Below is the sermon largely as preached this morning at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York on the young virgin Mary. The audio is available here. Next Sunday’s message will be based on 1 Samuel 1-2 and Luke 1:39-56. The Good News Bible seems to think that the matriarch Sarah didn’t get to enjoy sex in her old age, which is simply stupid. The pleasure she doesn’t expect in her old age is a newborn son. Indeed, it is impossible for her to conceive a child but with God all things are possible — even the conception of the Son of God in the womb of a virgin.
Last Sunday we met an expectant elderly Elizabeth. She was a Levite married to a Levite, like the parents of Moses, and she conceived and gave birth to a new Moses who even from the womb was preparing the way for the Lord in the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah lived in hopeful expectation of the coming of the Lord but they were so old that it was no longer humanly possible for her to conceive and give birth to a great prophet who would prepare the way for the Lord. She had been barren for her whole life and now she was past the age of menopause—physically incapable of getting pregnant—but God did within her what is humanly impossible. When the angel Gabriel informed Zechariah that his wife would bear this child, he didn’t believe it and the angel sent him out from the Holy of Holies unable to speak. The story sounds a lot like Abraham and Sarah. As Genesis puts it, “The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah.” She too had been barren for her whole life and now was beyond the point that a woman could get pregnant. Like Zechariah didn’t believe the angel Gabriel when he said that Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son, Sarah didn’t believe the word of the Lord that she would conceive and bear a son. So before we turn from these barren women who were elderly beyond the age where it is humanly possible to conceive and turn to the other extreme—a young virgin for whom it also would be humanly impossible to conceive—let’s start with the story of Sarah. The story of Abraham and Sarah will begin to prepare us to hear the story of that young virgin.
When we come to the reading from Luke keep these things in mind… The Lord said, “Is anything too hard for YHWH?” The angel Gabriel will quote a Greek translation of this to the virgin Mary, saying, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Luke wants us to compare the way that elderly Sarah reacted to these words with the response of the young virgin Mary. Indeed, next Sunday we’ll hear elderly Elizabeth bless the young virgin Mary for believing these words. No doubt this is also because Sarah’s son Isaac and Elizabeth’s son John both point us to the Son Jesus. With that reading from the Torah, I want to turn to our reading from the Prophets that told us a virgin birth is not too hard for YHWH. But before I read from Isaiah, let me note as well that we read in Jeremiah 32 much the same line, “Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32:27, cf. Jeremiah 32:17). In Jeremiah, YHWH is talking about bringing the people back from their forced exile from the Promised Land to other places. It is an exile that isn’t really over until Jesus was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary. Immanuel is Hebrew for “God with us,”making it the real end of the Exile.
Let me make a few observations about this reading from the Prophets before we read about the young virgin Mary… I want to point out first that the word that Isaiah uses and is translated here as virgin is a word for a young unmarried woman. It isn’t a word for an older woman who never married or for a widow. It is a word for a young unmarried woman. Moreover, it means a young virgin. There is another Hebrew word that also means virgin but that word doesn’t necessarily mean the woman was young. That’s why this word for virgin is used instead of the other one. I mention this because scholars will often try to argue that if Isaiah really meant virgin he would have used the other word. The only support they can muster is that the word Isaiah used is used in Proverbs 30:19 where Proverbs is talking about premarital relations between a man and a young unmarried woman. Of course, the point Proverbs is making would be lost if the young woman wasn’t a virgin when it happened. Isaiah’s sign also isn’t much of a sign if the young woman isn’t a virgin when it happens. Since he had told Ahaz to ask for a sign as high as heaven or deep as Sheol, the sign that Isaiah shared is meant to be beyond their imagination. A virgin conceiving and bearing a son would be such a sign. But scholars often think that Isaiah was referring to a young unmarried woman who was there when he was speaking to Ahaz and the crowd or at least a young unmarried woman that they all knew. But this ignores the second half of the sign about eating curds and honey and the rest. I’m not going to get into all the details here but just to say that the setting for this sign is after the people have returned from exile. This is also the setting of the Gospel of Luke.
- It is out of the mouth of God’s children that come words of faith like Mary’s reply to the angel.
