This sermon was preached by Father Joseph Gleason on the Eve of the Annunciation, Tuesday, March 24, 2015 at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois.
Transcription by Maria Powell of Dormition Text Services
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Our God is One.
There are three stories I’d like to look at from the Scriptures. The first story involves Sarah in Genesis chapter 18. The second story involves Zacharias in Luke chapter one. The third story involves the reason for our feast today: The Annunciation. In every case, an angel from the Lord comes and bears great news: a womb which was not expected to bear fruit miraculously will bear fruit after all.
In Genesis 18 starting in verse 9:
They said unto him, where is Sarah, thy wife? And he said, behold, in the tent. And he said, I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also? And the Lord said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old? Is any thing too hard for the Lord? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh. [Genesis 19:9-15, KJV]
In Luke chapter one beginning in verse 5:
There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.
And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course.
According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.
But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth.
For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.
And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.
And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he tarried so long in the temple. And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless. [Luke 1:15-22, KJV]
Luke 1 starting in verse 26
And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.
And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.
And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.
For with God nothing shall be impossible.
And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.
And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth.
And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:
And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.
And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.
And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. [Luke 1:26-47. KJV]
Then she continues with the immortal words of the Magnificat.
These are all righteous saints of God, venerated by the Church, looked up to with great honor for thousands of years. Yet, where we catch the first two saints in their weakness, we catch the Theotokos in her strength.
When the Lord comes to Abraham and Sarah, the picture we are given in Genesis 18 is that of three angels walking and meeting with them. Upon this angelic visitation, when Sarah hears the words, “Sarah thy wife shall have a son,” she does not believe. She doesn’t respond with faith. She doesn’t respond with joy. She doesn’t respond with belief, but she responds with mocking laughter within herself. “There’s no way! There’s no way. I’m ninety years old. The old man’s 100. It just can’t be.”
The Archangel Gabriel appears to this holy priest, Zacharias. He too is a saint. He was a priest of God. It says in Scripture in Luke 1:6 that he and Elizabeth were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, blameless. When the Archangel Gabriel appears to him and tells him that his wife shall conceive, he doesn’t believe it.
This is not a virgin birth. This is not something completely outside the course of nature. The angel has already told him, “your wife Elizabeth shall bear you a son. You two are married. You two are going to come together. You’re going to have a child.” He already knows the how. He’s not in the same position as Mary who genuinely has to ask, “how is this going to work? I don’t know a man.” The angel has already answered that question ahead of time. The angel said, “your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” It is true that he is old, and his wife is old, and they are “well stricken in years.” But Zacharias is a priest of God! Do you think he’s never heard of Abraham and Sarah? He should have known better.
He faltered at this point. Holy Scripture tells us that he faltered at this point. Archangel Gabriel himself says, “because thou believest not my words,” that he would be made mute, that he would be made dumb, that for the next nine months, he would be completely unable to speak.
BLESSED IS SHE THAT BELIEVED
These are pillars of the faith, saints venerated by the church. Yet, at the most miraculous, at the most glorious time that the promise comes to them, they don’t believe. Not so with Mary.
The Archangel Gabriel appears to her and tells her that she will give birth to the very Son of God. Realizing that she is not with a man in any such way to bring about such an event, she asks, “how will this work out? How is this going to happen? How can this be?” She wasn’t doubting, but she was very curious as to how this was possible.
The angel answers her question, and in faith and humility she responds, “behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word.”
In Luke 1:45, we hear righteous Elizabeth say to Mary, “blessed is she that believed.” Blessed is she that believed – greater than Sarah, greater than Zacharias.
Sarah did not believe. Not believing that the promise of Abraham was to be fulfilled through her, she had given her servant Hagar to Abraham to conceive a child. Thus was born Ishmael. When the angel spoke, and she heard the words of the angel, she did not believe. She laughed.
Zacharias did not believe even though he had the example of Sarah, even though the angel Gabriel had already told him how the child would be conceived, and even though the angel Gabriel was himself a heavenly sign of what was promised. When is the last time you had an angel show up from heaven to deliver a message? He questioned the words of the angel, and was struck dumb.
Mary believed. The angel had not yet told her how his promise would be fulfilled, so she asked about the details, but she believed his promise nonetheless. Then Elizabeth said, “blessed is she that believed.” Then look at her response. Mary said, “behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word.”
She didn’t laugh like Sarah: “ha! Virgins can’t conceive children!” There is no laughter. There is no mocking. There is no lack of faith. She didn’t doubt the miracle promised by the angel and ask for some sign above and beyond the appearance of the angel himself. She didn’t do like Sarah and seek some worldly way, according to the ways of men, to bring it about. She didn’t go to sleep with some man to make conception happen the expected way. And she did not complain about the sorrow, pain, suffering, and ridicule that she herself would endure because of the miracle that was going to take place.
Far too many people underestimate just what she was saying when she said, “be it unto me according to thy word.” Not fifty years ago in this country, to be a teenager not yet married and to show up pregnant was a really big deal – ostracized, cast out, ridiculed, called every name under the sun, forced to move away to avoid the shame. In this culture 2000 years ago, all of that was true and more. According to the law, a fornicator or adulteress could be stoned to death.
Notice that the angel gave her no promise of deliverance. For all she knew, she was welcoming the death penalty on herself knowing that she was pure, knowing that she was innocent, and knowing that the angel had appeared to her alone and to no one else and that nobody would believe her story. “Virgin birth? Yeah right!”
She wasn’t stupid. She knew the culture she lived in. She knew the circumstances. She didn’t whine. She didn’t complain. She didn’t say, “could you please at least show some other people signs from God or let angels show up to other people so that everybody knows that I really am pure and this really is a virgin birth?” The angel promised none of those things, and she requested none of those things. In full trust and submission to the will of God, she says, “be it unto me according to thy word.”
“Be it unto me according to thy word even if, for the next 2000 years, large groups of people call me a whore.” Is that shocking? It’s in the Talmud. To this day, Jews who reject Christ refer to the Talmud and to their traditions and say that Mary was an unclean woman, and the word that they use for Jesus us “bastard.” It’s blasphemy! It’s filthy, and yet this is the type of ridicule to which she willingly subjected herself when she said, “be it unto me according to thy word.” “Nobody else may believe that this is a virgin birth, but I know that it is. My Son knows that it is, and God knows that it is. And that’s enough.” She wasn’t seeking the praise of men. She was seeking the praise of God and God alone.
While Zacharias had responded in unbelief and was struck dumb, unable to speak, Mary responded in belief. When Elizabeth blessed her for believing, Mary’s tongue was filled with the praises of God, and she spoke the prayer which has been immortalized as the Magnificat, which in the Orthodox Church is chanted daily.
Mary was believing.
Mary was humbly accepting in her response.
Mary was trusting that the glory promised was worth any sorrow on the way.
Indeed, she is highly favored.
WHO AM I THAT THE MOTHER OF MY LORD SHOULD COME UNTO ME?
Just look at the words that come from Righteous Elizabeth: “who am I that the mother of my Lord should come unto me?” Mary hasn’t even given birth to Christ yet. Mary hasn’t gone into the heavens yet. Already as just a little teenage girl, maybe 13 or 14 years old, this elderly woman (they’re not peers. They’re not the same age.) who is the wife of a priest, this saintly, righteous, godly woman who is so holy that Scripture itself says that Elizabeth was “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” – this holy saint Elizabeth, a priest’s wife in old age, says, “I am not even worthy that this teenage girl should come to me.”
What an amazing picture this is if we can get it into our minds and we can recognize the gravity of what is going on here!
Ours, sadly, is not a culture of honor, but we read about kings, and princes, and queens, and regal courts. We read about knights. We read about the middle ages. We have some idea from the stories of the idea of honor, this idea of obeisance, this idea of a knight bowing before his king, a knight bowing before his queen. Even in our society, there are some families that still know how to teach children to give respect to their elders. You don’t call them by their first names. You him “sir,” and you call her “ma’am.” Since the beginning of time, even in the most honorable of cultures, when have the elderly ever bowed down to the young? When have the priests wives ever bowed down to the laymen?
There is something incredible going on here if you can get this picture in your head, for you have a little girl . . .
[Fr. Joseph] Come here Katie. How old are you?
[Fr. Joseph] Just stand up here for one minute. Come up a little farther. Stand right here.
When you think of Mary, don’t think of someone in her twenties or thirties or forties. Think of somebody about this size and age right here.
Now, I realize you’re not well-stricken in age, Christa. You’re not nearly anywhere close. . . It’s going to be another forty years until you’re Elizabeth’s age. We’re not making that comparison, but still, would you agree you’re a little older than Katie, older than 12?
[Fr. Joseph] Would you stand right up here?
I want you to get this picture in your mind. I’ve read this passage so many countless times, and it’s only just recently that I realized, “oh my goodness! What is going on here?”
In what society would you expect to see this woman [the older woman] look at a little twelve- or thirteen-year-old girl and say, “who am I that you should come into my presence?”
If you saw that happen and you didn’t know any of the context, wouldn’t that blow your mind? Wouldn’t you say, “what is going on here?” I might expect it in the other direction. Okay, if you’re a priest’s wife, and you’re a kid, I can see that if you [the adult] said that to her [the child]. Or if you [the adult] are her elder, an honored member of the community, and you [the child] are a kid, I could see you [the child] saying that to her [the adult]. But when does an elderly woman who is the wife of a priest tell a twelve-, thirteen-, or fourteen-year-old girl, “who am I that you should come unto me?”
How honored was Mary if Saint Elizabeth was so lifted up, and honored, and praised in the Scriptures, and yet even she was in awe when this little teenage girl came into her presence? That tells you something about the sanctity of the Theotokos, of Mary.
[to Katie and Christa] You two can sit down.
Now, a person may say, “that’s just silly to give that much honor to anybody: ‘who am I that you should come to me?’.” Well, this is in Scripture. It’s not just anybody doing this in Scripture. It is a woman who is the wife of Zacharias, the wife of a priest. Scripture says that she is blameless. Scripture says that Elizabeth “walked in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” How many of you can raise your hands and tell me that you have done the same? I’m sorry, but if Elizabeth followed all the commandments of the Lord and was blameless, if she came around, I’d be saying to her, “who am I that you should be coming unto me?”
God covered His bases when He wrote this book, because God said, “Elizabeth is holy. Elizabeth is righteous. Elizabeth is honorable. So when Elizabeth says to this child, Mary, “who am I that the mother of my Lord should come unto me?”, that is what I call honor. That is what I call respect. Mary, according to Scripture deserves our honor. She deserves our respect. As Elizabeth herself said, “blessed is she that believed.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Our God is One.
This sermon was preached by Father Joseph Gleason on the Eve of the Annunciation, Tuesday, March 24, 2015 at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois.
Transcription by Maria Powell of Dormition Text Services Dormition Text Services provides full service secretarial support (including homily transcription and publishing services) to Orthodox clergy and parish communities.
O Theotokos and Virgin, Rejoice! Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, for thou has borne the Savior of our souls.