It’s beginning to look at least a little bit like Christmas around here. Some Christmasy decorations trickling in on this fourth and last Sunday of Advent. And our Gospel reading shifts from John the Baptist in the Judean wilderness to a young woman named Mary in the north country of Nazareth. Before there is going to be a birth to celebrate, there must be a conception nine months earlier. This is Jesus’ conception story, and it is filled with wonderful things.
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.” Luke packs it all into the opening sentence – six wonderful things in two sentences.
First, it’s the sixth month. Not of the year, but of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. You remember Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah. They were childless and old and the angel came to Zechariah at the incense altar to inform him that he and his wife were going to have a son named John in their old age, and he would be the forerunner of the Christ. Well, old Zechariah had a hard time believing that piece of news, much the same way Sarah laughed at the notion that she would conceive Isaac in her old age (do you see a pattern emerging here?). But as Isaac’s name indicates, God always gets the last laugh in these things. And so Zechariah was struck dumb for nine months and couldn’t speak a syllable until his miraculous son was born and the time came for his naming and circumcision on the eighth day and Zechariah got to speak for the first time in nine months as he declared, “His name is John.” With God nothing is impossible. An old couple can, by the Word of God, conceive and bear a son.
So six months along in Elizabeth’s miracle pregnancy along comes the angel Gabriel a second time, the angel being the second wonderful thing. It’s not every day one sees or hears from an angel. Not even every century. The last time Gabriel was heard from was over 500 years before to Daniel during the Babylonian exile. And now he comes not once but twice within six months, first to Jerusalem and the temple and then to Nazareth in Galilee. And while the appearances of an angel may be very rare occurrences, they do serve the purpose of being God’s exclamation points to announce when God is up to something really big. And while I think it’s fairly safe to say that none of us here has seen or heard from an angel, I can attest that I never have, nothing is impossible with God, and if He wants to send an angel to deliver the good news, so be it. With God nothing is impossible.
The third wonderful thing is the location – Nazareth of Galilee. Hardly the sort of place you’d expect angels to be visiting. Nazareth was up in the hill country of northern Galilee, a military outpost, a great place to keep a watchful eye on your enemies. And recently a settlement which meant housing which meant employment for a carpenter. What surprises us is that God should even notice Nazareth much less send one of his chief angels there. Nazareth was no-place. Jerusalem makes sense. It’s the center of things. The capital. The place of throne and temple. But Nazareth? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” they ask each other back then. And the answer was always with an ironic chuckle, because everyone knew that nothing worthwhile could possibly come from Nazareth. But then again, nothing is impossible with God, and if He wants to make no-name Nazareth ground zero for the coming kingdom, so be it. With God nothing is impossible.
The angel came to pay a visit to a virgin engaged to be married. That’s the fourth wonderful thing. We know virgins don’t conceive. It’s not biologically possible. We all know that. They knew that back then too, though in a somewhat less sophisticated way, perhaps. Even Mary herself asks the angel, “How will this be?” She knew this was impossible, even more impossible than cousin Elizabeth conceiving a child in her old age. At least that one had a father. But how on earth was Mary going to conceive and bear a son without a father? And the answer is simply this: The Spirit and the power of the Most High. Or the angel might have simply said, “Because the Lord has spoken.” The Word does what it says. Mary hears the Word of the Lord through the angel, and the Spirit of God is at work, and she is shadowed over by the power of the Most High, and she conceives the Word in her womb.
Mary stands at the end of a long promise line that began with Eve in the beginning and God’s words to the devil, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her Seed.” Mary is Eve’s historical counterpart, the bookends of motherhood. Eve is the mother of all the living; Mary is the mother of the One who is life. Eve listened to the tempting word of the devil and was deceived; Mary heard the Word of God through the angel, and she conceived. Eve’s deception set the stage for humanity’s fall; Mary conception brought humanity’s salvation. Eve conceived and bore a sinner, Cain, the murderer of his brother. Mary conceived and bore the Lord, the Savior of His brothers.
