Our lives are filled with conversations. Every day we talk with family and friends, colleagues and neighbors, classmates and playmates. The subject matter is predictable. We speak of the weather, the kids, school, work. Nowadays we could add the pandemic, Christmas plans, and online learning. Most of these conversations are imminently forgettable. They fly away as soon as the last mouth stops moving.
There are other conversations, however, that we remember. It was the last heart-to-heart you had with your dad before he died. It was the deep discussion with your future spouse that sealed the deal. It was the key exchange which led you to change careers, or choose your college, or name your child. These conversations stay with us. We could not forget them if we tried. They changed our lives.
At the center of this gospel reading is a conversation. It was of the memorable variety. It involved a peasant girl from a small town and a mighty messenger from God.
*The last few weeks I have suggested preaching a series of sermons about how each of the four Gospels begins. If you have taken that suggestion, you might begin this sermon by reflecting on Luke’s distinct starting point. Unlike John who takes us back to creation and Mark who opens with Isaiah, Luke’s orderly account begins with two related pregnancy announcements—the latter obviously being the more significant.
You might imagine your sermon as an exercise in eavesdropping on this conversation. You could begin by considering the participants.
At the center of this gospel reading is a conversation. It was of the memorable variety.
Mary was a teenage girl. Probably too young to drive. She lived in Nazareth, a forgettable town in far-away Galilee. We know almost nothing about her prior to this conversation. She was a daughter of the Covenant, a child of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But her people in those days were nothing to write home about. The glory of David and Solomon were a distant memory. It is likely she lived in poverty and simplicity. Luther suggested she may have been an orphan.
To this otherwise insignificant peasant girl came the angel Gabriel. We do not know much about him, either. Besides Luke 1, he is mentioned by name only in Daniel 8-9. For angels, however, that is not bad. Only two angels are named in the entire Scriptures. Gabriel means “man/mighty one of God.” He stands in the presence of God (Luke 1:19) and his presence inspires the fear of man (Daniel 8:17, Luke 1:12).
Here is how the conversation went: Mighty Gabriel came to young Mary and said, “Greetings (literally, “Rejoice!”), O favored one, the Lord is with you.” This was a strange way to begin a conversation. Luke tells us Mary was troubled by it. Maybe it bothered her that this stranger knew her name. “Do not be afraid, Mary,” he said, “for you have found favor with God. And you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”
You can hear the excitement in Gabriel’s voice. This was a big deal. This King had been promised for millennia. 1 Peter 1:12 says even the angels longed to look into these things. But Mary did not seem thrilled. She responded with an understandable question: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Gabriel responded, “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 called holy—the Son of God.” He concludes with an understatement, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Literally, Gabriel said no word (ῥῆμα) from God is beyond reality.
You can hear the excitement in Gabriel’s voice. This was a big deal. This King had been promised for millennia.
Without questions about her fiancé, or her wedding, or her reputation, Luke tells us Mary believed. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And Gabriel left.
Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of three miracles in Mary’s life. (1) She was a virgin, and yet she gave birth. (2) The baby she bore was also God. (3) She trusted the angel’s message. Luther discussed these three miracles. He called the virgin birth a “mere trifle” for God. He considered Jesus’ being both man and God a bigger deal. But most amazing, says Luther, is how Mary believed the word Gabriel spoke to her.
The believing is the hardest part. Sometimes it is hard for your hearers to believe God is actually with them. Sometimes it is hard to believe God truly cares. They hear His promise of forgiveness and life, but sometimes it is hard to believe, not only for your hearers, but also for you and me.
Which is why you might lean into Gabriel’s description of Mary as the “favored one” (κεχαριτωμένη). What made Mary favored was not her family line, or her personal achievements, or her pure heart. She was favored in that God chose her. In Ephesians 1:6, Paul describes Christians as “highly favored” (ἐχαρίτωσεν). He says God chose us to be His daughters and sons out of nothing but His favor.
In the end, your people (and you) are not that different from Mary. By human standards we are insignificant. We have done nothing to justify God coming to us. But God has had favor on us. He has come to us, as well.
You, the preacher, are certainly not the mightiest angel in the Lord’s army. Your presence does not inspire fear among too many people. But your role in this sermon is similar to Gabriel’s role in his conversation with Mary. Your message is the same as his: “Rejoice, O favored ones, the Lord is with you.”
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 1:26-38.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 1:26-38.
Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 1:26-38.