The Lord Is with You!
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“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28).
“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
She’s a little girl—perhaps fourteen, maybe fifteen, years old. Still young by our standards, though old enough to get married in her time. She’s betrothed to Joseph. The vows are made, and soon they will be fully man and wife. Mary is wise and devout, a maiden who’s kept herself pure in her wait for marriage. But other than that, she has very few qualification for her upcoming assignment. Well, that and her family connections: She’s a descendant of King David, although many generations have passed since one of her ancestors actually sat on the throne.
Now, she and her family live in a little hick town, far from where anything ever happens. Nazareth isn’t exactly Jerusalem, you know. In Jerusalem, you have the king’s palace and frequent visits from Roman commanders. You have the temple—the House of God—where God lives with His people in that Most Holy Place. There’s none of this in Nazareth, that small town by the Sea of Galilee, a community with a reputation as glamorous as the drying fish netted the day before.
She’s a little girl in a little town, far away from where anything happens. He’s an extraordinary visitor with an extraordinary message. His name is Gabriel, and he is sent by God to a virgin betrothed to Joseph—a virgin named Mary in the little town of Nazareth. His extraordinary message begins like this: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you.”
His extraordinary message brings an unusual reaction. Read through the Scriptures, and you’ll always find that people are troubled by the sight of angels. They shrink away or fall down on their faces and play dead. These heavenly messengers come straight from the glorious presence of God, and the righteousness that clings to them is enough to terrify sinners. Holy angels scare people.
But Mary is not troubled by Gabriel’s appearance. She’s troubled at his words. And what is it that’s so troubling for this devout maiden to hear? Is it “Greetings”? Probably not. “O favored one”? That’s a bit unusual and could leave her puzzled. But troubled? I don’t think so. For my money, I’d guess that the most troubling part of the greeting is this: “The Lord is with you.” If it isn’t troubling to Mary yet, it soon will be when she realizes all the ramifications.
How could the Lord be with Mary? He’s everywhere in His omnipresence, of course. But that sort of greeting means that He’s not just present out there somewhere, but that He’s present here to found. Maybe seen. Witnessed, somehow. “The Lord is with you” is the sort of thing you say to someone at the temple in Jerusalem, where God is dwelling behind the curtain. The Lord is with you at the temple because you’ve come to where the Lord promises to be for you. But this isn’t Jerusalem and the temple. This is Nazareth and Mary’s home. “The Lord is with you,” says Gabriel—here and now. How could the Lord be with her?
Gabriel fills in the blanks: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a Son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus. 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, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end.” That’s the message: Mary’s going to be a mom!
However, Mary notes one tiny obstacle to motherhood. It’s not a doubt-filled objection, but a hindrance all the same: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” she asks. Gabriel provides the details: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Ah, that answers that. Mary is going to be the mother of God. You see, the angel isn’t kidding when he says, “The Lord is with you.” Gabriel isn’t speaking in general terms, like, “Mary, I hope you know that the Lord has a special place for you in His heart.” As the messenger of God, he is speaking God’s specific, powerful Word. The Lord is with Mary, as really and as concretely as the cloud of glory that overshadowed the temple before descending into the Holy of Holies.
The Lord is with her, all right. By the Word of God that Gabriel proclaims, the power of the Most High overshadows her. The Lord is with Mary, literally. The Creator of heaven and earth is a single cell caught on the wall of her womb. He will divide into two cells, then four, then eight. With a few weeks, He will develop a beating heart, ears and nose, fingers and toes. By the promise of God, Mary has received the body and blood of her Lord Jesus Christ. God has become man. The Word is made flesh to dwell among us.
It’s just like the Lord promised long ago through His prophet Isaiah: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a Son, and will call Him ‘Immanuel’” (Isaiah 7:14) the name that means “God with us.” No wonder Gabriel says to Mary, “The Lord is with you.” Immanuel has arrived, exactly as promised seven hundred years earlier. Any objections?
If Mary weren’t so devout and accepting of God’s Word, I would expect she just might have one or two. Maybe one of those “reason rules religion” sorts of arguments. “It’s impossible. God becoming man isn’t going to happen. You can’t put the infinite God into a finite human body. You sure can’t put the infinite God into a single-celled zygote. It’s ludicrous, unthinkable.”
Then there are some practical considerations. Mary is now expecting an out-of-wedlock child. In her culture, this does not make her eligible for WIC or SNAP benefits or Medicaid. It qualifies her for worldly scorn, Joseph’s skepticism—even her own stoning and death if anyone wants to press the letter of the law.
Still she says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” It’s a remarkable statement of faith—this acceptance of God’s plan, whatever the consequences. But faith is a gift of God, and Mary can make this confession because the Lord is with her. Let the world scoff and scorn. It knows humanity in the depravity of sin and selfishness, but the world cannot comprehend a God who would become flesh to sacrifice and serve. Let the devil rage in his jealousy. Ever since Eden, he’s tried to worm his way close to mankind, but he could never become man. But here in Mary’s womb, God has become man; and the Seed of the woman will crush the serpent’s head. The Lord is not just here to be here; He is here to go to the cross for the redemption of the world.
