Preached in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel by Dr John R. Stephenson on 25 March 2014 for the Feast of the Annuciation.
Is. 7:10-14; Luke 1:26-38
I like to use the first two verses of today’s Gospel to introduce our students to the discipline of history, which is something you can only practise by paying close attention to details of time, place, and person. Now, nobody in the academic world is going to deny that pregnancies that come to term go through a sixth month. Nor is anyone going to challenge the fact that Nazareth was and is a town in Galilee. And no one is going to bat an eyelid over the fact that a young woman in Nazareth was engaged to a man of royal descent. But I’m sure you already realise why secular scholars must shake their heads over my using these verses to get across the essence of history. God sending an angel with a name to a young woman in a particular time and place—hasn’t Luke crossed the line from genuine history into the bizarre and murky world of legend and mythology? Hasn’t he obviously either mixed fact with fantasy or concocted fact for the sake of ideology?
Before we grasp the secularist bull by the horns, let me emphasise that you are to cherish and treasure all the details of Luke’s account, which are to take deep root in memory and to be the fodder of ongoing, deepening meditation. God sent Gabriel, not Michael or Raphael. He did so in the sixth, not the fifth or seventh month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, and this elderly woman was the wife of Zechariah, not of any other son of Aaron. And Mary was living in Nazareth, not Capernaum; and Nazareth was a town of Galilee, not of Judea or Samaria. These details are unalterable, and they’re important.
A hundred years ago two renowned scholars taught in the Protestant theological faculty of the university of Berlin. Adolf von Harnack knew just about everything there was to know, but he basically denied the supernatural. In the opposite corner Adolf Schlatter had a reverent faith in Scripture despite the fact that we would find his overall grasp of Christian doctrine somewhat defective. One day Harnack came into a faculty meeting and said, “Herr Schlatter and I are basically on the same homepage; we only disagree about the miracles.” To which Schlatter retorted, “No, Herr von Harnack and I disagree about God!”
With this bon mot Adolf von Schlatter hit the nail on the head and helped us a hundred years on to zero in on the bottom line of this sublime festival of the Annunciation. Yes, it’s all about God, the God whom Ahaz didn’t believe in, but Mary did, the God against whom Ahaz was a rebel and toward whom Mary was and is a handmaiden. Notwithstanding his distinguished line of forebears, it was way beneath Ahaz’s dignity to serve the God of his fathers. Mary, on the other hand, shouts loud and clear from the communion of saints that her chief glory is not that she is Theotokos, the Mother of God, but that she is δούλη κυρίου the slave-girl of the Lord.
Yes, it’s all about God. There’s a reason why we focus for a class period or two on the English Deists who thought they could throw out the God of Holy Scripture while keeping a scaled-down, neutered version of the God we know through natural theology. You can’t have a personal relationship with the Deist God; the Deist God can’t intervene here on earth; so it’s no wonder that the Deist God had no staying power, but soon gave way to the agnosticism and atheism that pervade our public culture.
Yes, it’s all about God, the God of Sacred Scripture, the God spurned by Ahaz yet accepted by Mary.
It’s quite mind-boggling that, when Ahaz was in a very tight spot geopolitically speaking, the one true God graciously invited his trust and asked him to name the sign of his choice. There’s something eerily modern about Ahaz, who slaughtered babies and sent them up in flames, who dismantled the apparatus of Temple worship and filled Jerusalem with idols. The CBC would just love Ahaz, and he would doubtless be received with the highest honours at today’s White House. Astoundingly, the God who creates out of nothing, justifies the ungodly, and raises the dead, this one true God bade Ahaz trust and challenged him to name his sign. In response to Ahaz’s refusal, God announces that He Himself will give a sign. Now, a young woman conceiving is in itself not much of a sign, but we are talking about a mega-sign when the Lord proclaims that He will keep His promise to the house of David while at the same time rebuking the faithless sons of David, who will not be permitted to perform the husband’s age-old role in the transmission of life.
In the opposite corner to blaspheming Ahaz stands blessed Mary who entrusts herself to the God who does the impossible, the only God who can turn around our misery and give a fresh start to mankind. You don’t need three doctorates in rocket science to work out that post-menopausal old ladies don’t bear children to old men who can no longer muster up a flicker of sexual prowess; and you don’t need to be all that bright to know that virgins do not conceive. But where Eve let herself be deceived and Zechariah voiced doubts even when face to face with a mighty angel at the altar of incense, Mary simply believes, trusts, and accepts. How can she be the Woman of Genesis 3:15, how can her aged relative bear a child, how can she herself be mother to the Son of the Most High? The How is God’s problem; her role is to put herself at the Lord’s disposal: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to Thy Word.”
Ahaz is now in firm control of the Western body politic; Christendom is crumbling, nay collapsing about our ears. And yet Mary’s God is our only help in time of trouble, the only one who can turn our misery around, heal our brokenness, and give a fresh start to mankind. Perhaps the greatest comfort of this day is that the Son given in response to her Fiat, her “Be it unto me” is bestowed not on her alone but on all who will receive Him. Blessed Martin Luther once pointed out that when we rightly receive Holy Communion we actually receive the self-same gift that dwelt in Mary’s virginal womb for nine whole months. Using terminology going back to Augustine and Peter Lombard, Luther emphasised that Mary was with child twice over, physically with the baby formed in her womb, and spiritually through her faith in the angel’s word concerning this child. Likewise the Lord’s body and blood enter into everyone who eats and drinks the consecrated elements, be they never so wicked and unbelieving. But if, despairing of our own resources we believe the word about the body given and the blood shed for the forgiveness of sins and the life of the world, then we also partake spiritually of the body and blood of Christ that enter into our mortal frames. In her faith in the one true God, Mary is the model of Christian piety and spirituality. As we approach the altar each one of us is invited to speak with her, “Behold the slave girl or slave boy of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy Word.”
Mankind still divides, as it has always done, into those who stand with Blessed Mary and Adolf Schlatter, on the one side, and those who align themselves with Ahaz and Adolf von Harnack, on the other. I don’t doubt where the tiny flock gathered in chapel today stand on this matter, but as dark clouds gather on the outside and Ahaz rules the worldly roost, I pray that our four pastoral graduates will be anointed boldly to proclaim the God who does the impossible and who gives His Son to be our Saviour through the virgin’s womb, and I trust that we may all be strengthened to be witnesses to the one Son of God and the Virgin through the supernatural food miraculously given us in this most holy sacrament.