Stephen J. Tracey
I understand that Mary was confused and perplexed. I doubt she was often greeted, in glowing terms, by an angel. “And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you’ ” (Luke 1:28). It’s not an everyday greeting.
No wonder “she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be” (v. 29).
Then the heart of the matter is declared:
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name 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.” (vv. 30–33)
Now that is heady stuff—a son, Jesus, great, Son of the Most High, throne of David, reigning, an unending kingdom. At last the great work of slaying Satan and sin and death was to take place. The time had come. The kingdom had come. Messiah was here; King Jesus was stepping into Mary’s life, and stepping into the world.
Then the hard news. An outside power, albeit that of the Holy Spirit, is going to come upon her and she will conceive a child. The angel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (v. 35). There is something intense in those words. One might even say threatening. Clearly her life will never be the same again. She is going to be overshadowed.
Coming face-to-face with the grace of God in Jesus Christ is an encounter with power: an incredible power, perhaps even a terrifying power. The words Mary hears are not necessarily comforting. The verb, “to come upon [you],” is used several times by Luke. The context is often aggressive, as in, for example, Luke 11:22: “… but when one stronger than he attacks him [literally, ‘comes upon him’] and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.” Jesus is stronger than Satan and will come upon him and plunder his kingdom. It is not necessarily the case that Mary fears God will attack and plunder her. But it is no mere coincidence that the same word is used in these two places. God will come upon her, in order to enter this world in the flesh and attack Satan himself. Mary is being rescued. The rescue involves the power of God let loose in the world.
One should read Luke 21:24–25 and 34–35 to catch the eschatological overtones of this word. There is a sense of being overtaken by something more powerful, something irresistible, and, in most cases, something to be dreaded. That is why the angel introduced the whole idea with these words, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30).
If this is favor, the grace of the gospel, then why is it so daunting? The answer is wonderful. The King of Kings is on the move. He will bring salvation. He will melt the cold death of winter and bring new life. Yet when Mary hears this, and learns she is to play a role in this, she is “greatly troubled” (v. 29) and clearly afraid (v. 30). She does not quite understand it (v. 34). Jesus steps into her life and into our world, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and she is frightened.
The Lord God in heaven was going to come upon her; he was to begin his great work and it would begin in her body. The next, and crucial, phase of the old enmity from the garden begins in the womb of Mary. This was a most unusual moment. Mary’s body would be an instrument of righteousness in the hands of the King as he strides forward to crush Satan. But Mary, too, must yield to Jesus.
Do you see why the grace of God in the gospel can appear terrifying? God, in the gospel, is like an expeditionary force, come to invade your life and to retake possession for his holy residence.
Our first reaction is to say that it’s not fair. We want Jesus in our lives, but on our terms. But God steps into our lives on his own terms. Too often our desires are too small. We want God to help us be a better spouse, or parent, or person. We want him to solve a problem, to fix a part of our lives. But the good news is this: he will do a much more powerful thing.
We might feel defenseless, invaded. But perhaps there is a better way to view it. The Holy Spirit will come upon us and, through the finished work of Jesus, make us new—a whole new creation. What do you say to that? Come, Holy Spirit.
This idea of power is reinforced by the other words used by the angel, “the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (v. 35). Overshadowed—that does not sound comforting. We might not react well to being told we are going to be put in someone’s shadow. We think of grace as raising us to glory. We rarely think of it as being overshadowed by the glory of another. Yet everyone in the nativity was overshadowed by the glory of God. Joseph was overshadowed; Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptist, even the angels, for they cry, “Glory to God in the highest” (Luke 2:14).
To be overshadowed is to be caught up into the glory of another, that of God himself. It is to be caught up into God’s own glory cloud. All three synoptic gospels use this word to describe the cloud of glory that appears at the transfiguration of the Lord Jesus (Matthew 17:5, Mark 9:7, and Luke 9:34). The only other occurrence in the New Testament refers to Peter’s shadow falling on the sick (Acts 5:15). For Mary, the good news of the coming of Jesus means that God’s shadow has fallen upon her. There is healing under that shadow.
While Mary probably did not know of the coming transfiguration, she certainly knew of the cloud of glory in the Old Testament, the presence of God saving his people in the Exodus and the presence of God filling Solomon’s temple. To be overshadowed in this sense is not to be pushed off the stage; rather, it is to be pulled further up and further in to the glory of God’s own presence. When God’s shadow falls upon us in the person and work of Jesus, it is a moment of joy. It is a moment of redemption and salvation. At last, God has come to rescue us from the misery of our sin.
The good news of Jesus is about grace and glory. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Suddenly Mary finds herself living in the grace of God, because of Jesus Christ. She is in the glory, and she is not consumed. She is overshadowed by the power of God. Overwhelmed by love, overshadowed by glory.
After the angel explains that her older cousin Elizabeth is also miraculously pregnant, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37), Mary’s response is that of faith. She believes, and so she says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (v. 38).
She is no glory thief. She simply gives her whole self into the hands of the Lord: “I am your servant. Let it be to me according to your word.” It is an amazing surrender of herself, body and soul, to the living God. She embraces the promise of a son, a holy son. More, she embraces the Son of God. She takes God at his word. Unbelief is to fight to be kings or queens in our own right. Faith is simply to cling to the Lord. Mary gives the glory to God because of the Son.
Now is the time to stop trying to defend yourself against God. Now is the time to hear the wonderful news.
[Jesus] 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. (vv. 32–33)
Mary’s faith in the soon-to-be-born Jesus is the same as that of the dying thief in the soon-to-die Jesus: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42). He gives glory to Jesus and hears the reply, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (v. 43). What a glorious thing grace is.
The author is the pastor of Lakeview OPC in Rockport, Maine. New Horizons, December 2017.