“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart” (Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl). I think I read those words from Anne Frank’s diary for the first time when I was in sixth grade. As a class, we discussed those words, but we didn’t come into the discussion neutral. I don’t remember deliberating human nature before that day, but I do remember having a sense of unease about Anne Frank’s words. I remember thinking that it sounded differently than I heard in church. One of my more intuitive and smarter classmates, raised his hand and asked, “If what she said is true, than why do we confess our sins in church?” I felt like that hit the nail on the head. If we were “good at heart” then there would be no reason to confess our sins. Even those things that look evil on the outside would be inherently good because they were done by a person who was “really good at heart.”
As an adult I can articulate better what I was felling that day. I knew about the doctrine that we call original sin, but that was the first time I had consciously applied it to a topic. Human beings are not good at heart. I think that most people in the world believe that they are. They believe that everyone naturally wants to do good, and if they end up doing something evil, then they probably had a good reason for it. People believe in the goodness of humanity, but God doesn’t. That is the fact that I wrestled with on that day in sixth grade. In catechism class I had memorized a passage from Genesis. It came from right before the flood, but God repeated it right after the flood. It described all people of all time: “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5).
As a sixth grader, I understood that humans carried this sin around inside of them. I couldn’t see the full implications of original sin, but I knew it was there. Today, maybe I’m more aware of it, of how it infests like a psychoactive disease that convinces us that it isn’t actually making us sick and killing us. But, even now, I doubt I grasp how deep the sin goes. Jesus says that we are truly capable of some terrible things: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19). Those sins lie dormant within us waiting to spring to life with the right temptation. I know those words are true. I can find that dark place in my heart that loves those sins. It’s the place the sins I do every day come from. These words are true, they hit me hard.
As humans, it makes sense to us that if someone is angry that we should do something that to fix it. If we break something of someone else’s, then we need to buy a new one for them. If we lose something, we replace it. It we hurt someone, we need to make it right. It makes sense to us that if we have offended God—and we have—then we should do something to make it right. But, see how much your sin affects even what you might try to make it up to God: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” (Isaiah 49:6). Make it up to God? How could we do that? Should we try to offer him sin for our sin? Do you ever probe your heart and see how hopeless everything is without God? You can’t keep yourself from sin, because it clings to your very bones. You can’t repay God for your sins, because all you have to offer is more darkness. That is what God has said.
This is where the Lord meets us. He does not demand we find a way to come to him, to ascend to the heavens by our own goodness and works. Instead, God descends into the darkness of the world to join us in the pit. That is why the angel Gabriel came to Mary. He came to tell what God was doing to take away our sin. God has chosen Mary for a special position. She would be the mother of the Christ, but it wasn’t because of Mary. Mary struggled against her sin as you and I do. That God chose her was grace. Mary had no control over the family she was born into, but it was David’s family in the line of the Savior. She was even marrying a man who was a descendent of David. Mary was shown grace from God, and that’s how Gabriel greets her: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). God is the one doing the favoring; he is the one showing grace. Even when Gabriel says she has “found favor with God,” (Luke 1:30) he is not say that she deserved God’s grace, but that if there is a place to find grace and favor, it is with our God.
But, God was going to show Mary a special type of favor: “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:31-33). Mary would have to privilege of being the mother of Jesus, the Son of God. That was an honor no other woman would ever be able to boast of. Still, it was grace that brought this about. Mary didn’t deserve it. God had chosen a virgin, someone who could physically should not have a child yet. God had chosen to send his angel privately to her, in a city that no one cared about. Mary didn’t deserve any of this.
None of us deserved this gift. This was God’s answer to our sin. Sometimes, to respond to the doctrine of original sin, people will say that it doesn’t matter what God says. They say, “Even if he is the Creator, he does not know what it means to be a human. He might think we are sinful, but if he has never been a man, how doesn’t truly know what the human heart is like.” But, the Lord became a human being. He was the Son of God and Mary’s son. He knows what it means to be human. God’s grace to Mary does not extend only to her, but to us all. Her son would be King, our King. He would reign over us. His kingdom would never end, and we are part of it. That is what God has said. He has given an answer to our sin. We have no good in us, only evil, but he sent his Son who has not evil in him, only good.
The angel adds a sign for Mary, further proof that God would keep his word: “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:36-37). Throughout the Scriptures there runs this theme of promise that leads up to and points to Christ. A woman, for whatever reason, is unable to have children. Perhaps, like Sarah in the book of Genesis, she is too old for children. Perhaps, like Hannah in the book of 1 Samuel, she is barren, unable to have children at all. They have no business having children at all. Yet, they bear a child as if by some miracle. Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Hannah gives birth to Samuel, and Elizabeth would give birth to John the Baptist. These signs, miracles of a promised child, point to Jesus. Mary was a virgin, who has no business having a child, yet by a true miracle she would give birth to Jesus.
Tomorrow is Christmas. We have spoken much this Advent about keeping Christ in Christmas. But, could you ever truly prepare yourself to receive so much grace? Will it ever not amaze and surprise you that God is willing to send his Son to live and die for us—a people who deserve to be punished and destroyed, not redeemed and forgiven? Yet, Christ came for us. Our only response to this is faith. We receive God’s grace when we trust his Word given to us. We do not deserve the grace that God has shown to us, but we trust him. We believe that Mary’s son is for us. We can respond like Mary does, “I am the Lord’s servant….May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38). We can recognize the Word of God and pray that it would be true for us. May it be to be as you have said, Lord—that my sins are truly forgiven, that my heart is truly made new, that you recreated my nature in Christ Jesus to love good and hate evil. How do you receive Christ at Christmas? Believe that Jesus Christ is your Savior who was born at Christmas. Faith receives Christ.
One theologian wrote, “Faith is this that the heart with its evil conscience has been conquered by the revelation of love and goodness, the grace of God in Christ Jesus, and now with trust and hope clings to that message in the face of reason’s objections and the fears of conscience” (J.P. Koehler, History of the Wisconsin Synod). That’s how Mary responded when Gabriel announced to her that she would give birth to the Christ. Her heart was conquered through God’s word to see the grace of God in the coming Christ. Your hearts have also been conquered by that same revelation. You have received the grace of God, now cling to that message. When your heart reminds you of sin and sadness, cling to God’s grace. When you sense there is no hope, when nothing in life makes sense, cling to God’s grace. Believe what God has said, and say, “May it be.” Merry Christmas. Amen.