Advent 4 – St. Luke 1:26-38
One of the trending songs this Advent has been the song ‘Mary, did you know?’ which asks among other things, what did Mary know and when did she know it?
No doubt one of the basis for this popular song is verse 34 of our Gospel text, where Mary questions the news of the angel Gabriel, with a very practical question: How will this be, since I am a virgin?
Regardless of what else Mary knew, she knew basic biology that virgins do not bear children, at least not without some outside help: today that help might be scientific; for Mary that help was to be divine.
Of course, Mary knew of other instances where divine help brought about miraculous pregnancies and births. All she had to do was check her email and see that Zechariah and Elizabeth, who was barren, had in their old age, conceived and were now expecting their own bundle of joy in three months.
Or all Mary would need to do is check her Old Testament and see that similar occurrences had happened with Abraham and Sarah and the birth of Isaac, as well as Elkanah and Hannah and the birth of Samuel. Mary well knew that more than once, God had often remembered the barren with the gift of a child, even in the old age of the parents.
But one significant difference is that Mary is not barren, she is a virgin. How is God going to work with a virgin?
After all, Mary knew what was to come in her own mind: she and Joseph would soon be married and start a family; and keeping in mind the well-known words that God spoke first to Adam and Eve, and later to Noah and his sons, and to all families of the earth: be fruitful and multiply; she and Joseph would have a family, prayerfully blessed with several children.
Mary knew what she had planned for her future: a loving husband, whose work as a carpenter would provide a livable, albeit not extravagant income for the family. A family that would include several obedient children, who one day would find faithful husbands and wives of their own, and start their own families. All of this centered around the altar, both in the home and in the church, focused on the Lord and His Word.
Yet the news that the angel Gabriel announces, is quite different from what Mary knew in her own mind.
How could God work through someone, promising her a son, when she had not even been united with her husband Joseph yet?
For Mary also knew what would follow if she were found to be unfaithful to Joseph, as evidenced by an unexpected and not easily explained pregnancy: there would be a quick and unquestioned divorce by Joseph, and an immediate stoning by the community, if she was lucky. For Mary knew that if she somehow got away, there would be a long, hard, and lonely life caring for this child; and a blessing from God would soon feel more like a curse.
The angel’s words that the child will be conceived by the Holy Spirit may or may not calm all the fears of Mary, but it does tell her that God is working in a new and unforeseen way through her.
And so Mary knows that what happens from here on out will be ok for her, for Joseph, for all people; for this child that Mary now carries will save His people from their sins.
To which our response is: How will this be, for we are sinners?
Well do you know the long list of sins that you have committed in thought, word and deed. Well do you know how you have not loved your neighbor with your whole heart, and well do you know that you have certainly not loved God with your whole heart either.
Well do you know what the Scriptures say about those who sin against the Lord; there will be punishment, there will be death, there will be eternal fire as well as weeping and gnashing of teeth.
You knew how you planned for the day to go; you rose in the morning and prayed Luther’s Morning Prayer, asking that God would keep you this day from sin and every evil; but how long did that last?
You know that you desired to be faithful to the Lord, faithful in hearing the Word and receiving the gifts promised for you. You know that you never intended to take the Lord’s name in vain; or dishonor those in authority; or even take what was not yours. You knew that the devil was a cunning one, who would do his very best to lure you away; and yet you followed him down the road to hell anyway.
How will it be that this child, who now grows inside the womb of Mary, will be able to save you: you poor, miserable sinner?
How will God work with you a sinner?
Well do you know how God has worked through His servants in the past; but were any of them as bad as you? Peter denied Jesus 3 times, but then went on to confess Christ before kings and rulers. Paul persecuted the early Church, but more than made up for that by establishing new churches. As for the rest, well, they were not living in 2014, where there are a lot more temptations than ever before.
And yet the words of the angel Gabriel are spoken to you as well: Do be afraid, for by your baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, you have found favor with God.
For this one who now rests in the womb of Mary has come to redeem His people from their sins. This one who now grows in Mary’s belly is here to break the bonds of the evil one, and to set the prisoners free.
God is working in a new and unforeseen way; not through the blood of bulls shed on altars; not through perfect adherence to a set of laws; not even through the performance of a great and marvelous task. God is working redemption for His people, even His people alive today in 2014, by sending His one and only son into the world, so that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.
Do you know that your sins are forgiven by the holy and precious blood of this one who is now conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit?
Do you know that the full weight and burden of the punishment for your sins will be born not by you, but upon the shoulders of this still developing child?
Do you know that each time you come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ, or that each time you hear that you sins are forgiven, the promise of forgiveness, life and salvation is made to you once more?
It is not always easy to explain to others. That the God on high would send His Son into the world as a cell; and that when born His sole purpose is to die and rise is not how other religions work. That all of this was done out of His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy and there is no cost to you is not how the world operates.
Like Mary, you go forward on faith. The full details are perplexing and not always understood by others, let alone yourself. And yet, by faith we know them to be true.
And like Mary, you know that going forward, things will be ok for you and for all people; for this child that Mary now carries will redeem all people from their sins.
How will this be?
It will be, for all things, whether it be a child born to one who is barren or to one who is a virgin; whether it be forgiveness conveyed through water or bread and wine combined with the word; or whether it be one who lives a perfect holy life dying for one who was conceived in sin, all things are possible with God.