4. A Risky Conversation

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

4. A Risky Conversation

Lk 1:26-28  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 favoured! The Lord is with you.’

Really?   Possibly there is no passage among the ‘Christmas stories’ that is as romanticised as this particular one, of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary. Let me put before you an imaginary modern scenario. Let’s suppose you are a teenage girl who has fallen for a royal prince or, if you are American, for a son of the President. Preparations are being made for your wedding day. Every ounce of your life is being dissected by the media, but the good news is that you come from a good family, have never had a meaningful boyfriend, have never gone the way of so many of your peers and so have never slept around. You are a good person and a Christian and you regularly attend the most respectable church in town. You are being groomed for public life with this man of your dreams. He thinks you are wonderful, as do his family, and your family likewise are elated at the coming nuptials. And then one night, on your own – and you are sure you are awake – a glowing figure appears as if out of the air and tells you he is an angel of God – and yes, you are sure you are awake – and he tells you that you have been chosen by God to act as an example to the people of your country, of humility and piety, another Mother Teressa. Yes, you can continue to get married but you will forsake riches, affluence and the lifestyle of a princess / lady of the first family, and you will devote your life to caring for the poor. How do you respond?

Mary: I’m afraid I cannot think of a parallel drama to the one facing Mary and the above is the nearest I can get. You, in the above scenario, are being told to enter into a life that is totally contrary to everything you expect and is expected of you. Mary is being told she will enter into a life totally contrary to everything she expects and is expected of her. Mary is a good Jewish girl. She is engaged to be married to a good Jewish boy. It is quite likely it is a marriage that has been agreed between their parents. They will go through all the traditional celebrations that young Jewish people getting married go through. Afterwards they will set up home together, have children and no doubt be pillars of the community. They both live in Nazareth which, although it has now become a city of over seventy-six thousand today was, back then, a mere village of between two and four hundred people. Everyone knows everyone else. In fact, there may only be about twenty (if that) family groupings that have lived there for generations, and everyone knows their place and everyone is respectable. There is no room for disreputable, and disreputable means those who do not keep to the beloved Law of Moses which their rabbi faithfully teaches them. One man, one woman and “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24) That is how it is in this traditional community and this is how it must stay. The conversation that follows is, it would appear, from God’s point of view, a risky one. This girl could have screamed and rushed out of the room – but she didn’t.

Joseph & the others: But, we said, Mary is engaged to Joseph and Joseph is a good upright boy, a growing pillar of the community, a carpenter following in his father’s footsteps. He is there in the synagogue every week and he understands the Law. Yes, it may appear harsh at times but that is only to preserve the sanctity of marriage within the community and thus bring stability to the community. Infidelity is frowned upon – severely! If Mary heeds and goes along with what this angel is saying – “You will conceive and give birth to a son,” (v.31) and “‘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 the Son of God.” (v35) – she is going to be in serious trouble with her fiancé and with her community. What the angel is saying is humanly impossible and so there is no way that she can expect anyone to believe her. If she goes along with this, she is on her own! Do you remember me saying previously that the Christmas story is often uncomfortable, if not harsh and difficult? I started by saying I believe we romanticise this story because I don’t think I have ever heard a preacher spelling out just how difficult it must have been for Mary.

This Incredible Girl: I suggested at the end of the first introductory study that it is only when we see the impossibilities confronting these people and the harshness and difficulties that they went through, will we truly see the wonder of these events and, I might add, of the people concerned. Nowhere is this truer than in the account of Mary with the angel Gabriel. I have sought, very inadequately I feel, to convey something of the difficulties facing Mary and if we can really take this in, then, and perhaps only then, will we really appreciate the sort of young woman that she is. She is young and she is about to become alone, very alone and she is going to enter into an experience that is common to most women, and yet without the love of a man who took her into that experience. She doesn’t know how what the angel says can be: “How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?” (v.34) and the fact that he explains, “The Holy Spirit will come on you,” (v.35) really doesn’t help a lot. Yes, he does seek to bring encouragement by explaining that, “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,” (v.36) but that is probably not going to provide a ‘how’ explanation that most of us would want. Yet we find at the end of this episode before the angel leaves, “I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ Then the angel left her.” (v.38)

