A Beginning with No Ending
The eleventh chapter of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews is unique in all of Scripture, perhaps with the exception of Psalm 136. It is sometimes called The Gallery of Faith or The Heroes of Faith. In just 40 verses the writer somehow manages to survey nearly all of what we call Salvation history. The reason Hebrews 11 is important to us this morning is because of something that doesn’t happen there.
Beginning with Abel we are treated to the highlights of the lives of most of the great names of the Old Testament: Abel, Enoch, Noah; then Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Rahab. And what all of them have in common is that, though each of them had encounters with God, none of them got what they were really looking for.
Any of you who are children or are children-wannabes know the experience these Old Testament saints had. You’re in the home-stretch in the race toward Christmas. Ever since Aunt Edna asked you for your Christmas list back around Halloween, you’ve been honing down what you are hoping for. And there are some here in this room today who have got it all figured out. You lucky few know that you know that you know what you will get come Christmas Morning, provided that you behave yourself until then and make sure you put a plate of Christmas cookies and a glass of milk out before you go to bed on the 24th. At least you think you have it figured out, until the next morning. There are some wonderful presents under the tree for you, but the one thing you had asked for… the one thing you had really hoped for… isn’t there. Not this year. And so you pin your hopes on next Christmas. And then there’s always your birthday coming up. So you keep on hoping.
Listen to how the writer to the Hebrews puts it: And all these -- Abel, Enoch, Noah; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets – all of them, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect (Hebrews 11:39-40 ESV).
The end of promise, the beginning of fulfillment
All of the Old Testament saints were still waiting for their Christmas present when each of them stepped over into Eternity. That’s what makes Mary different. She lived on the cusp between promise and fulfillment, between fear and favor, between questions and answers, between objections and submission, and every word of this morning’s Gospel Lesson is absolutely pregnant with promise, if you’ll excuse the all-too-intentional pun.
Listen again and share in the richness of what may just be the most loaded, ready-to-open-the-best-present-ever sentence in all of history. Here it is: “In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.”
Let’s unpack the sentence so we can see what makes what it says so amazing.
Sixth Month – The sixth month of the Jewish calendar is the month Elul, which comes in early fall on our calendar. In Luke’s gospel, the sentence before the one we just read makes it clear that this was the sixth month Elizabeth’s of pregnancy. Elizabeth, of course, was a relative, probably a cousin of Mary’s. But we have to pay attention to the specific wording Luke is using. If you are looking at Luke 1, you’ll see that verse 36 says, “this is the sixth month with her.” Why did Luke need to say that if he had already told us in verse 26 that this was the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy? The only answer is that there are two different “sixth months” being talked about, and that it just happened that the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy was also the sixth month of the Jewish calendar, the month they call Elul. And so, Luke 1:26 begins, “In the sixth month…”
Elul is a month of repentance leading up to the two great feasts, Rosh Hashanna (Day of Judgement) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) that happen at the end of September in our modern calendar. Assuming that Mary became pregnant immediately following her encounter with the angel, Jesus’ birth would come early in the month Sivan, which comes in the spring.
This presents the tantalizing idea that Messiah may have been born on the sixth of Sivan, which is the Jewish feast of Shavuoth, which celebrates the giving of Torah, the five books of Moses that contain the Law, to the people of Israel.
Do you begin to see? Jesus, whose name means “God is Salvation”, becomes the bridge between Man’s sin and God’s law. He who needed no repentance was born for repentance, that in him we law-breakers might fully receive what the Law was unable to give us. He himself is the fulfillment of the Law. He was what all those Old Testament saints were hoping would be under the tree on Christmas morning. He, Jesus himself: the promised and hoped-for One.
Jewish tradition says the name of the month Elul is also an acronym for the Hebrew phrase, “Ani L'dodi V'dodi Li,” which means, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” The heart of repentance is at the heart of relationship with God. What else could John have meant when he said, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life?” If you’ve ever questioned what reason God could possibly have for wanting you in particular to spend eternity with him, here is what he said to you at the moment of Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb: Ani L'dodi V'dodi Li. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.
If you’re a Christian today there’s nothing about you that makes you any more special than anyone else. In fact, you are just as special as everyone else. When God looked at you, before you were even born, you were his “beloved”. And God’s love for you was so intense that it caused him to place the life of the great Beloved – his own Son – in Mary’s womb, “in the sixth month.” Elul. Beloved.
“In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel…” This is not the first time an angel has appeared. As a matter of fact, this is not the first time the Angel Gabriel has showed up. He appears after the prophet Daniel had a vision of the end of time. “When I, Daniel, had seen the vision, I sought to understand it. And behold, there stood before me one having the appearance of a man. And I heard a man's voice between the banks of the Ulai, and it called, “Gabriel, make this man understand the vision.” So he came near where I stood. And when he came, I was frightened and fell on my face. But he said to me, “Understand, O son of man, that the vision is for the time of the end.” (Daniel 8:15-17 ESV)
When God wants to do something really special, when he wants people to really sit up and take notice, he sends an angel. It is like it would be on Christmas morning if you got through opening all the presents and the present you really wanted wasn’t there. For a moment you’d be really disappointed. And then there is a knock at the door, and you open the door, and standing in front of you in all the splendor of his brown-ness stands the UPS guy. In that very moment all your senses would come alive at once, you’d feel a weakness in your legs… a pounding in your chest. This is IT! The presence of the UPS guy means my present has arrived!
