The following sermon was preached by Dr John Stephenson in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service observing the Festival of the Annunciation, 25 March 2015. The text is Luke 1:26-38.
The way Mary and Gabriel conducted themselves prompts me to ask you some searching questions: What role does reverence play in your life, how deeply is it rooted in your heart, and in what way does it spill over into your words and deeds?
Reverence has taken a nose dive almost everywhere you care to look, and hardly anyone even raises an eyebrow over the fact that standard dictionaries nowadays define the proper noun Jesus as an interjection, that is to say, as a cuss word.
Yet reverence is in order even before you open a Bible, set foot in church, or think a single thought about your Maker. Every human being ever conceived is made in the image of God. We’re speaking of a stained, tarnished, defaced image, I grant you, but this image cries out for proper honour, nonetheless. Once you realise that reverence is called for in your dealings with every human person, no matter their sex, race, mental or bodily gifts or social status, you start to get why it’s so horrific to abort babies, ‘euthanize’ the sick or elderly or disabled, exploit the poor or withhold wages from labourers. Refuse reverence to the images of God you regularly encounter through your five senses, and it follows that you’ll have not a spark of reverence for God Himself and all that pertains to Him.
Gabriel’s encounter with Mary is an object lesson in three-way reverence. There’s not an ounce of familiarity or flippancy or sarcasm in the greeting, “Rejoice, begraced one!” Compare that with the way conversations routinely open today, even among Christian people. And Mary immediately performs a double genuflection of the heart before the Holy One of Israel who is in, with, and under this angel sent as His messenger. Which of the two was more awestruck to meet the other, Mary to see a leading member of the heavenly court, or Gabriel to behold the Woman predicted by Moses and Isaiah?
Reverence dictated that for just over three decades the way in which God took flesh and came to dwell among us was the topmost of all top secrets. Even if today’s social media had stood at her disposal, Mary wouldn’t have tweeted or emailed what transpired between Gabriel and herself, and she certainly wouldn’t have thrown an emotional extravaganza about it on the Oprah show. Reverence made her leave it to God to have an angel inform Joseph about the unique conception of the Child that he did not father. It’s an open question whether Mary shared with Zechariah and Elizabeth every detail of her dialogue with Gabriel, but it fits that she did so: the old priest had met the same angel; all three major participants in the Visitation had the charism of prophecy; when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, she knew that the ark of the covenant had walked through the door on two legs, with enfleshed God in her womb; and if Zechariah was so fully in the picture that he could cry out that, “The Dayspring from on high hath visited us,” then he and his wife may well have gone to their graves knowing the article of the creed “conceived by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary.”
Now the utmost discretion and reserve is called for with respect to the intimate bodily details of any decent woman, with the result that a male gynaecologist needs an even greater supply of reverence than other men. We don’t know when Mary divulged the fact that was hidden for so long from James and his siblings and from the gossiping residents of Nazareth, but it makes good sense to suppose that she did so in the upper room between Ascension and Pentecost, imparting to Peter and the Apostles and perhaps to others of the 120 brethren a holy fact that they could not possibly have taken on board before they had witnessed the glorification of Jesus with their eyes. And Luke surely never forgot the personal interview with Mary that stands behind the first two chapters of his Gospel.
Once it passed into the apostolic proclamation and got written down by Matthew and Luke, the virginal conception of our Lord ceased to be a secret. From that point on it entered the public domain, and you might even say that it went viral. It became a bitterly contested claim, of course, with irreverent unbelief saying the nastiest things. And for all who believe, yesterday’s secret has become today’s and tomorrow’s mystery, a mystery that has shed none of its lustre over twenty centuries, a mystery that will still evoke cascades of awe from all sanctified hearts when, as a popular hymn says, we’ve been there a thousand years.
We face the unfinished and in this life unfinishable task of letting the reverence nurtured by this mystery fill every waking and even sleeping moment of our lives. Be careful how you treat a Bible, where you place it, and how you handle it; it’s not just another book, and so we need to think twice before we print out the readings on sheets of paper and then consign them to the waste bin after the service. The altar is the symbolic throne of Christ, even in an empty chapel; be careful with your body language as you approach it and when you pass it. Never, never, never speak flippantly of Jesus our Lord in any context, and never even think of cracking a joke of which He is the subject.
When he spoke to the faculty before last August’s retreat, my elder brother in the Lord, John Kleinig, drew my attention to the helpful distinction between a secret and a mystery, the first of which dissipates in a moment, while the second abides forever; and in one of his great writings in defence of the sacrament of the altar our father in Christ, Dr Luther, helps me to set before you the vital link between the Annunciation and this and every celebration of Holy Communion. By the mercies of God, Blessed Martin was spared all awareness of test-tube babies and surrogate mothers, but as he was trying to put Zwingli right on the real presence, Luther pointed out that Jesus did not come from Mary as Eve was built from the rib of the sleeping Adam. Because she believed the word of Gabriel and reverently accepted what God gave her through him, Mary was pregnant twice over, says the Reformer, “spiritually and physically, and yet with a single Fruit” (AE 37:90). And so it is or should be with us. To take the Lord’s body and blood into our bodies without contrition and faith would expose us to great danger, but to partake of these holy things in contrition and faith is to receive them aright; it is, to use terminology that our confessions adopt from Peter Lombard, to allow a sacramental to flower into a spiritual communion.
And so, not only in principle but also in very truth, we may share through this Blessed Sacrament in the holiness of the young woman who crossed the threshold of Zechariah’s house to the great joy of Elizabeth who pronounced her blessed. Blessed are you also when you commune according to the will of Christ. May our Lord who comes to you on the altar this day renew your perception of the mystery of His incarnation, which happened when Mary embraced Gabriel’s word in faith; and may He invigorate your reverence for everything that is holy, God first, Jesus obviously as fully God and fully Man, everything to do with the Church, and even the least of those Christ’s brethren, your fellow men and women already inside and still outside of Holy Christendom.