An Incredible Woman: It all happens and miraculously, without the help of Joseph or any other man, she conceives and brings into being the baby Jesus, the Son of God, the Saviour of the World. Twelve years later, as Jesus comes of age (in Jewish terms) he stays behind in Jerusalem and after he has been found by his concerned parents we read, But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.” (Lk 2:51) She thinks back perhaps to the birth narratives and all she was told by Gabriel and now as Jesus speaks of his father (not Joseph) she wonders. Another eighteen years on she is at a wedding where the wine has run out and she tries to prod Jesus into action to help – she has high expectation of him – but when he holds back, she knows otherwise and simply tells the servants, Do whatever he tells you.” (Jn 2:5). Three years later she is at the foot of the Cross watching her son die (Jn 18:25-27) and perhaps she remembered all those thirty-three years ago, the words of the aged Simeon in the Temple, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Lk 2:35) And so it was. Her walk through life was truly a lonely and often times painful walk – but she was available to God for Him to work out His purposes through her.

Availability: No, there was nothing comfortable or great and glorious about any of this – from a human perspective at least. I mentioned previously I had earlier in this month started writing ‘Micro Advent Thoughts’. This was the one about Mary: Advent Micro Thought no.2. Why would God choose a teenage girl, a good girl, a godly girl, a righteous girl, to carry His Son, without a visible father, so that people would gossip about a girl who no longer looked so good, no longer looked so godly, so righteous? Because God doesn’t worry about gossips, God looks for those who are good and godly and righteous – and available – through which to perform His purposes, even though others will misunderstand, because the uncomprehending gossips will fall away but the will of God will remain for ever, transforming the world. Availability.”

A friend from the States added, “Availability” has been a recurring word this year for me. It’s good to hear it again. Settling into a new area this past year, one of the things we’ve worked at is making ourselves available to serve. I believe that’s where opportunity begins with God. After availability, then comes empowerment and equipping for service.” Wise words which fit perfectly here: “after availability then comes empowerment and equipping for service.” Heed that wisdom.

6. The Impossible is Possible

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 6. The Impossible is Possible

Reading 5: Luke 1:26–35;38

Luke 1:26,27  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 virgin’s name was Mary.

Context: When we come to this fifth ‘Lesson’ the service sheet heading is seriously under-whelming: “The angel Gabriel salutes the Blessed Virgin Mary” for it is perhaps a record of what must be one of the most amazing conversations recorded in history. But before we rush into it, we must pause and realise where we are in this series of nine readings. The first four brought us to the Old Testament records that we have reiterated again and again, but now we turn to the New Testament to the brief records of the coming of the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of Man, the Son of David, the Son of God. The account links with what has just happened to Elizabeth who now, although in old age beyond child-bearing age and capability, is in fact expecting a baby who, they are told, will be called John (v.26a). It is the sixth month if her confinement.

Reading: An angel, designated by the name Gabriel, is sent by God with a purpose, to convey His plans for this young virgin named Mary, and she is betrothed to a man named Joseph (v.26,27). The angel greets her (v.28) and Mary wonders who she is to be so greeted (v.29).  The angel reassures her and tells her she will conceive and have a son who she is to name Jesus (v.30,31). This son 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 Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (v.32,33)

To this amazing revelation, Mary’s only concern is how she can conceive because she and Joseph have not come together and (implied) will not come together for some time, until they are formally married. (v.34). A righteous couple! The angel informs her that the Holy Spirit will enable this to happen and so her child will be called “the Son of God” (v.35). Mary’s response is the classic example in the whole of history of availability and openness to God: “I am the Lord’s servant, May your word to me be fulfilled.” (v.38)

Lessons: To look for lessons in this reading is difficult because it is a unique record of a conversation between a specific girl and an angel in a situation never to be repeated. Such lessons as there may be, must focus on our credibility, our willingness to believe the text of a passage that is rarely found on a greeting card at Christmas these days. (In one major store recently, we perused the shelf of Christmas cards and only five out of the whole display gave any reference to the Biblical record!)