Don’t worry O highly favored one! Many will mock you, but all generations will call you blessed. Oh, it won’t always look that way. In the years ahead, you will often be troubled because of your sinless Son—like when He is lost for three days as a young boy in Jerusalem. Or when your family tries to stop His public teaching, because you’re afraid for His physical health or worry that perhaps “He is out of His mind.” Or even worse, when you stand at the foot of His cross. Your own soul will be pierced, too. But, don’t be afraid, Mary. The Lord is with you!
And so, here you are, dear friends, days before Christmas, in little Trosky, Minnesota, far from where anything ever happens. It’s not exactly New York City or even Minneapolis. About as glamorous as the odor that hangs in the air from hog confinement barns or cattle yards depending upon the direction of the wind on any particular day. But right here at St. John’s Lutheran Church, a messenger of God makes an extraordinary declaration to you. No, he isn’t an angel, just departed from the glorious throne of God. He’s flesh and blood, a redeemed sinner just like you (probably much worse than you), but robed in a plain white alb to draw attention away from himself to the Word of God he speaks. And the extraordinary Word that he says to you again and again is this: “The Lord be with you.”
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, because it’s a symptom of the age in which we live. Contemporary religion doesn’t like to be pinned down. On the one hand, they tell you to forget laws about sin; it’s up to you to make up your own code of behavior, what is right and wrong for you personally. On the other hand, they insist that you keep God good and general and not-too-identified; that way it’s up to you to determine what He’s like. It’s also up to you to determine where He is for you.
So if you say “The Lord be with you” to your average somewhat-spiritual person, they will respond, “I know that. I know He’s here.” 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. At best they might try to explain to you that “I have Jesus in my heart,” but they can’t explain what that really means.
But this is not at all what these words mean when you hear them from the pastor here. “The Lord be with you” is not a pious wish, but a statement of awesome truth. The Lord is with you, bodily with you. He is as with you here and now as He was with Mary as He developed in her womb. Where the Word is proclaimed, the Word is present. The Son of the Most High, who stood His body in the Jordan River to be baptized by John, is present in your Baptism. The Son of God is present at the Lord’s Supper, saying, “Take and eat, this is My body…take and drink, this is My blood, for the forgiveness of sins.” The Lord is with you!
Do not worry that you can’t see Him. Those who journeyed to the temple couldn’t look behind the curtain, but that didn’t mean that the Lord was absent. Even if they had 3-D ultrasounds in that day, those who watched Mary’s belly grow couldn’t have seen that the Baby she carried was the Son of God; but He was all the same. But you’ve got something better than what your eyes see; you’ve got His Word on it. The Lord is with you as really and bodily as He was with Mary.
This means, of course, that you will hear the same objections that Mary likely heard. Even from other Christians, you will hear the “reason rules religion” argument: “Jesus can’t be present in water or bread or wine. Why? Because logically the finite can’t contain the infinite. It doesn’t make sense. You can’t put the infinite God in an inch-wide, paper-thin wafer of bread. Don’t look for Jesus in those Sacraments; look for Him in your heart.”
To this we respond with the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary: “Nothing is impossible with God.” The same Lord who is with Mary as a microscopic, fertilized cell in her womb is certainly capable of being with you in Word and water, bread and wine. Let us not impose our puny limitations upon the Lord God Almighty. And while we rejoice with those who say that they have Jesus in their heart, we might ask them: “But how did He get there? How did He come to be with you there if not by His means of grace?”
Unless you engage in theological debates on social media, you may not come across such arguments often. You should be aware, though, that this teaching of Christ’s presence among us makes us unique, and frowned upon, among many Christian denominations. So, while we rejoice with all Christians who trust in Jesus’ death for their sins, and look forward to an eternity with them in our Lord’s glorious presence, we also give thanks for the oft-denied truth that the Lord is truly with us even now.
Even so, you must face the practical objections, which the world throws your way. This world is about power, taking care of yourself, covering up faults and moving on to success. You go and confess your sins—to God no less!—and then hear words of Absolution, believing that Jesus is there to forgive you.
The world is about impressing people, gaining favor with people and quid pro quos. You keep thinking back upon your Baptism, where Jesus washed you with water and His Word, cleansing you of your sin and making you His child.
The world is about health and pleasure, excitement and buzz, free time and toys. You quietly come forward, kneel down, and receive bread and wine—because you believe the Scriptures when they tell you that Jesus is truly there with you in these humble means for the forgiveness of sins.
The world will voice all sorts of objections to spending time on Word and Sacrament, because such things will not help you get ahead in this world. But then again, no one—the Lord included—ever said that they would. You receive these things because there is more to life than this world that does not know God.
Baptism may not win favor with others; but there, in the water and Word, the Lord of heaven and earth says, “You are now My beloved child.” Confession and Absolution won’t prove your strength to a world that doesn’t want to admit fault; but by it the Lord says, “You are now faultless to stand before Me.” Holy Communion will not provide much bodily sustenance; but by the grace given there, you will live forever. Why do these means of grace impart such astounding blessings? For the same reason that the world which denies Christ denies them: because the Lord Jesus is there, with you, for you.
Christmas Eve is only a few days away, when we peer with wonder into the manger at Bethlehem, point to the Baby and say, “Behold the Son of God, present with His people.” This is indeed a great and mighty wonder. But here’s another great and mighty wonder that happens so often it is easy to overlook. It happens wherever and whenever God’s Word is preached and His Sacraments administered according to His Word. By these means of grace, the Lord is with you—just as much as He was with Mary. 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