December 21, 2008
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He 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 ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to 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 holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Talladega Nights is a 2006 comedy film about NASCAR racing, starring Will Ferrell. Much of the film was actually shot not at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama but at Lowe's Motor Speedway in nearby Concord, North Carolina. In the film, Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, and Ricky Bobby says grace before a meal.
“Dear tiny Jesus,” he prays. “Golden fleece diapers, with your tiny, fat, balled-up fist ….”
“Jesus did grow up,” his wife reminds him. “You don’t always have to call him baby.”
“I like the Christmas Jesus best when I’m saying grace,” Ricky Bobby insists. He continues his prayer, “Dear 8 lb., 6 oz., newborn infant Jesus. Don’t even know a word yet. Just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent …. Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God. Amen.”
Now the film is a comedy, and the prayer is supposed to make us laugh—if we can laugh about prayer, but the truth is that we like the Christmas Jesus, too. We love to sing “Away in a manger, no crib for his bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.” We get excited when we, “Go, tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born!” We enjoy Christmas pageants with glittery stars and shepherds in bathrobes. We enjoy Candlelight services and the chance to join our voices in “Silent night, holy night! All is calm, all is bright, Round yon virgin mother and child! Holy Infant, so tender and mild, Sleep in heavenly peace.” Like Ricky Bobby, we like the Christmas Jesus best.
But what if this tiny infant is a bit of a knockoff, a copy or imitation, not a fake, but a version that is not quite as valuable as the original? The problem with knockoffs is that they can take our focus off the genuine article.
In New York City, a battle is raging between designers of high-fashion clothing and manufacturers who create knockoffs. A designer dress will cost you $750; a good knockoff copy will cost you $260. One of the creators of these knockoffs, Seema Anand, tells The New York Times (September 4, 2007), “If I see something on Style.com, all I have to do is e-mail the picture to my factory and say, ‘I want something similar.’” And get this, Anand’s factory in India can deliver the knockoff version of that dress to the stores in America before the original designer can get the original dress into production.
Now some shoppers say that is great, that is capitalism. Why pay $300 for designer jeans if you can get something similar for $30? But the Council of Fashion Designers wants copyright protection extended to clothing, so that good designs will not be stolen. They are working on that, but right now there is no copyright protection for clothing design and so knockoffs are big business. In India, Seema Anand’s factory has computer programs—we are not talking about illiterate third world peasants here—that can design a garment from a picture on the internet. The factory’s 2,000 workers can produce finished samples within two weeks, and Seema Anand says, “sometimes it looks so great you’re just shocked.” Well, the original designer is certainly shocked.
All this points to a challenge for us at Christmas: to separate the Knockoff Jesus from the genuine article. We do not want a dear tiny Jesus in Golden Fleece diapers to distract us from the one who is the Son of the Most High God.
The story, in Luke chapter 1, of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary is called the Annunciation, the revelation by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she will have a child who will be God incarnate. Here we see the original Jesus, and you can tell his authenticity by the brand names. I mean names like: Favored One, Emmanuel, Jesus, Son of the Most High, Servant of the Lord. These names assure us that we are dealing with the real deal, the authentic Jesus.
First, “Favored One.” This is the name that Gabriel gives to Mary: “Greetings, favored one!” (Luke 1:28). Later, he comforts her by saying, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God (v. 30). What an amazing gift this is, to be favored by God — fully accepted and supported.
A giant of Christian history is Martin Luther, a one-time German monk who sparked the Protestant Reformation in the year 1517. For years, he was deeply troubled by his sin. He struggled with the questions like, “How can I be accepted by God?” and “How can I find favor with God?” Luther’s breakthrough was the discovery that he was completely dependent on the mercy of God, and was saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
This insight ignited the Protestant Reformation, but in fact, Luther’s discovery was a rediscovery. He unearthed what Mary already knew—that salvation is a gift of God, one that comes through faith rather than works. The same is true for us: We become the favored ones of God when we put our trust in Jesus, who is the genuine article.
