Theme: Belief in Gabriel’s Message
This week’s lessons help us to prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ by
focusing on three miracles seen in the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary.
Scripture: Luke 1:26-38
It is hard to think of Christmas without thinking of the two great miracles I have mentioned—the incarnation and the Virgin Birth—and yet the third of these three miracles is the greatest of all, namely, that Mary should believe the angel’s message. Luther puts it nicely: “The Virgin Birth is a mere trifle for God; that God should become man is a greater miracle; but most amazing of all is it that this maiden should credit [that is, believe] the announcement.”4
The great Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon has a sermon on this passage in which he compares the question of Mary in verse 34 (“How will this be since I am a virgin?”) with Zechariah’s similar question in verse 18 (“How can I be sure of this?”). He calls it “A Distinction with a Difference.” What he means by this title is that, although the words of the two figures are very much alike, there is nevertheless an enormous and important difference between their meanings and the ways they were asked.
Zechariah’s question expressed his disbelief. The angel had appeared to him to announce the conception and birth of John the Baptist, just as he later appeared to Mary to announce the birth of Jesus. However, in Zechariah’s case there was no miracle of God becoming man; John was a mere human being, though a great one. There was no Virgin Birth; John’s was a natural conception. The only problem for Zechariah was that his wife Elizabeth was up in years and was therefore probably past the age of having children.
Zechariah was God’s priest. He therefore knew the Old Testament, and he must have been aware of the story in which Abraham was given a son when he was past the age of engendering one and when Sarah was past the age of conceiving. Yet in spite of this and in spite of the fact that an angel actually appeared to him to make the announcement of John’s birth, Zechariah did not believe the angel’s message. Therefore, he was struck dumb until after the birth of John the Baptist nine months later. His inability to speak was to be a sign to him. The angel said, “You will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come to pass at their proper time” (v. 20).
How different in the case of Mary! On the surface Mary seems to say nearly the same thing. “How will this be,” she asks, “since I am a virgin?” But there is all the difference in the world between what Zechariah said and the way Mary asks her question. Mary did not say, “How can I be sure of this?” She was sure of it. God had spoken through his angel and Mary believed what God said. Her question had to do rather with how this great miracle was to happen. Her question was an example of what the later medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury was to call fides quarens intellectum (“faith in search of understanding”).
And this is precisely what God gave her: understanding. For the angel went on to explain what should happen, as thoroughly as it is possible to explain such a miracle. The angel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (v. 35).
Moreover, although Mary did not ask for a sign as Zechariah did, God nevertheless gave her one, for the angel continued his announcement by saying, “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” (vv. 36, 37). That was important to Mary, as we know. Mary went to stay with her cousin Elizabeth until near the time of her delivery.
There are two great examples for us here. For, as Spurgeon observed, we should imitate Mary both in her implicit faith in the promises of God and in her inquiry. God honors faith and delights to teach the one who has it. He loves to instruct the one who believes him implicitly.5
Contrast the response of Zechariah and Mary to the angels’ announcement to each of them.
What two great examples does Spurgeon give for how can we imitate Mary’s response to the angel?
Reflection: In what ways can use take Spurgeon’s two examples and apply them this week?
4Martin Luther, The Martin Luther Christmas Book, ?. 23.
5Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “A Distinction with a Difference” in Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 24 (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1972), pp. 169-180. Original edition 1878.