In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you.” But she was deeply troubled by this statement, wondering what kind of greeting this could be. Then the angel told her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Now listen: You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.”
Mary asked the angel, “How can this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?”
The angel replied to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. And consider your relative Elizabeth — even she has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called childless. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
“See, I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary. “May it happen to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38)
I was in a small Indiana town, population seventeen-hundred, when President Barack Obama came for a visit. He planned to speak at a local RV plant in an effort to tout the recovering economy. Half the county’s population lined the streets to watch his motorcade pass. Police cars barricaded every intersection. Helicopters buzzed overhead. Secret Service men moved through the crowds and kept watch from the roofs. It was precisely the kind of spectacle one anticipates when a dignitary as important as the president stops for a visit.
It is surprising, then, to see the relative humility of Christ’s arrival into this world. God did not light up the sky with a flashing neon sign. He did not march a parade of angels through the streets of Jerusalem and into the temple to announce his Son’s birth. Instead, he sends only Gabriel, first and privately, to an obscure priest, and then to a young, unknown woman in a tiny village seventy-five miles removed from Israel’s capital.
Anyone who knew anything about the town of Nazareth was prone to deride it. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael would later ask (Jn 1:46). Every major road bypassed the town by miles. It was the last place anyone expected to bring forth God’s Messiah, or his mother for that matter.
Even so, God sovereignly chose Nazareth and, more importantly, he chose Mary.
According to Gabriel, she found favor with God (Lk 1:30). To be clear, the angel was not suggesting she was more worthy than other women. This favor, or grace, was unmerited just as God’s grace toward sinners is always unmerited. After all, if grace can be earned, it ceases to be grace (Ro 11:6). Furthermore, Mary is the passive recipient of the Lord’s favor, not a supplier. We might think of her as a blessed instrument in God’s plan of redemption, whom he used for a vital purpose.
Mary would give birth to the Son of God.
This news challenged even Mary. Specifically, she questioned the logistics of a woman conceiving a child when that woman has never had sexual relations with a man (Lk 1:34). One does not need a degree in biology to understand the dilemma, but the solution, we discover, was quite simple. The Holy Spirit would come upon Mary, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her (Lk 1:35). In other words, God’s Spirit would serve as an agent of the child’s creation.
When the earth was yet formless and empty, the Spirit of God was present, hovering over the surface of the waters (Ge 1:2). Though the Spirit doesn’t receive as much fanfare, every member of the Trinity played a role in the creation story, and the Spirit reprises that role in the conception of Jesus. He overshadows Mary. He surrounds her. He hovers over her, if you will. He is the predominant power in creating the Lord’s biological composition within the young virgin’s womb.
This God-man must be named Jesus (Lk 1:31). More than once in the Gospels, God the Father is very specific about his name, which means Yahweh saves.
Unlike the contemporary version of the holiday, God is at the center of the original Christmas. He carries out his plan in his seemingly unconventional way. He is the Savior, whom he brings into this fallen world via a humble virgin from a humble village. He performs the miracle of it all. While we celebrate the event by decorating trees, shopping for flatscreens, and practicing myriad other traditions that have little or nothing to do with praising Yahweh for salvation, every detail of the first Christmas is the providential outworking of God’s sovereign purpose.