Mary’s virginity is more than just a technical detail. And it’s certainly not about how “Mary was a good girl and waited for her wedding night.” This is not about her purity or chastity but about Jesus’ identity. You always know who the mother is. And ordinarily there is a father lurking about somewhere. Mary knew this. Joseph did as well. He knew that virgins don’t conceive and so he was willing to call off their marriage plans and quietly release her from her obligations so that she could marry the father of her child. It took the Word of the Lord through an angel in a dream to persuade Joseph otherwise. “Marvel heaven, wonder earth. That our Lord chose such a birth!” For with God, nothing is impossible.
And then there’s Joseph, who is the fifth wonderful thing this day. Joseph, the silent husband of Mary, the stand-in father of Jesus. Put yourself in his place for a moment and ponder it. His fiancée is pregnant and a bit vague on the details. “The Holy Spirit came upon me, the power of the Most High God overshadowed me. An angel spoke to me.” Yeah, right. The longstanding tradition was that Joseph was considerably older, perhaps a widower with his own children. Perhaps this marriage was a family arranged marriage, as was common in their day. Joseph figures, “She met someone more her own age, and he’s the father of her child.” So he decides to void the marriage contract and let Mary go quietly and secretly so as not to subject her to public ridicule. He does this not out of spite or vengeance but because he was a just man and wanted justice to be done. It all makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is that Joseph believed the Word of God that came to him in a dream that said, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife because the Child she conceived is of the Holy Spirit.” That takes faith.
Joseph stands in the Scriptures as a man of great and silent faith. There isn’t a single spoken syllable of his recorded in the Scripture. We have a few things from Mary, most notably her Magnificat song, but nothing from Joseph. We know him by his actions: taking a pregnant virgin as his wife, standing beside her when she gave birth in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt to escape the threats of Herod, returning to Nazareth, raising the wonder Child as his own in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Silent, faithful fatherhood. That’s Joseph. He disappears without explanation from the Gospel narrative when Jesus is about twelve years old. The last we hear about Joseph is how he and Mary lost track of Jesus in Jerusalem and found Him in the temple. He’s not there at the cross beside Mary, nor is he numbered among the disciples or in the upper room at Pentecost. The wonderful thing about Joseph is that he believed, he trusted God and acted on it. For with God nothing is impossible.
The sixth wonderful thing today is Joseph’s line, his family tree. He is of the house of David, the king of Israel, as was Mary. This is David to whom the prophet Nathan said, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your son shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son.” It was Joseph’s ties to David that brought him to Bethlehem with his pregnant virgin bride so that the Son of God would be born in the right place in the fulness of time. This child of Mary is the Son of God, the Promised One, the Messiah of Israel come to establish the throne and kingdom of David not in a temporal way but eternally, not on a throne in Jerusalem but from the right hand of His Father in heaven.
Six wonderful things for us to ponder today: an old woman conceives in her seniority, an angel visits a virgin in a no-place town named Nazareth, the virgin is engaged to a quiet, faithful man named Joseph, who happens to be of the house of David. And in the fulness of time, God sent for His Son, the “mystery hidden for long ages” but now revealed as the prophets had foretold.
He could have come as a mighty man born of royalty; He came as an infant born of a virgin. He could have come in glory; He came in hidden humility. He could have come in power; He came in hidden strength.
There is a seventh wonderful thing to ponder today. (There always has to be a seven.) The seventh is not found in today’s text or even in the Scriptures, though the Scriptures do testify to it. It is not a Word spoken by an angel or in a dream or vision. But it is a sure Word from God nonetheless. This Child of God was born for you, to live your life and die your death under His own Law to save you. The connecting link is your Baptism, the watery Word that births you from above in a birth that is every bit as miraculous as Jesus’ birth from a virgin mother. That same Word forgives you daily and richly, in an absolution spoken not by an angel but by a fellow sinner called and ordained to an office that dares to speak in the stead and by the command of Jesus. And it is by the same Word that a bit of bread brings that Body born of Mary given into death on the cross to your mouth, and a sip of wine that brings that Blood which is the life of the Son of God to your lips.
A virgin conceives and bears a Son who dies and rises to save His people. Sinners are justified in His Name. Humanity is reborn in Him. And while all these wonderful things may seem quite impossible to your reason and senses, remember this: With God nothing is impossible.
In the name of Jesus,