Reading: Luke 1:26-45
The Birth of Jesus Foretold
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, 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 conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him 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 Jacob’s descendants 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 on 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 unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Mary Visits Elizabeth
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!
I wonder if you, like me, are finding the run up to Christmas this year to be very strange and a real change to what we usually do? Normally it is full of visiting, preparation, buying food and presents, Christmas parties. This year is very different.
Twelve months ago we would never have expected to be in this place. I know I assumed we would be doing what we normally do. Some things do stay the same – the supermarkets are full of advent calendars. Decorations and Christmas trees are being put up. Fairy lights are maybe even brighter this year than usual as people are trying to compensate for the cold dark nights.
We know how the run up to Christmas should work, and in a normal year there aren’t too many surprises, other than what Secret Santa is going to provide.
If we take ourselves back about 2000 years, to the events of our Bible reading, we find Mary. This poor young possibly dreaming about her upcoming wedding and suddenly and angel appears, as a literal bolt from the blue.
It is significant that angels very often start their conversations with humans with the words “ Do not be afraid”. The angel, announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, tells them not to be scared. They were a group of rough, tough men. They would have dealt with wolves, lions, bandits and probably weren’t too easily spooked. If they needed reassurance can you imagine how scared a young girl is going to be? The visit was completely unexpected. The news was incomprehensible.
Here Mary learns of not one, but two, unexpected babies. I am sure most of us will know of someone who has had an unexpected pregnancy. They tend to fall into two groups. There can be people who have been longing for a family for a long time. They may have tried for years, sought specialist advice and treatments, hoped, prayed and often been disappointed. For some of those people their much desired baby eventually arrives after they have given up hope. They are frequently flabbergasted that the seemingly impossible has finally happened. The unexpected baby is met with rejoicing and great joy.
This is the scenario we have with Elizabeth. She and Zechariah have been married for many years, and she is well past the normal years for child bearing. Zechariah was a faithful priest, serving in the temple when he is informed about John. Even in today’s world infertility can be a painfully private burden for people to carry. In the ancient world it was a huge stigma, and was seen as a sign of God’s displeasure. For Elizabeth to have a child was a miracle. It was a joy. The unexpected baby was an unmitigated delight. The Holy Spirit, working by restoring normal fertility to an infertile couple, removed the stigma of barrenness and gave them not only a baby, but the respect of the religious community around them. Their world was turned upside down in the most positive way imaginable.
Unfortunately not all unexpected pregnancies are as fervently desired as Elizabeth’s. Some pregnancies occur where the prospective parents are not hoping to start a family, or to add another baby to an existing family. Very often these unplanned surprises become a huge blessing to their parents, and to the wider family. Sometimes, sadly, that isn’t the case and some children are brought into a world without love. This may have been more likely a few generations ago, where the production of children outside of wedlock was a cause for shame. Society has changed and barometer of public opinion has changed. One good thing is that the bias against illegitimate children has gone, as they are unwitting participants in their conception.
In the ancient Middle East a baby produced outside marriage would have been seen as an abomination. The parents, and particularly the mother, would have been ostracised. Mary lived in a small village, where everyone knew every aspect of each other’s lives. There was no chance of hiding her disgrace. The pregnancy announced by Gabriel was not the unadulterated joy that Elizabeth would have experienced, but a statement that Mary would be an outsider. People would talk about her and her supposed illegitimate child for the rest of their lives. Her family would be disgraced. Her forthcoming marriage would be put in jeopardy. Her status in society would be destroyed. People would not believe the story of Gabriel’s visitation, thinking Mary was lying to protect herself. The unexpected angelic messenger brought tidings of a very different sort.
It’s worth comparing the reactions of these two Godly women. Elizabeth was quiet, remained in seclusion and attributed the pregnancy to God. “in these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people”
Mary immediately left her home and visited Elizabeth. It isn’t too much of a stretch to think that she is wanting to talk to an older, wiser believer who has a real idea of the momentous events she has experienced.
Mary’s response to Gabriel has always confused me. She asks “how can these things be, since I am a virgin”. At first glance this doesn’t seem to be unquestioning submission, however the question is not about the PROMISE of God, but about how the PROCESS will be accomplished. She is obedient, even if the way ahead is obscured. Her incredible response is “ “May it be to me as you have said”.
God, through Gabriel, speaks and Mary obeys his call without hesitation. God can accomplish His purpose through her without her needing to know all the details. Mary visits Elizabeth and John leaps in his mother’s womb at the very sound of Mary’s voice. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and declares
“Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished”.
Mary was blessed. More importantly she brought a source of blessing to humankind, in the person of Jesus, through her obedient response to her very unexpected, humanly impossible, God mediated pregnancy.
Both the women here were pregnant at times which were very unexpected. Elizabeth was well past the age of having a child naturally. Her baby would have been expected years, or decades earlier, when she was young enough to conceive.
Mary was looking towards her future marriage. Her baby would have been planned for many months or years later.
God worked, across time and physical possibility, to bring his plans to fruition at exactly the right time. What was impossible in human terms and unexpected in both cases, was planned by God before the foundation of the world.
Today we are in unexpected times. No-one expected COVID. I never expected to be recording this and have people watching online. None of us saw the strangest advent season emerge. The pressures on our health service and the economy were not anticipated.
We do have the same assurance that Mary had. “nothing is impossible with God”
He is the same as He always has been and will be. The current pressures are not outside His control. We are all experiencing and unexpected advent. The object of our advent anticipation, the arrival of Jesus as the light of the world, remains the same. Our hope and trust in him is the same.
His mission: to redeem lost souls is still the same.
In an unexpected world we have the “long expected Jesus, born to set His people free”. God has not lost control in the pandemic. His plan is intact. He is reaching out, offering new life through His son, for whom we count down in Advent. He is able to fulfil His purpose in your life in just the same way he was able to work in the lives of Elizabeth and Mary. The path may be completely different to what you expect. There may be difficulties you have not forseen. The end result will be more glorious than you can anticipate.
If you haven’t met Jesus, and decided to follow Him on the unexpected, but God-ordained path he has for you, please pray, ask Him to reveal himself to you in a new way. Don’t let yourself get to the end of another Advent without discovering the Person who is the centre, not just of Christmas, but creation. Speak to Jonny, Dianne, or me, we will be more than happy to talk to you.