is terrible wrong that children worry about where they will sleep or about bankers or the utilities or if they’ll be safe or that they even consider the possibility that Dad might not come home. We never think of those things when it comes to our heavenly Father because we live by faith. It is our experience that God keeps His Word and that He will take care of us.
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary says. “Let it be to me according to your word.” This is not a statement of reason or emotion, but of faith. Mary doesn’t know how this can all work out. She simply expects that God will keep His Word, that she will be provided for, no matter how impossible the situation.
Faith is trust. God’s children believe. Like Mary, we believe that God is good and He loves us despite our sins or current situation. We believe that the Lord keeps His promises. We believe that His Word is true. We are like children who understand that our houses are our houses, that He will come back, that He will love the Church, our mother. We believe that He will be faithful to us, because He has always been faithful and He has said that He will continue to be!
To be sure, our faith is not perfect. We have fallen asleep and given in to our sinful flesh. We have listened to the skeptics, the confused, and the false brothers far too often. But our faith must not be in our faith—our faith must be placed in the object of our faith, our Lord Jesus Christ and His work and His Word.
In a way, Mary is also a picture of every baptized believer and so then of the Church. You, too, are favored by God, a recipient of His undeserved kindness. The Holy Spirit came upon you in your Baptism, and the power of God working through the Word has shadowed over you and Christ takes up residence in and among you. He dwells with you by His Word as you dwell in Him by faith.
And the Lord sends His messengers to bring the Good News to you. No, not angels! God has appointed pastors to fill that task. Week after week, He sends to you a flesh and blood redeemed sinner just like you to speak His Word to you. And the extraordinary Word that he says to you is this: “The Lord be with you.”
These are pretty much the same words that Gabriel spoke that troubled Mary so. They may not trouble you at all, but this may not be a good thing, but rather a symptom of the age in which we live. Contemporary religion likes to keep God good and general and not-too-identified. That way it’s up to you to determine what He’s like and where He is to be found for you. So, if you say “The Lord be with you” to the average somewhat-spiritual person, they will respond, “I know that.” But if you ask them to point, specifically, to where He is, you might get a funny look. God is considered to be very abstract and vague these days.
But “The Lord be with you” is not a wish, rather it is a statement of awesome truth. The Lord is with you! Concretely, bodily for you! He is as with you here and now as He was with Mary in the womb or swaddled in a manger or preaching on the mountain, or hanging on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins. The Word made flesh dwells among you. And where the Word is proclaimed, the Word is present.
The Lord is with you, and you can point to Him. Where? Point to the words of Absolution coming out of the pastor’s mouth. Point to the font. Point to the altar. Point to the chancel and the lectern and the pulpit. Where the Word is proclaimed, so there is the Word-made-flesh present. Do not worry that you can’t see Him. Those who watched Mary’s belly grow couldn’t see that the Baby was the Son of God, but He was all the same.
You’ve got something better than what your eyes see. You’ve got the Lord’s promises. You’ve got His means of grace. That water is a Baptism, a washing away of sin, that simple words spoken to one another can convey the forgiveness of sins, that bread is the Body of Christ and that wine is His Blood given and shed for you, all these signs are as marvelous and wonderful and out of the ordinary as a young woman conceiving in her virginity.
What that means for you is that you stand before God justified, graced by His undeserved forgiveness, and with Mary, you say, “Let it be to me according to your Word.” And you believe this not because you can measure it, taste it, smell it, sense it, rationalize it, or understand it; you believe because the Lord says so, and He always keeps His promises.
Yes, the Lord is with you! And because the Lord is with you, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen