Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Hard to Believe

The Annunciation - from Emmanuel

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.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 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, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “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. 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.”

I am the Lord's servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (Luke1:26-38)

When writing about the Annunciation of the incarnation of the Son of God, Dr. Martin Luther (1483-1546) quoted St. Barnard who said, “there are here three miracles: that God and man should be joined in this Child; that a mother should remain a virgin; that Mary should have such faith as to believe that this mystery would be accomplished in her.” Luther then noted, “The last is not the least of the three.”

Martin Luther certainly didn’t mean to say that Mary did something miraculous, but rather that the faith that God gave her to believe this amazing event was at least equal to the miracle of the incarnation. The High Priest, Zechariah, could not believe a slightly lesser miracle when the angel Gabriel brought him the news that he would have a son with his elderly wife (Luke 1:18). Mary, likewise, couldn’t understand how it could be that she would conceive a son as a virgin, but she believed the Word of God spoken through His messenger.

The incarnation of the Son of God into human flesh is truly THE turning point in all of history. That is why we count our years from the culmination of this event, the birth of the baby Jesus. Or I should say, we count our years from the date of Christ’s birth that was calculated to the most likely date when the Gregorian calendar was put together. Newer research suggests that Jesus was actually born in 4 or 3 B.C., but after 1,975 years (or so, as I write this) a few years doesn’t matter to me either way. The point is that we count our years from the birth of Jesus (more or less).

When God became a man with the conception of Jesus it was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Adam and Eve that the woman’s seed would come to crush the wicked serpent which led them into sin and death. It was a promise that God had repeated and reconfirmed throughout history so that faithful people would not lose hope and despair.

The incarnation is such a wonderful, and important event, that it has been attacked by many throughout the succeeding years. Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) maintained that “the finite cannot contain the infinite.” He was referring to the bodily presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, but if it isn’t true for the Sacrament, it can’t be true for the incarnation. Fortunately, Zwingli was wrong. Scripture says in Colossians 1:19 that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Him (Jesus).” Even from the moment of conception, when Jesus was just a one-celled person, He was still in control of all creation as God. Yet, as an infant, He was still dependent on His mother (and soon-to-be stepfather, Joseph) for protection, nourishment, and other physical care.

Now, when I say that it was a miracle that Mary believed in the Virgin Birth I don’t mean to say that the story is a myth and that it didn’t really happen. Both of the Gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke tell a story that is rich in detail as if it were true and not a myth or fantasy or fiction. If we only listen to the story in Christmas carols or as told to little children then we may think it was a myth. However, note how Matthew tells the story: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: 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. 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. 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. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’”(Matthew 1:18-20)

It is interesting to note that God did not send the message to Joseph at the same time He told Mary. God let Mary explain the situation to Joseph first. Though Matthew doesn’t tell us all of the discussion between Mary and Joseph you know that they had to have had a heated discussion, and there must have been many tears shed. It is not easy to believe in a miracle which had never happened to that point in history (though some may have claimed that it had). The way that Matthew describes Joseph’s thinking shows that he didn’t believe Mary’s explanation of the miracle. Joseph had determined to divorce Mary, though quietly so as not to expose her to “disgrace.” What had happened to Mary was as far from a “disgrace” as you can get for a sinful human, but it was not easy to believe.

The virgin birth of Jesus is still not easy to believe. In fact, it is impossible to believe. That is what faith is all about. Faith is about believing what seems impossible. This is why unbelievers have the wrong impression that faith is “blind,” not to mention “ignorant” and “foolish.” True faith is a gift from God, and just like Mary’s belief that God would conceive a child in her with her virginity intact, it is always a miracle.

A greater miracle than the virgin birth of Jesus is the fact that God would become a man in order to save His rebellious people from their sins instead of punishing sinners as they deserve. This is truly the core of the Christian faith and the heart of the Gospel. No other god on earth would do such a thing because all other gods are fictitious creations from the mind of men, and no one could imagine a god who would do such a thing. But that is exactly what God did in Jesus Christ. For this we remember the birth of Jesus as the most important turning point in all of history. When Jesus came to us God was accomplishing our salvation as He had first promised the very same day that sin came into the world.

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