LUKE 1:26-38

DECEMBER 16, 2012



            One song the choir just sang was written Mark Lowry.  Lowry is best known as a Christian comedian, but he is also a musician of some note having performed for many years with the Gaither vocal band.  In 1984 he wrote a poem for his church that began like this, Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?  Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?

            Shortly thereafter guitarist Buddy Greene added a tune and a wonderful song was born.  Mary, did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?  Mary, did you know that your baby boy will calm the storm with his hand?"  Each of the couplets touches the heart.  Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?  Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?

            How could Mary know what was happening to her when the angel Gabriel came to her long ago?  Only Luke tells this story.  The Gospel of Luke is sometimes called the Gospel of womanhood because Luke has so many positive stories about women.  Later in Lukes Gospel we discover stories about Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene, and the woman who anointed Jesus body for burial.  In the book of Acts, also written by Luke, we hear another positive story about a business woman, Lydia, the maker of purple.

            So it's not surprising that Luke tells the story of Jesus birth from Marys point of view.  The angel Gabriel had already announced to the elderly Zechariah that his elderly wife, Elizabeth, would have a son.  You may remember that Elizabeth and Mary were cousins, and following Gabriels visit to Mary she visits Elizabeth and the baby in Elizabeths womb jumps when they meet.  We don't find these kinds of details in the other Gospels.

            Luke begins by telling us that in the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David.  The virgins name was Mary.  The angel went to her and said, Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.  Then Luke adds these words, But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

            I want us to join Mary in pondering this morning.  Specifically, I want us to ponder three things.  First of all I want us to ponder the question, What does it mean to be favored by God?

            Listen as Luke continues, The angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him 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 ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.'"

            "Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be since I am a virgin?'"

            That's a good question.  That's an important question.  After all, Mary was not married.  She was still a virgin.  She was a teenager and God was asking her to get pregnant out of wedlock.  That's quite a request given that Mary and Joseph lived within a strict religious community and she could have been stoned for being pregnant and unmarried.  Gabriel certainly had an interesting idea of what it means to be favored by God.

            Years ago a psychologist named Thomas Holmes developed a scale for measuring stress.  He assigned numerical values to events that cause stress such as the loss of job, moving to a new city, becoming a parent.  Dr. Holmes even included Christmas on his stress list.  He decided that just a normal Christmas was worth a hefty 14 stress points.  Some of you understand.  Youre up to 15 or 20 stress points right now.

            A writer by the name of Bridget Kuhns took Dr. Holmes scale and applied it to Mary.  Holmes calculated that any pregnancy earns 40 points, an unwanted pregnancy, 20 more.  Getting married: 50 points.  A change in financial status: 38 points.  And surely there must have been words between Mary and Joseph when she discovered that he had not made reservations at the inn: score 10 points that argument.  Then what about all those uninvited guests: shepherds and angels coming and going and wise men from the East?  Psychologist Thomas Holmes says that people get sick when they reach 200 points on his stress scale.  Ms. Kuhns calculates that Marys ordeal earned her a record 424 points.  Evidently being favored by God does not mean life is going to be a bed of roses.

            This is important.  It is so easy for us to say when things are going our way, The Lord sure is blessing us.  But how about when things are not going so well?  Could God be blessing us?  When the angel Gabriel said to Mary that she was favored by God, he was not saying that God would make her way easy.  What he was saying was that Mary would be used of God, and in the long run of life, this is what being blessed, favored means. How's that for an additional definition of God's blessing or favor?  Being used by God!

            Let's move onto the second question I want us to ponder this morning.  Is it necessary to believe in the virgin birth in order to be a Christian?

            When Mary asked "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" look at how the angel answered.  Verse 35.  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 the Son of God.  And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  For nothing will be impossible with God."

            Underline that last sentence, "Nothing will be impossible with God."           That's something good to keep in mind the next time we are in a hard place.  Nothing will be impossible with God.

            Now back to the question we are pondering.   Some theologians, including good Christian men and women, have difficulty with the notion of a virgin birth.  Scientifically, they can't wrap their minds around it, and they point to Isaiah and remind us that Isaiah didnt really prophesy that a virgin, as we think of a virgin, will conceive and bear a son.  They contend, and rightly so, that a better translation of the original Hebrew into English would be a young woman will conceive and bear a son, not a young virgin will conceive and bear a son. 

            Does that make you nervous that some credible Christian folk, some scholarly Christian folk, have difficulty believing in a virgin birth?  Take Thomas Jefferson for example.  He said, "The day will come when the virgin birth will be classified with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." 

            So back to our question.  Can you be a Christian without believing in the virgin birth?  Well, that depends largely on whether one is liberal theologically or conservative theologically.  If you are an evangelical Christian, the answer is a resounding, "No!"  If you happen to be more liberal theologically the answer is, "Sure."  They say, "It's not important how Jesus arrived on the seen, but that he did arrive on the scene."

            So what do you think?  Besides belief in Jesus as the Son of God who took away the sins of the world, is there anything else we need to hold to in order to be a Christian?  Would belief in the virgin birth be one of those things?

            New Testament scholar Fred Craddock tells of being in Bethlehem and hearing a Jewish man explain the Christmas story.  They were standing in Shepherds Field, a field where the shepherds might have heard the angels song.  "On a clear night if you stand down in the valley of the field and look up toward the city," explained the Jewish man, "there is a bright star, and it looks like its standing right over the houses.  And that," he said, "is what happened at Christmas."  The Jewish man went on to explain that this is how people got confused and thought there was a star over the house where Jesus was.  When he finished, Craddock said, Well thats one way to look at it.

            Well, not believing in the virgin birth is one way to look at it, but it's not my way.

As for me, I think we need to be careful about what we think is impossible with God. 

            And finally, one more question to ponder this morning.  What would have happened if Mary had said, "No, thanks.  Tell God to choose someone else?"  You see, Mary was free to say no to God just as we are free to say no.  God never forces Himself on anyone.  But when the angel Gabriel gave Mary the news that she would bear Gods son, here is how Mary replied. Here I am the servant of The Lord;  let it be with me according to your word.  Mary became the mother of the Savior because she said yes.  She said yes to being obedient to God.

            Obedience is not a very fashionable word today.  An older gentleman was commenting to his wife that couples dont use the word obey in marriage ceremonies anymore.

            Too bad, isnt it? he added, It used to lend a little humor to the occasion.

            Obedience isnt in fashion today, yet obedience is a major part of the Christian life.  There are some things that we would never do except in obedience to God.

            Chuck Colson was in Raleigh, North Carolina on Christmas Eve 1985.  He was there to speak in several nearby prisons.  He turned on CNN to catch the late news.  Remember, this was before the advent of Fox News.  If it had been Christmas Eve 1996 instead of 1985, being a conservative Republican, he would have turned to Fox News not CNN.  Anyway, on the screen was Mother Teresa.  She had her arms around two emaciated young men.  They were in the last stages of AIDS and had been released from prison to enter a home established by Mother Teresas order.

            When a reporter demanded to know why we should care about criminals with AIDS, Mother Teresa explained that these young men had been created in Gods image and deserved to know of Gods love.

            Colson saw all this taking place and wondered, How could she do it?  Embrace those men who were dying of that deadly virus?  Colson knew he could never have that kind of courage.

            The next day Colson preached to several hundred women prisoners.  As he was getting ready to leave, the warden asked if he would visit Bessie Shipp, an AIDS patient in an isolation cell.  Its Christmas, explained the warden, and nobody has visited her.

            Now, in Colsons defense, in 1985 we didnt have as much information about how AIDS spreads as we do today.  So we can understand why he began to make excuses. But then, in his minds eye, Chuck Colson saw the love-filled face of Mother Teresa and he heard her words, "These boys deserve to know of Gods love," so, Colson found himself saying to the warden, Well, all right, take me to Bessie Shipp.

            When they arrived at the isolation cell Colson discovered a petite young woman bundled up in a bathrobe, reading a Bible.  They chatted for a few moments, and since there wasnt much time, he got to the point.  Bessie, do you know Jesus? he asked.

            No, she said.  I try to.  I read this book.  I want to know Him, but I havent been able to find Him.  And Colson took one of Bessies hands while the chaplain took the other, and together they led Bessie in prayer.  When they finished, she looked at them with tears flowing down her cheeks. It was a lifechanging moment, says Colson, for Bessie and for him.  Three weeks later Bessie Shipp, a new person in Christ Jesus, went to be with God.  Colson says he shudders when he thinks how close he had come to avoiding that visit.

            Chuck Colsons life was blessed immeasurably by his obedience to God.

            Mary, did you know?  She may not have but we do. 

[1] Thanks to King Duncan and his sermon by the same title.