“Gabriel’s Gracious Greeting” (Luke 1:26-38)
Every year on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, the Holy Gospel is a reading about Mary. Last year it was the message to Joseph that Mary would bear a son. Next year it will be Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth. This year it is the Annunciation to Mary that she will conceive in her womb and bear a son. So each year on this Sunday there’s something about Mary becoming the mother of our Lord, which is most fitting on the Sunday closest to Christmas.
As I say, our text today is the Annunciation, the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the virgin Mary. Gabriel comes to Mary and says to her, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But then Mary’s reaction is a bit puzzling. It says, “She was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” Well, that’s our question, too. What sort of greeting is this? And what sort of meaning does it have for us? That’s what we’ll find out now, as we consider “Gabriel’s Gracious Greeting.”
Let’s begin by considering Gabriel’s opening words: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” “Greetings.” Sounds like an obvious thing to start with. And this could be heard as just an ordinary greeting, much like we would say, “Hello.” But interestingly, the Greek word “Greetings” is related to the word for “Rejoice.” And that just fits. Think of the Gradual for Advent that we sang: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion.” And Mary is the embodiment of that “daughter of Zion.” For in her will be fulfilled the reason for the rejoicing: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem. Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation.” Greetings, Mary! Rejoice, Mary! Israel’s king is coming, very soon, and you will be the one to bring him into the world!
“Greetings,” Gabriel says, “Greetings, O favored one.” The term “favored” means favored by God, graced by him, shown his unmerited grace and favor. And that was true for every Israelite maiden, just as it’s true for every one of us. But for Mary it was a special grace and favor shown to her, only to her. For Mary would have the unique privilege, the highest honor, of bearing Israel’s Messiah. Mary was, as we sang in the hymn, the “most highly favored lady.”
Gabriel continues: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” “The Lord is with you!” The angel tells Mary that the Lord’s presence is with her, and will be with her, in a special way. Gabriel will explain that in a moment, when he says, “You will conceive in your womb,” and then proceeds to tell her just who this son she will be bearing is. “The Lord is with you!” Just as the Lord God was present in the tabernacle and the temple, now Mary’s womb will be the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant where the Lord’s presence will be located. She will be the vessel bearing the holy Son of God! Gabriel will tell Mary about this child in a moment, but for now, in his initial greeting, he simply says, “The Lord is with you.”
“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” So now we’re beginning to see what sort of greeting this is. But at this point Mary doesn’t know what we know. All she knows is that this angel has shown up and is speaking to her! No wonder it says, “But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” Mary may have been highly favored, but she was also greatly troubled and highly perplexed!
The angel recognizes this, so he reassures her: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” “Do not be afraid,” or “Fear not.” How often do we see this in the Bible! It seems that whenever a human being encounters an angel, the common reaction is almost always one of fear. But then the angel will typically say, “Fear not,” “Do not be afraid.” You see, when mere mortals encounter angels, the natural reaction is to be overwhelmed by the power and majesty of these heavenly beings. So it is here with Mary. The appearance of the angel and his singling her out for a special announcement caused her to be greatly troubled. And the angel has to tell her, “Do not be afraid.”
Back to Gabriel’s words, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” What sort of greeting is this? At this point we should mention the sort of greeting many people have been led to think this is. Our Roman Catholic friends think it tells us something about Mary herself. The Latin translation, if you insert the name Maria, begins with the words, “Ave, Maria, gratia plena.” The Latin, in turn, is traditionally translated as “Hail, Mary, full of grace.” You may recognize those words as part of the Roman Catholic Rosary: “Hail, Mary, full of grace,” etc.
The problem here is that Rome makes too much of this greeting to Mary. For one thing, the word, “Hail,” is taken as some sort of veneration that we render to Mary, instead of being understood as simply the angel’s greeting to her. For another thing, the Rosary is used as an invocation of Mary, asking her to “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” That goes beyond what Scripture tells us to do. The invocation of the saints, and of Mary in particular–as though Mary has any special merit to add to our prayers–is nowhere taught in Scripture. Christ is our mediator with the Father, through whom our prayers gain access. It is the merits of Christ alone, interceding for us in heaven–this is all we need to gain God’s favor.
And that leads to another problem with the wrong understanding of “Hail, Mary, full of grace.” It is how the phrase, “full of grace,” is perceived. How exactly was Mary “full of grace”? Was it that she was and is full of grace to bestow, that she herself is a source of grace? No. Mary, in herself, is not a bestower of grace. Rather, she was the recipient of grace–God’s grace, bestowed upon her as a free gift. As someone once put it, “Mary is a vessel to receive, not a fountain to dispense.” Mary was a poor sinful being, just like you and me in that respect, wholly dependent upon God’s free grace and favor. To be sure, she is the most blessed of women, and all generations shall call her blessed. We honor Mary very highly in the Lutheran church. But her blessedness is pure grace and gift on God’s part, nothing intrinsic in Mary.
Well, actually, there is something about Mary. It’s that child she is conceiving and will bear. So in that sense you could say that Mary is “full of grace.” Because she’s full of Jesus! She is carrying God’s grace in her womb, in the person of that little baby! This is Mary’s Savior and our Savior she will bear! So let’s talk about that child, shall we? That’s who Gabriel wants to talk about. Listen to all the wonderful things he says about the baby she will bear, a son named Jesus: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
This is the fulfillment of the promise made to King David centuries earlier, that through one of David’s descendants God’s everlasting kingdom would come. The throne of this Son of David would be established forever. The child to be born–the child that Gabriel tells Mary she will bear–this Jesus will be the great Davidic Messiah, who will usher in the kingdom of heaven, an eternal kingdom of blessing and peace.
That is who this Jesus is. That’s who Jesus is for you, dear ones! He is your king, your Savior, who blesses you with God’s gift of eternal life. Mary’s boy-child, Jesus Christ–he has done that for you, on the cross and at the empty tomb. He is doing that for you now, through his blessed gospel, the Word and Sacrament by which you believe in him and have your sins forgiven. And Mary’s son, the Messiah, will do that for you at the Last Day, when he returns and welcomes you into his everlasting kingdom.
“Behold, Mary, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” Well, one little problem, Mary thinks: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Gabriel answers her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy–the Son of God.”
Here we come to the mystery of the Incarnation, and so here we must bow in humility and reverence. “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man.” Only the God-man Savior, God in the flesh, could deliver us from our sins and win salvation for us. In order to be our substitute, to suffer death as the punishment for our sins, Jesus had to be true man. But for his death to be of such infinite value and worth as to cover the sins of the whole world, this same Jesus also had to be true God. True God and true man, one Christ–this is Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
Jesus, the Son of God born of Mary, Jesus the crucified and risen one, who will return one day as King of kings and Lord of lords–he is the only Savior there is or ever has been or ever will be. No one else, and nothing else, can save you. Not the merits of Mary or the saints. Not your own merits or worthiness. And not any slackness or softness in God’s justice, either. No, God’s just judgment on sinners was poured out on Christ on the cross, and those were your sins he died for. Your one and only hope for eternal life is in Jesus Christ alone.
And the good news is, you have it! You do have that sure hope! You do have that Savior! Yes, Mary–and Marianne and Michelle and Michael: This child announced by the angel, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary–this Jesus Christ is your Lord, who has redeemed you, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. Now you belong to him, and by God’s grace you will live under him in his kingdom, in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
When Christ returns, dear Christian, he will welcome you into his eternal kingdom. And what sort of greeting will that be! Fantastic! Wonderful! In fact, it might even be the same as Gabriel’s gracious greeting to Mary, for there could be nothing better than that: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”