“In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth…”
Nazareth, of course, is the place where Jesus grew up and where Mary and Joseph came from. The word Nazareth is of questionable origin. It may come from the Hebrew word “Netzer”, meaning Branch. But this is not the usual Hebrew word for the branch of a tree. It is used exclusively to describe Messiah, like when Isaiah says, (11:1) “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”
Nazareth may also be derived from the Hebrew word “Natzar”, meaning to keep watch or to guard. Psalm 121 says, “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”
Netzer or Natzar, something really good is about to be forever associated with Nazareth. God’s righteous Branch, the symbol of God’s watch-care over Israel is here.
“In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee…”
Isaiah 9 begins, “But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
The present is not just for the Jews. The present the UPS guy has brought is for the whole world. That’s why Jesus came from an obscure village up in the north-east corner of Israel. He didn’t come from Jerusalem. He wasn’t born in any of the historically great cities of Judea or of Israel. Jesus was born in an area that was a maligned melting-pot, a mix of cultures, a place where pagans and Jews lived side by side in an uneasy alliance. God was telling us something very important: Messiah is from Galilee of the Gentiles. He is from where the goyim live… what the Jews call “the nations” – the “everybody else.”
“In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin…”
Why is it in any way important that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus? Scholars have debated this one over the years, and there’s a whole lot of people today who treat this part of the narrative as myth or fantasy. But in the moment between promise and fulfillment there is no room for myth.
The beginning of John’s gospel tells us the reason why the virgin birth is a necessity. We’ve been progressively reciting more and more of John’s prolog throughout Advent as we begin our worship together. He says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” And then he adds this amazing statement. “In him was life, and that life was the light of men.”
THE reason why the virgin birth is necessary to the story is that Jesus had life in himself: the kind of life that causes old barren women like Elizabeth to get pregnant, the kind of life that raises young girls like Jairus’ daughter back to life, that heals desperately ill people, just by his presence; the kind of life that can call Lazarus out of the tomb after three days; the kind of life that gave Jesus the confidence to say he could lay down his life and take it up again at will; the kind of life that comes upon a young woman who has never been with a man and gives her the confidence to stand up against accusation and possibly be branded as an outcast for life when she simply finds that she is going to have a baby. Oh, the virgin birth is absolutely necessary, because it testifies to how much LIFE was in Jesus.
And if that’s not enough, then just accept that this moment is the fulfillment of something that was said to one of the most evil men who ever lived, a king named Ahaz, about 700 years before Christ. “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:13-14 ESV)
“In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married.”
From here the pace of the sentence gets quicker, the promises come in greater and more obvious succession. Mary was pledged to Joseph. This wasn’t just a vague promise or an engagement that can be broken off or not fulfilled, the way it sometimes is today. This was an unbreakable pledge made between two families when the children were young. This was the only hope most women had for financial security. A “good marriage” was so important. And the only way to break off the engagement was if the girl proved to be a prostitute by breaking the vow.
But in those days people rarely married for love. They married because they needed to. Mary was pledged to a man named Joseph. We learn from Matthew’s account that when he found out she was pregnant, Joseph decided to divorce her quietly because he was a just and honorable man.
But Solomon’s Song tells us what happens in the month of Elul – “Where has your beloved gone, O most beautiful among women? Where has your beloved turned, that we may seek him with you? My beloved has gone down to his garden to the beds of spices, to graze in the gardens and to gather lilies. I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine; he grazes among the lilies.” (Song of Solomon 6:1-3 ESV)
Mary was already beloved by God. In the month of Elul, she would discover how beloved she was to Joseph.
We have to add something here about names. Joseph’s name means, “God has added”. Certainly the pledge meant that God was adding something to Joseph’s life. But God gave Joseph the great gift of being the man who would raise HIS son. God added, through Joseph, more about strength and what it means to be a man, than Joseph could possibly have known.
David’s name appears too, and Isaiah tells us – “then a throne will be established in steadfast love, and on it will sit in faithfulness in the tent of David one who judges and seeks justice and is swift to do righteousness.” (Isaiah 16:5 ESV)
And finally we come to the name Mary – In Hebrew Miriam, who was the sister of Moses in the Old Testament. The name may be originally Egyptian, meaning “beloved.” And surely the identification with Moses in Egypt cannot be coincidental. “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” (Hosea 11:1)
In the month of Elul, Mary – “beloved” Mary – found out just how beloved she was.
From the beginning of creation until the very moment the angel spoke to Mary, all was promise. But this moment was the end of promise, the beginning of fulfillment. In the birth of Christ the vast chasm human sin had opened up between God and Man was being filled in. The mountains and hills were being made low. All was being leveled again in the coming of Christ that in the Cross of Christ God and Man might again meet on that vast plain, never again to be separated. This was a beginning that has no ending.
Beloved, the present you’ve been longing for all your life is under the tree. The UPS guy is knocking at the door. If you’ve never opened the door to receive the gift God has for you, let today be the end of promise, the beginning of fulfillment. Let today be the beginning that has no ending for you. Say to Jesus, “I want the gift that you are. I want to know you. I want to be with you for all Eternity.” Don’t let this Christmas go by with you still hoping for the present you really want.