To believe or not to believe: This may sound a needless comment, but the fact of the matter is that today in the West, although at Christmas people may tolerate these verses being read in the midst of nice music, the reality is that the majority of our population do not believe the passage we have just recounted. Angels? Maybe, because ‘spiritual’ people go for anything. Virgin birth? Come on! But that is what the record clearly says. If you want to cut this bit out of the records in the Gospels, where do you stop? The who of the accounts in Matthew and Luke, concerning Advent, are full of the divinely supernatural. God is. Angels are. A pregnant virgin is. Shepherds are. Wise men are.

All or nothing and if you dare say, “A load of myths” you have to say the same about the rest of the Gospels, and there you come unstuck because there are clear outside-the-Bible historical records. Remember Luke’s starting words: Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Lk 1:1-4) Surely he interviewed the now middle-aged Mary and found her account utterly convincing. The lesson is a challenge to investigate and to believe.

A God who Intervenes: An alternative title here might be, ‘A God who initiates’ for while mankind is ‘sleeping’ God is at work to bring His Son to earth. Few had any idea of what was going on. Maybe some Magi in the east, maybe the occasional Spirit-led believer (Simeon), but mostly life just carried on as normal, and then angels start turning up with messages from on high. To be precise, one angel, Gabriel, who comes to both Zechariah (Lk 1:19) and now Mary. The timing is precise. One writer has suggested that by the time Jesus started his ministry, thirty years later, and then died and rose again, across the Roman Empire there were at least six factors that made this the very best time for the Gospel to be spread and taken across the world. (Perhaps the next big time would be the nineteenth century when the great missionary movements got under way).

The lesson here surely has to be, never think that the world is set, your life is set, and will not change. The fact is that God does wait for appropriate times when many factors fall in line (e.g. when the movement to abolish slavery mounted up) and that includes our individual lives as much as it does big national movements. One day, we are ‘sleeping’ (a time of inactivity and low expectation)  and then suddenly God moves. Be alert for the moves of God which so often come with no apparent warning.

No impossibilities: Perhaps, again to avoid distractions and focus only on the main issue, this reading purposely leaves out, “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” (v..36,37) which is a shame because of that amazing declaration, “For nothing is impossible with God.” Here is Mary, a virgin and yet God is going to enable her to conceive and have a son.  When you look, there are a number of women in the Bible who were enabled by God to conceive – admittedly no other virgin, but it is something that happens more than a few times. But the bigger picture is the challenge to say, along with Jesus, “with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26). When our hearts are yearning in one direction, it just may be that it is the will of God you are sensing. What it now needs are others, full of faith and the Spirit, to come alongside you and pray it into being.

Available for the New: God was coming to do something completely new – His Son was coming to the earth. He shared it with Mary whose response is, “I am the Lord’s servant, May your word to me be fulfilled.” The simple question has to be, are you and I open to the Lord, even when we do not fully understand what He is saying? His heart has been caught by something in the Church or in the world; He knew it was coming, but it’s just that now is the time for it, so He shares it into your heart. You hear it and question it. But it prevails. Will we be His instruments in His hands to bring it into being?

This reading may have no direct instructions for us, but it certainly does raise some important challenges. Will we respond to them this Christmas?

12. Why a Virgin?

Focus on Christ Meditations: 12.  Why a Virgin?

Lk 1:26-28   In the sixth month, 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 virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

We have already touched on the fact of the virgin birth twice already in our examinations of some of the Isaiah prophecies but as we move into the New Testament historical context we need to face this claim within Matthew, a claim that is really very low key in the text of the New Testament. Let’s look at various aspects of this.

Historical struggles: It is interesting to note how the early church clearly struggled with this mystery, in the various Creeds. The earliest of the creeds, the so-called Apostles Creed starts out, “I believe in God almighty And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,” whereas the Nicene Creed of AD 325 says, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, ……For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Another well-known ‘creed’ of about 5th/6th centuries, the Athanasian Creed, goes to great lengths to spell out the relationships and origins of the Trinity but is utterly silent on the ‘virgin birth’.