The virgin Mary, like the new church she represents, responded with the faith of a humble young child. Again, she said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She heard the word of the Lord: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” And she believed it. Some might say she is being naive. After all, who else is going to believe that she got pregnant without the help of a man? This pregnancy is going to cause a lot of challenges for her. But she believed the angel, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” I have no doubt that Luke means for us to compare the old priest Zechariah and Sarah—the elderly matriarch from Genesis—with this young virgin Mary. Zechariah is one of the elders of Israel – a respected priest – but he didn’t immediately believe the angel. The people of Israel honored Sarah as their matriarch, but not only did she laugh when one of the three angels said that she would give birth to a son within a year but she even denied laughing about it out of fear. The angel said, “Is anything too hard for YHWH?” And Sarah denied laughing. On the other hand, the young virgin Mary, who was probably about age thirteen (13) at the time, responded to the angel with the faith of a humble little child. He said, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And the young virgin Mary believed it.
You also believe the word of the angels that nothing will be impossible with God. From the beginning the church has professed faith in Jesus Christ our Lord who was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. We believe in a God who does the impossible – who resurrected dead wombs like Sarah’s and Elizabeth’s – and who created life in the womb of a virgin. Clearly the birth of a son without a biological father is impossible for Mary to do. It is impossible for any human being to do. Jesus is the only person ever to be made from a woman without a man. God made man from the ground, He made a woman from a man when He created Eve, He has made many people from a man and a woman, but the first and only time that He has ever made someone from a woman without a man is Jesus Christ. This too is why Jesus did not inherit original sin – He is a new Adam – He fully shares in our humanity and is made from Mary but because He wasn’t made by ordinary means He doesn’t share in our sinfulness. We might be able to make a person in a lab using human genetic engineering, but we cannot make a sinless human being. Only the Creator God can do so – for nothing will be impossible with God. (Foremost among those things that are impossible for us to do is for us to end our exile from God and be reconciled to Him. But nothing will be impossible with God.)
- God sees His people and God remembers His promises and He ended our Exile by sending Jesus Christ.
The Lord remembers and He sent Jesus to be Immanuel – “God with us.” At the height of the waters of the flood, Genesis 8:1 says, “God remembered Noah.” Then the waters began to recede. And at the right time, Noah and his family disembarked from the ark. While the people of Israel were suffering in Egypt as slaves of Pharaoh, Moses tells us, “Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew” (Exodus 2:23c-25). Then God called Moses at the burning bush to go back and bring His people out of Egypt. And at the right time, Moses led the people through the Sea of Reeds. Centuries later the people of Israel were carried off into exile. But the real beginning of the Exile was when God left the Temple. Seventy years later God brought the people back to the Promised Land. But that wasn’t the end of the Exile. The true Exile would not end for still many years. But when the time was nearly full, God saw how we were in slavery to our sins and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The name Zechariah means, “YHWH remembers.” And God remembered Elizabeth’s womb and brought it from death to life. Then God sent John to prepare the way for the Lord Himself. The conception of Jesus in the womb of the virgin Mary was the sign of Immanuel – God with us. And when the time came for their purification, the baby Jesus was brought to Jerusalem and presented in the Temple. And at the right time, Jesus died for us so that we would be forgiven our sins and reconciled to God. Thus by faith we bear Jesus not in our wombs but in our hearts and God is still with us. Yet like a mother, the church continues to give birth to new believers in Jesus.
If anyone is estranged from God, it is impossible for him or her to bridge that gap between the sinful self and the holy God, but nothing will be impossible with God. For while we cannot reconcile ourselves to God and end our exile from Him, He has come down to us in the womb of the virgin Mary. [At this point I read Luke 1:35 again because the child will be called holy—the Son of God.] You may have a close friend that you have largely written off as impossible for salvation—because it is impossible for them to be saved—and yet God does what is impossible for us to do. He can change their heart so that they no longer can live a lifestyle of rebellion against God. He can use your words, His words on your lips—for He will give you the words to say—to create faith in them. God sees. God remembers. He sent John to prepare the way of the Lord so that many would be saved. He sent Jesus into the world in the womb of the young virgin Mary in order to die for our sins. And Jesus is sending you into the world so that many more people will be born again. Now you might be a young virgin girl or an elderly woman for whom the way of women has ceased or be somewhere in between. It doesn’t matter. You can give life by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. You might be a respected elder or a little boy with a lot to learn or be somewhere in between. It doesn’t matter. You can give wisdom by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. It sounds impossible. But may we all say with the young virgin Mary, with the faith of a humble young child, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”