"Mary's Wonder at the 'Impossible'"
December 18, 2005 Luke 1:26-38
Life is unpredictable. Often we may find ourselves having to cope with unexpected situations which arise (especially once the snow starts to blow!). Other times, problems befall us which just seem to big for us to handle by ourselves, they're overpowering. Mary's encounter with an angel can reassure us at such uncertain times that God has an overarching plan for good in our lives; Jesus is still in control and on the throne; and through the Holy Spirit will make available His power to see us through, and carry out whatever we're called upon to do for His Kingdom's sake.
Luke's account of the Annunciation of Jesus' birth begins with a very unexpected choice. He writes in v26, "God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee." God sent an angel WHERE? Galilee was a region in the northern part of Palestine, far from the halls of power in Jerusalem. The town Nazareth, while on a trade route, was "a rather obscure town, nowhere mentioned in the Old Testament" (NIV Study Bible). God's messenger was dispatched to a surprising place, a rather questionable location if there was an announcement of any importance to be made. V27 continues, "to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph..." In ancient society, women did not enjoy the same rights or status as men; and this woman is not even married, probably a simple peasant girl, just an inexperienced teenager. A very ordinary, poor, unmarried woman - low on society's totem pole, if not practically invisible. Yet this is the one God's calling to a very special, unique task.
The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favoured!...(later) Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God." The word translated "favour" here more frequently is translated "grace". Grace happens in an unexpected way, to unexpected recipients; you can't predict it because it's undeserved, unmerited, a blessing from God's sovereign and mysterious choice. If you could predict for a deserving candidate based on works, as if they'd earned it, it wouldn't be grace. So suddenly, wonderfully, miraculously, out of the blue an angel appears - perhaps standing 6 feet in midair over the stream where Mary happens to be pounding out the family laundry on a rock - and startles her with the news that the Lord is with her and has a very special plan for her.
God very often works through the unexpected, equipping the uneducated, preparing them for the unimagined. Paul wrote, "...think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things-- and the things that are not-- to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him." (1Co 1:26ff) Through this young, uneducated, lowly, unrecognized peasant girl God was about to accomplish astounding things.
Often it's the "little people" the Lord uses for His more renowned purposes. Billy Graham was neither rich nor well-educated; his family was not listed in America's "Who's Who." But God worked through Billy Graham, causing him to be one of the 20th century's most influential Protestants, a man whose name is recognized for being an evangelical Christian around the globe. The same God who sponsored Billy Graham wants to sponsor you, too!
God's Unexpected Choice of Mary brought an Unsure Reaction. V29 says, "Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be." Or, she was 'agitated' at this development and 'pondered' what this might mean. She was both upset and puzzled. Not only was she knocked off-balance, she found there was an inner dialogue or debate going on inside her. Thoughts were racing 100 different ways, none of them making any sense. Especially when the angel added the part about, "You will be with child and give birth to a son..." Hold on here a minute, Lord. "First comes love; then comes marriage; then comes J&M with a baby carriage." Isn't that how it's supposed to go? There's something missing here - isn't sexual pleasure supposed to be part of the package or incentive when it comes to having children? 'You seem to have left that part out...'
We may react with uncertainty when God's prophetic, long-range plans upset our conventional routines. Perhaps Mary was wondering whether she should be thrilled about being the recipient of God's favour so specifically. Judging by some saints of old, it had mixed blessings. Gary Redding comments: "As Scripture describes it, having God's favour is never a guarantee of smooth sailing through life...Noah was judged to be nothing more than a lunatic by his neighbours. They heckled and jeered him all the while he built and waterproofed that boat, and especially when he gathered his family and loaded all those animals. Moses found favour in God's sight and look where it got him: for 40 years he led a group of complaining, grumbling people through the desert. Jeremiah, the prophet, was another one of God's favoured. He was hated and rejected by his own people...he was despised so much that they tossed him into an abandoned well just to get him out of their sight. Apparently, Mary had good reason to be troubled at Gabriel's unexpected greeting."
Take, for starters, the immediate upheaval an unexpected baby was sure to cause for a not-yet-officially-wed mother.Joseph was planning on marrying his sweetheart, drawing up house plans, carving their marriage bed...BIG PLANS.Mary was planning an elaborate wedding, picking out china patterns, looking for the perfect lingerie for the honeymoon...BIG PLANS.Can you imagine a 15 year old Mary going to her 20 something fiancé and Joseph starts talking about floor plans and wall color...Mary says, "Joe, honey, we need to talk....I'm pregnant." Talk about upheaval!
God is an amazing God, far beyond our limited human knowing. His plans are bound to upset ours. Isaiah 55(8f) says, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD; As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." God's unexpected choice - no doubt higher in purpose than our daily desires - can cause us an unsure reaction.