Others in more recent centuries have also obviously struggled with this, for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith declares quite fully but with a noticeable absence, “The Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof; yet without sin: being conceived by he power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.”

Practical Exposition: Now Matthew’s Gospel is very specific and he approaches it with several clear refuting arguments that whereas the meaning if ‘virgin’ in the Isaiah prophecy could simply mean a young, unmarried girl, that was not what happened in history.

Overall picture: Then Matthew explains circumstances that deny that: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” (v.18) He maintains i) she is only pledged to Joseph, ii) the couple have not come together sexually, and iii) her conception is purely a work of the Holy Spirit.

Joseph’s response: “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (v.19) Joseph, is a righteous young man, and i) is sure that the child is not his, and ii) Mary is obviously sticking to her story of the angel Gabriel and iii) there are no other young men who could be candidates for fatherhood here

Joseph’s dream: “But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (v.20) This dream is so strong and clear that he is utterly convinced and so, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” (v.24,25)

This complete turnabout by Joseph cannot be explained by any other way: i) There is no reason for him to change his mind, his righteous approach to life has been affronted, ii) If he had changed his mind there would have been no reason for him to make up some super-spiritual story, he could simply say, ‘I will graciously forgive here and be the father of her child.’ iii) Such a false story would thus be untrue and would ever be on his conscience and we know he is a righteous young man who would not condone such an approach.

It is because Matthew has found out this information that he attaches the Isaiah prophecy to the account as if to say, “Isaiah, speaking into the future meant that the Coming One would be born of a true virgin without any male involvement.”

Why? Here is a mystery which has brought denial from skeptics and questions from church scholars through the ages. Why should it have been like this? The argument about sinlessness is slightly questionable because although Joseph’s sinfulness is excluded, Mary’s isn’t! Unless you can say – and we can’t – that Mary was sinless from birth and therefore a unique human being, we still have human genes at least from one sinful parent. So why a virgin birth?

The answer is so enormous that it passes most of us by. We have seen in the Isa 9 prophecy those incredible words that this being is going to be God incarnate, and in the earlier prophecies this is Immanuel, God with us. If God wasn’t in and part of this baby when it was born, why

  • did Mary tell of her encounter with the angel Gabriel, including the fact that when she maintained she was a virgin, he declared, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Lk 1:35)
  • did the Wise Men want to worship him? (Mt 2;2)
  • should Elizabeth under the anointing of the Holy Spirit speak of the baby Mary was carrying and refer to Mary as, “the mother of my Lord”? (Lk 1:43) She, by revelation, knew who he was!

No, the testimony of both Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts are in complete harmony. If it didn’t happen at conception when did God take up residence in this male boy in such a way that was unique so there was clearly a oneness that has never been seen to occur in any other human being. In the apostolic writings of the New Testament, there is never any dichotomy of description, there is never any dividing out the physical from the spiritual when the apostles refer to Christ and there is never any record of the making of a new man-God being. Don’t confuse the coming down of the Spirit on Jesus at baptism, because it is clear before that that Jesus knew exactly who he was, the unique Son of God. But why not involve Joseph? Because that was how God wanted to create this new being in which He Himself would reside from the moment of conception, and thus the conception was a miracle that involve both divine and human elements.

To reflect upon: When scripture is not clear at first sight do we find ourselves thinking negative thoughts or do we have a determination to see how it works as it says?

4. The Mystery – of a child

Focus on Christ Meditations: 4.  The Mystery – of a child

Isa 7:14     Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel

In searching out the ‘pre-history’ of Jesus we need to note that the prophecies in the early chapters of Isaiah (Ch.7 & 8) and there is mystery shrouding both of them. We have seen previously how the apostle Paul spoke of the ‘mystery of Christ’ and it is only when we come to examine the prophecies that are applied to Jesus that we see they are shrouded in whole areas of confusion or uncertainty.  In the previous study the mystery was why such a small town such as Bethlehem should be chosen over the greater city, Jerusalem. Confusing for the wise men, and confusing for those who sought to understand the prophecies.

