You can rely on the newspaper and magazine industries to come out with articles about Jesus every year at Christmas and Easter. Usually they’re articles that challenge traditional beliefs about Jesus: he didn’t rise from the dead, the Church suppressed a lot of the old stories about him, and maybe he never even existed! We clergy often sigh with frustration when we see these magazine covers; these are old allegations that have been examined and refuted over and over again, but apparently a new generation of editors can’t be bothered to check the back issues of their own publications!
Any newspaper editor knows that if you can combine sex, royalty and religion in one headline, you’re really going to grab someone’s attention! So when we read a story about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary with the news that she’s about to give birth to a child who will grow up to be Lord of the whole world – and she’s going to conceive this child without the help of a man – people naturally jump to conclusions the way they’ve been programmed to. “Mary must have got pregnant by a Roman soldier!” “This is just the same sort of story we see in the Greek myths, where the gods lust after human women and have children with them!”
Well, no, actually it’s not. In the Greek myths the point is the sex, not the children. The gods weren’t purposely producing kids who would grow up to be saviours; they wanted the women, pure and simple. But in the stories as we have them in Matthew and Luke there’s no hint of any sexual encounter between Mary and God, or the gods. The stories are actually fundamentally different.
So let’s start there. The story as we’ve read it in Luke this morning makes it clear that Jesus was conceived before his mother had had sexual relations with anyone; “How can this be” asks Mary, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Of course, these days many people find that difficult to believe, but they also think we modern people are the first to notice the difficulty. We know so much more about science than first century people! Well, that may be true, but first century people knew as well as we do that babies don’t get born without sex. I’m sure if Mary – a young, unmarried girl – had gone to her parents and said, “I’m pregnant, and God did it!”, they’d have been every bit as skeptical as you or I would have been! The first thought in their minds would have been “There’s a cover-up going on here!”
So yes, Matthew and Luke were well aware that they were telling a miraculous story. And yet they tell it, in versions so different from each other that they are obviously independent – which would seem to indicate that the story was widely known in the early church. It wasn’t a fantasy invented by the Church Fathers generations after the fact. Why would these early writers have invented stories that were so obviously open to misinterpretation, unless they had good reason to believe they were true?
So the mainstream Christian belief from earliest times has been – as the creed says – ‘He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary’. Note that this does not say anything about Mary remaining a virgin after Jesus was born – that’s a much later idea. It’s not making any statement about the goodness or badness of sexual relationships, or implying that virginity is a higher state. Matthew and Luke aren’t putting down women, conception, birth or anything like that. They’re simply stating their belief that Jesus did not have a biological human father, and this was possible because of the work of God. As the angel says in verse 37, “For nothing will be impossible with God”.
Of course, Mary was as confused about this as you or I would have been! After the angel tells her she will be the mother of the Son of the Most High, she says “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Here’s the angel’s reply:
“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 Son of God” (verse 35).
This immediately reminds us – as it would have reminded the original readers – of many Old Testament stories. When the Spirit of God came upon people in the Old Testament, they were able to do extraordinary things. Prophets spoke messages in the name of God. Soldiers won battles against extraordinary odds. Elijah was able to run for several miles in front of King Ahab’s chariot. The coming of God’s Spirit always makes the impossible possible. People can do things they would not normally be able to do because of the power of the Spirit of God.
So who is this person who will be conceived in this remarkable way? What does Luke tell us about him?
He tells us that Jesus will be God’s anointed king. Look at verses 32-33:
“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”.
This echoes some words from 2 Samuel 7, part of which we read this morning. God says to King David:
“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who will come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever…Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:12-13, 16).
This language is taken up in the well known Christmas reading from Isaiah 9:
‘For a child has been born to us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority will grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore’ (Isaiah 9:6-7).
So Mary’s son will be the Messiah, the King who God promised to send to set his people free.
Now obviously when Luke wrote these words – probably some time between 70 and 90 A.D. – his readers would have known very well that Jesus had not fulfilled these prophecies in a literal sense. He had not re-established the dynasty of David as a political reality in Jerusalem. He had not overthrown the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders and set up a new government. He had not become the King in a political or military sense.
Luke knew this, and yet he was not afraid to write these words down. Obviously, by the time he wrote this story, Christians were well used to the idea that Jesus is King in a very different sense. In Luke’s second book, Acts, a few years after the death and resurrection of Jesus his disciple Peter will stand up before a Roman household and make a bold claim: that the risen Jesus (who no one could see any more) is ‘Lord of all’ (Acts 10:36). That word ‘Lord’ was one of the official titles of the Roman emperor, so it was an audacious thing for a Galilean fisherman to stand before one of the emperor’s soldiers and claim the title for an obscure carpenter rabbi who had been crucified as a rebel against the emperor.
And yet Peter made that claim, a claim that all early Christians would have agreed with. Jesus is King, not in an earthly political sense, but in a cosmic sense: he is the transcendent king all earthly rulers are ultimately answerable to. As Peter says at the end of his Day of Pentecost sermon: “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).
So to celebrate Christmas is to make that claim today. Jesus is above all earthly political rulers. His authority is higher than any provincial premier or national prime minister. His teaching has more authority than the customs or laws of any country. To say we are Christians is to say that our loyalty to Jesus comes before any other loyalty we have. The Kingdom of Jesus is a cosmic reality, and we Christians are part of it. It has already begun, and it will still be in existence when Canada and the United States and all other nations are only a memory. Jesus is Lord forever, because he is the Son of God. In his voice we hear the voice of God. On his face we see the smile of God. In meeting him, we meet God and we know what God is like; it’s the ultimate case of ‘like Father, like Son’.
How do we respond to this good news?
Mary knew what this message would cost her. She knew people would smear her name and spread lies about her. She knew family members might well misunderstand and refuse to believe. And yet she was willing.
‘Then Mary said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”’ (Luke 1:38).
…which is a rather convoluted example of traditional Bible-speak!!! Here it is again in the much clearer language of the New Living Translation:
‘Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true”.
Mary hears God’s call and she responds with her willing assent. The text doesn’t read as if the angel was giving her a choice in the matter, although we have to believe that God knew what he was doing when he picked her. He knew this young girl was devout and would respond positively to his message.
And I guess there’s a sense in which we are also called to follow in Mary’s footsteps. The carol says:
‘O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin, and enter in – be born in us today’.
Paul tells us in Colossians that the mystery of the gospel is ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Colossians 1:27), and he prays for the Ephesians ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’ (Ephesians 3:17). When the Son of God lived in her Mary was a human temple – a house of God – and we also are called ‘Temples of the Holy Spirit’, because the Holy Spirit lives in us and forms Christ in us.
In Revelation Jesus says to his people, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20). In today’s gospel Mary heard God knocking and she opened the door wide for him to come in. Can you hear his knock this morning? It’s the God of love that knocks, so there’s no need to be afraid; just open the door and let him in.