An Unequalled Offspring and an Honest Question
While Mary is still standing there with mouth wide open, the angel decides he might as well deliver the bulk of the message and get it over with. She's already shocked, she might as well hear the full nine yards! Gabriel goes on to predict she will have an absolutely unequalled offspring: "...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."" (Lu 1:31ff) Notice all the power-words in those few breaths (if angels indeed take breaths): "He will be great...Son of the Most High ...throne ...he will reign...forever; his kingdom will never end." Wow! Something big is sure afoot!
The angel doesn't just say, "You're going to be the mother of the Messiah, the long-awaited Christ," but it amounts to the same thing. Those power-words we highlighted were ones associated with the Messiah since the time of Isaiah, centuries before, who prophesied: "Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this." (Isa 9:7) Mary would have heard that passage eagerly read with anticipation many times at the synagogue. Didn't that description match the words the angel just used to describe the miracle child she's soon house in her womb?
Even meeting those who are great, humanly speaking, can make us nervous and cause our heart to beat faster and palms to go clammy. Ben Lobb's name has been splattered around the countryside as a conservative candidate; I was in the post office a couple of weeks ago when who should come in but the man himself, shaking hands and passing out business cards. Then just a few days ago I was entering our local pharmacy to pick up a prescription when what to my wondering eyes should appear but the Hon.Paul Steckle, our liberal Member of Parliament, also out campaigning and looking just like he does in his photographs. I got to shake his hand, too. At such times when you're standing to next to a well-known personality, one's mind can go blank and you forget whatever intelligent political questions you'd wanted to ask. After my supposing he was running again rather than retiring, Mr Steckle confirmed if he'd had a full 4-year term it would have been his last, but not yet. Even political careers do come to an end.
Jesus is not just important in a government of the county, or province, or country, or the United Nations; His government is endless, the whole world, the universe in fact. And it's not measured in 4-year terms, it will never end. No one can compare with His scope or mandate; He's "it" when you talk of reigning in a Kingdom. A truly unequalled offspring, at whose name one day "every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth" (Php 2:10).
Way back in the time of Emperor Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the emperor had a dream in which a large dazzling statue was struck on the feet by a rock cut out "not by human hands". The rock smashed the feet and the statue "became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer.The wind swept [it] away without leaving a trace.But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth." (Dan 2:34f)
Daniel the prophet interpreted the statue to represent successive earthly kingdoms, including the Babylonian one. The rock is associated with God setting up "a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people.It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever." (Dan 2:44) Gabriel's words to Mary imply Jesus will be the unequalled, everlasting King which Daniel spoke about. A true Son of the Most High, reigning forever. His name, like Joshua, means "Yahweh is Salvation"; He's going to lead His people through trials into a lasting place of safety.
Such a great revelation begets an honest question in the unsophisticated maid. V34, Mary asks, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" (Literally, 'have not had knowledge of a man' - polite way of putting it.) Not an objection, but a simple request for clarification in view of the obvious normal biological necessities in conceiving children.
Isn't it encouraging to know you can be honest with God and ask questions without fear of seeming dumb? Mary was not resisting - as did Moses, protesting that he wasn't able to be a speaker and would God please send someone else to approach Pharaoh instead (Ex 4:13). Mary was not laughing at the very idea - as did Sarah, upon being told she'd have a miracle baby in her old age (Gen 18:12). Mary was not doubting, as did John the Baptist's father Zechariah who objected his age disqualified him and his wife from having children (Lk 1:18). Mary was just honestly wondering before God's messenger, "How can this be? How's this going to happen?"
If you ever wonder if you can really be honest with God - if His shoulders can bear hearing your questions and wonderings - go back and leaf through the Book of Psalms. Much of it is David's prayer journal, full of honest questions, a struggling heart pouring out all manner of requests and complaints. Take Psalm 69 for example: "...I endure scorn for your sake, and shame covers my face. I am a stranger to my brothers...for zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me...You know how I am scorned, disgraced and shamed; all my enemies are before you. Scorn has broken my heart and has left me helpless; I looked for sympathy, but there was none, for comforters, but I found none...I am in pain and distress; may your salvation, O God, protect me..." Hear the honesty, the open heart-cry in all of this? Yet David also finds hope in God's loving grace: "I pray to you, O LORD, in the time of your favour; in your great love, O God, answer me with your sure salvation." (Ps 69:7ff,19f,29,13)
We can find examples of refreshing honesty and openness to God in kids' prayer notes, such as those in More Children's Letters to God. (Remember Mary probably wasn't more than a young girl.)
From Hank, age 7: "Dear Lord, Thank you for the nice day today. You even fooled the TV weatherman."
Or: "Dear Lord, Do you ever get mad? My mother gets mad all the time but she is only human. Yours truly, David (age 8)"
"Dear Lord, I need a raise in my allowance. Could you have one of your angels tell my father? Thank you.David (age 7)"
Harvey writes, "Charles, my cat, got run over. And if you made it happen you have to tell me why." [now that's being up-front!]
Last, "Dear God, Can you guess what is the biggest river of all of them? The Amazon. You ought to be able to because you made it. Ha, had. Guess who"
Francois Fenelon (not a child) counsels us to really be open and honest in our praying. He writes, "Tell God all that is in your heart, as one unloads one's heart, its pleasures and its pains, to a dear friend. Tell Him your troubles, that He may comfort you; tell Him your joys, that He may sober them; tell Him your longings, that He may purify them; tell Him your dislikes, that He may help you to conquer them; talk to Him of your temptations, that He may shield you from them; show Him the wounds of your heart, that He may heal them...Blessed are they who attain to such unfamiliar, unreserved intercourse with God." Mary felt free to ask a very honest, practical question, and God answered.
An Incomparable Power and Uncomplaining Obedience
The motor behind the workings of God's mysterious plan is His Incomparable Power. In v35 the angel answers Mary's question: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you...Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age...For nothing is impossible with God." That last phrase is literally, "For every word from God is not without power." The power of God is going to make it happen, just as your relative Elizabeth has already experienced.
Whether Mary told her little son the story of the angel's words, this conviction about God's incomparable, invincible power was part of Jesus' attitude throughout His life. See, for instance, Mark 10: Jesus has been stressing how hard it is for rich people to enter the Kingdom; the disciples ask who then can be saved."Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God."" (Mk 10:27)
[ILLUSTRATION: SNOW ON FINGERS MELTS] God's power is unstoppable; what He purposes, He will accomplish. The prophet Isaiah had this to say about the power of God's word to accomplish His goals: "As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it." (Isa 55:10-11) If we take some snow in our fingers, how certain is it to melt? Can you stop it from turning to water? It's just BOUND to happen. God's reassuring us through Isaiah that He's God of the impossible; what He determines will come to pass. He's "Yahweh", God of what comes into being, that's His special name.
Mary seems satisfied by Gabriel's answer; perhaps the news of Elizabeth's surprising pregnancy quells any doubts she may have had about trusting this unusual procedure in her own case. If the powerful cloud of God's Shekinah glory could lead the Israelites through the wilderness and fill the Temple, she'd have to trust it to lead and fill her, too. She exhibits an uncomplaining obedience, answering merely this: "I am the Lord's servant; may it be to me as you have said." Literally, 'May it be to me according to your word' - there's that word again, the verbal agent of God's action. His spoken promise is enough to go on.
A British parlour maid named Gladys Aylward grew up among the poor of England, and because of a learning disability, dropped out of school and became a domestic servant for a well-to-do British family. Her job demanded long hours, hard work, and low pay. When she was in her late twenties, she was riding a bus, reading a newspaper. There was an article about the need for missionaries in China. From that moment on, Gladys' heart was broken for China, and she resolved to go herself. She applied to the board of the China Inland Mission, but they turned her down. Crushed with disappointment, she returned to her small upstairs room, opened her purse, and turned it upside down. Two pennies fell onto her Bible. She said, "O God, here's my Bible! Here's my money! Here's me! Use me, God." She started scrimping and saving every penny she earned, and she finally determined that while she could never save enough to travel to China by ship, she could scrape together enough for a train ticket across Europe and Asia - a dangerous crossing because of a war blazing on the Manchurian border.(hmm - what's a war in your way?! Small problem...)
The day finally came when a few bewildered friends and family members gathered at London's Liverpool Station to see Gladys off. She traveled from England across the Channel to The Hague, across Europe to Moscow, and across Siberia toward China. Bundled in an overcoat and orange frock, Gladys carried her bedroll, two suitcases (one stocked with food), and a bag clanking with pots and pans. Day and night the train pressed on into the frigid Siberian wasteland, and finally it stopped in the dead of night in the middle of the wasteland at the war zone. The other passengers - all soldiers - disembarked and headed in the direction of gunfire. Gladys got off and started trudging bac, suitcases in hand, the way the train had come and nearly died before she found the nearest station.
By sheer determination Gladys Aylward finally arrived in China and moved in with an older single missionary woman - who, as it turned out, didn't quite know what to do with her! To make a long story short, this parlour maid from England became one of the most famous missionaries of the 20th century, a woman who's been called "the most noted single woman missionary in modern history". She dined with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. She traveled the world, speaking in some of America's greatest churches. But the most notable thing about Gladys was her brokenness, her humility, and her willingness to be available to God. I like her words - "O God, here's my Bible! Here's my money! Here's me! Use me, God." Like Mary, simple country girl from Galilee, saying, "I am the Lord's servant; may it happen as you say." How is God waiting to use YOU for His mission today?
You and I haven't been called as Mary was, to bring the Saviour into the world. Yet, in another sense, that's precisely what God has called us to do. He asks us each to bring Christ into our own individual worlds, those personal, relational communities in which we live and move and find our existence. Like Gladys, are you willing to give your "two cents' worth"? Let's pray.