To understand this and understand something of the mystery (or confusion), we need to see the historical context. It is a time of turmoil and when Isaiah first went to him with his son (7:3) it was to encourage Ahaz. The kings of Aram and Israel (the northern kingdom) had already come against Jerusalem and failed. Let’s see what follows:

The Historical context: First see Isaiah’s family: “the LORD said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub.” (7:3) and that name means ‘a remnant will return’. See also the role of Ahaz, king of Judah (the southern kingdom).  The Lord tells Isaiah to encourage him, (see 7:3-9) and at the end of it says, ask for a sign of confirmation (7:10) but Ahaz refuses (7:11). It’s almost like he says, I don’t need any sign, I can handle it, they failed to take Jerusalem once, I can deal with them.

It is into this unbelieving context that the Lord speaks, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (7:14) Well that sounds good, God being with us, especially when it continues, He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” (Isa 7:15,16) That is even better, these present two antagonists will be destroyed.

If it stopped there that would be fine but instead it goes on to warn that the King of Assyria will be the one who deals with them but he will also come and deal with you! (7:17-25) The confusion here? You haven’t spotted it yet? This child is somehow going to be an indication that God is with them, but the end result of God being with them is that they are (after the initial worries about the first two kings are removed) going to be judged and the land destroyed.

The Second son: Now when we move on into chapter 8 we find the Lord telling Isaiah to name his next son, ‘quick to the plunder, swift to  the spoil’ which would speak of destruction and he adds the same words we saw in 7:16 Before the boy knows how to say `My father’ or `My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria,” (Isa 8:4)  which explains the name. This is followed by a long prophecy against Judah, so twice has this word come – a double sided word, one side removing the present threat and the other side bringing an even bigger judgment. So is ‘Immanuel’ (God with us) good news or bad? It depends were you stand before God.

The ‘Virgin problem’: But there is another problem. We find Isaiah a) has one son, b) brings a prophecy about another but born of a virgin (a young girl, previously unmarried), and then c) has another son by ‘the prophetess’. I have split these things out to remind us that there are three events here. The vagueness of this situation has led scholars to wonder if his first wife died and then he took anther wife, a prophetess, who then bears the second child; how else could the second child be born from a virgin, a young girl, previously unmarried? The two prophecies (7:14-16 and then 8:1-4 on) clearly link the two sons but we are still left with confusion about ‘a virgin’ because Isaiah’s family life is not spelled out in more detail. Isaiah is quite clear about it, however: “Here am I, and the children the LORD has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the LORD Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.” (Isa 8:18)

The Immanuel aspect: So, was this prophecy about ‘Immanuel’ something to do with the Messiah? Looking at the context it is purely historical, applying to Isaiah’s day, but then we come to the New Testament and Matthew is quite specific. Joseph is serious stressed that his betrothed appears to be pregnant and it is only a God-given dream that allays his fears. As a commentary to this Matthew writes, All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”–which means, “God with us.” (Mt 1:22,23) Huh? Where did that come from? The Isaiah ‘Immanuel prophecy’ was all to do with judgment and Matthew now applies it to the coming of the Son of God because Mary IS a virgin in the full sense. Does Matthew see that that which appeared almost bizarre in Isaiah’s day, a warning of judgment, is now a message of mercy and grace? Or is there more?

In the excitement of Christmas we tend to think of Emmanuel or Immanuel as a lovely picture of God coming, but after Jesus was born an elderly prophet who met them at the Temple declared, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” (Lk 2:34,35) In other words the ministry of this child will be two edged. For those with hearts open to God, he will lift them, but for those who remain hard-hearted, stubborn and rebellious, he will be the means by which God will judge them and bring them down.

Isaiah’s Immanuel was all about judgment and yet (and here we go back to 7:3 and his first son’s name) the ultimate end would be salvation for the faithful remnant. Suddenly we get a bigger picture: the mystery of Immanuel and the virgin is that the Messiah will come to bring both blessing and judgment. At Christmas, we tend to focus only on the former but the bigger picture says, no, it is both! There is both hope and warning here and we would be wise to heed them both.

To reflect upon: in thinking about the coming of Jesus, do we hold this balance of blessing versus judgment, which all depends on those who receive or reject him? How might that affect the way we think of others?