The second name to look for is Emmanuel. Now it’s true that this particular name is not mentioned in Luke, Chapter 1. We find it in Matthew chapter 1, “’Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us’” (Matthew 1:23). The promise of Emmanuel is a powerful promise, because it means that God is with us now and will be with us always—through stress and sickness, conflict and confusion, failure and frustration, despair and even death itself. Nothing in all creation “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). That is the guarantee of the name “Emmanuel.”
So where is this name in the story of the angel Gabriel and Mary? If it does not appear, are we dealing with a knockoff? No, we are not. The name is here in Luke 1, but it is sort of hidden. Gabriel says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (v. 28). The Lord is with you … God is with us. The message to Mary, and to us, is that God is with us, in every time and place and situation. That is what “Emmanuel” means.
Third, the angel Gabriel says, “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (v. 31). This name has a specific meaning. “Jesus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Joshua.” It means “God saves.” This is a message to us. The name “Jesus” announces that God is working through his Son, to save us from sin and death.
As the Christmas carol says, “Good Christian men rejoice, with heart, and soul, and voice; Now ye need not fear the grave: Jesus Christ was born to save!” Born to save, that is what his name means.
Fourth, Gabriel promises: “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 ancestor David” (v. 32). “The Son of the Most High” is not a powerless baby with tiny, fat, balled-up fists. He is the mature Son of God with power and authority to rule like his ancestor King David. “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever,” says Gabriel, “and of his kingdom there will be no end” (v. 33). Ricky Bobby is right when he calls Jesus omnipotent—not powerless, but all-powerful.
So are we prepared to take orders from the Son of the Most High God? It is easy to worship a baby who asks nothing of us but a diaper change, but are we willing to praise the King who gives the directive, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (6:27-28)? Are we going to adore the ruler who says, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also” (v. 29)? Are we likely to bow gracefully to the one who commands, “Give to everyone who begs from you” (v. 30)?
No, it is much easier to worship a powerless baby. However, if we love our enemies, do good and lend without expectation of return, we will be acting as obedient servants of our powerful King. In Luke 6, Jesus says, “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High” (v. 35). Jesus was the son of God. He says if we believe in him and follow in his way, we also are children of God.
At the end of the Annunciation in Luke 1, Mary asks how she can possibly become pregnant, since she is a virgin (1:34). Gabriel speks of the role of the Holy Spirit and the surprising pregnancy of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, and he concludes with the words, “nothing will be impossible with God” (v. 37). Did you hear that? Nothing will be impossible with God. Do you believe that?
Mary did. Mary took a deep breath, made a stunning leap of faith, and declared, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (v. 38). Mary says “yes” to what God wants to do in her life, and this decision reveals that she is the “favored one,” willing to put her complete trust in God. She calls herself the “servant of the Lord,” and in so doing becomes a model for the rest of us.
Mary’s response to Gabriel is marked by humility. She has just been told that she will bear within her own womb the Son of God, the Ruler of an everlasting kingdom. She has been told that she is the favored one, yet she speaks of herself as a servant.
Mary understands that God is at work in her life. The angel is merely announcing what God is orchestrating. Later on in Luke 1 we have the passage of scripture called the Magnificat, which is Mary’s Song of praise. Her song reveals her faith that God has chosen the lowly of this world in order to manifest his glory and power: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (vv. 46-49).
If we are going to follow an authentic Jesus, we each need to be like Mary, an humble servant of the Lord. This means finding the Lord’s favor through faith, believing that God is always with us, trusting Jesus to save us and showing obedience to the Son of the Most High. Anything else is just a knockoff.
Anderson, Phil. “Luther still a force.” The Topeka Capital-Journal. October 28, 2006. http://findarticles.com.
Wilson, Eric. “Before models can turn around, knockoffs fly.” The New York Times, September 4, 2007, A1. nytimes.com.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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