Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 12/3/2000
Six months have passed since Zacharias was struck dumb while ministering in the Temple. So far, no one but he and Elizabeth knew that anything out of the ordinary was afoot. But then Gabriel was sent to an encounter which would come to be portrayed more than any other in Western art. His message was one for which Israel had waited throughout her history. Yet it came not to Annas or Herod or some learned Pharisee or high-placed Sadducee, but to a simple peasant girl who was destined to become the most celebrated woman in history. But the story is not about Mary: like all of Scripture, it is about Jesus. Let us try to hear Gabriel's words as they would have sounded to Mary, the better to understand how the New Testament would develop them. For thus they reveal Christ to us. They reveal:
The term "virgin birth" is really a misnomer. The miracle was in Jesus' viginal conception; the birth itself, once the egg began growing and dividing, was perfectly normal and natural. Jesus grew in the womb and was born just like all of us. He kicked his mother in the ribs, made her short of breath in the last trimester, and gave her awful back pains no doubt. Once he was born he was just as dependent, on the warmth of Mary's arms, the nourishment of mother's milk, as any of us. He was just as weak and helpless. He could not walk or even crawl; he could not talk. He dirtied the 1st-cent. equivalent of diapers. He was a weak as we are, sin only excepted. We marvel at his deity, and rightly so. But the real marvel is deity revealed in humanity, through weakness. So, if we can accept that, it is no wonder that he still makes his strength perfect in ours.
Jesus was Jeshua, the same name as Joshua. It meant savior, redeemer, hero. It was a name that already had a history before this baby got it. Like Joshua, Savior: but from what he would save his people, and how, was not yet guessed. It would drive a sword through Mary's heart when she realized it. For this child would be the last step on the journey that led the human race from the Tree of Knowledge to the Tree of Life by way of the Tree of Calvary.
He would be great. The word shows up in English as a prefix, in words like megabucks, megatons, megawatts, megastar. But Jesus would redefine greatness forever: "He who would be great among you, let him be the servant of all. As ye see me doing," he said with towel and basin. If greatness lies in servanthood, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah would surely be the greatest of all.
The meaning of this phrase to Mary was probably not sonship in the full Trinitarian sense, though that is a possible logical extension of what she would have heard. "Son of X" was a Jewish idiom with which she was familiar. James and John were the sons of thunder, thunderous people. A son of stripes in the Old Testament is one who deserves a beating. So "son of" means "like," or "characterized by." Jesus would be godly, like God in character, so much so in fact that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews would call him the "exact representation" of God's nature" (1:3). If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. The full depths of this truth would be revealed later.
He would be given the Davidic throne. Jesus was a King before he was anything else. Messiah means "annointed one," again like David. We think of him as savior, as the the friend of sinners, and rightly so. But the first form the Gospel took was "Repent, for the KINGdom of Heaven is at hand." Had you asked the Apostle to summarize it they would have said, "KYRIOS CHRISTOS," "Jesus Christ is Lord." His Lordship is not an optional truth tacked on to his Saviorhood; if anything it is the other way around. Bow before him as Lord, and you will discover that he has pardoned you your treason, your former loyalty to his Rival the Usurper, and restored you to citizenship and service. But bowing, accepting him as the true King, is the only way truly to discover this.
All human kingdoms, all human kings, have one thing in common: they end. Where is the splendor of Nebuchadnezzar, the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome, the promise and ideal that was Camelot? They are all dust blown in the wind, ink-smudges preserved on parchment. "Think'st thou that Alexander looked so i' the earth?" Hamlet asks Horatio, holding up the skull of Yorick. "And smelled so? Pah!" But this King will be different, and so his kingdom will be different. People gladly give their lives for kingdoms that are destined to pass away in a few hundred years. How much more should we spend them for this King and this kingdom? For that is a sacrifice that will not be wasted. And therein lies the grounds of Hope.
How could this be, asks Mary, since I know not a man? The Holy Spirit would come upon her, the Power would overshadow her, the Glory would fill her. And THEREFORE the holy offspring would be the Son of God. Mary would have recognized the echoes of Exodus 40:34, when at the dedication of the Tabernacle the Cloud had overshadowed the Tent of Meeting. The implication of Gabriel's words was that for the next nine months, Mary's womb would be the Holy of Holies. The Glory that had departed from the Temple would reside there. Now we must indeed hear the phrase Son of God in the strong sense that Christ would be God himself in human form. In the last book of the Narnia series there is a stable that was bigger on the inside than on the outside, and the children are told that once in their world a stable held something that was bigger than it as well. As the medieval Christmas play puts it, "Stabulo ponitur qui continet mundum": "That which contains the world is placed in a stable."
Now, what would you say to news like that? What DO we say to news like that? It is very easy sitting at a safe distance. But what if it were your womb? What if it were your fiance? Your parents who would have to be told, in a world in which the stigma of unwed motherhood had not yet been blunted at all? Would they believe your story about an angel? What if this news was going to change your life forever so that it would never be the same again? (Guess what: It has! It does! It will!). I must therefore ask you very soberly whether you are now willing to say what Mary said in v. 38: "Behold the bondservant of the Lord. Be it so unto me according to your word." If you can, then come to the Lord's Table. For the Lord announced there will meet you here, according to his Word.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams