Mary: Believing the Impossible
December 9, 1990
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Let’s talk about Madonna. It seems like everywhere you go these days you see her face and hear people singing her praises. She’s certainly a hot topic.
No, I’m not thinking about that Madonna, the one who was on Nightline last Monday night. People are talking about her but for all the wrong reasons.
I’m thinking about the real Madonna, the one who should have been on Nightline with Ted Koppel. Her story is much more interesting–and it’s not X-Rated either.
Did you know there are two versions of the Christmas story in the New Testament? Although scholars debate the differences and try to reconcile the two accounts, I think there is a fairly simple explanation. Matthew tells Joseph’s story and Luke tells Mary’s story. If you doubt that, just go back and read the two versions for yourself. Matthew tells the story like a man would tell it. Luke emphasizes the things a woman would consider important.
What is it that we know about Mary from Luke’s gospel? Here is a brief list: First, her father’s name was Eli. Second, she had a sister named Salome. Third, she had a relative (unspecified) named Elizabeth. Fourth, she is young. Fifth, she is poor. Sixth, she is a devout believer in God. Seventh, she is very much in love.
That last one is a key to the story. Mary is a teenager in love. She may have been as young as 12 or 13; she might have been as old as 18-19. If we said 16, we would not be far off the mark.
When the story opens Mary is “pledged” to Joseph. That meant that she had formally agreed to marry him but the “wedding” had not yet taken place. Between the “pledge” and the “wedding feast” was a period usually lasting six months to a year. During that period the couple was considered to be married and were called husband and wife but they A. did not live together and B. did not consummate their marriage physically. Following the custom of that day, Mary would live with her parents and Joseph with his. After the public wedding feast, Mary and Joseph would live together as husband and wife.
Everything in Luke 1-2 happens against that background. Mary is 16 years old, living with her parents (presumably in Nazareth), and waiting with happy anticipation for the day of her wedding.
Like teenagers everywhere, she can hardly think of anything else. If we suppose that the wedding feast is still four or five months away, we can imagine that all her thoughts center on the same things prospective brides think about today–the guest list, the decorations, the food, the music, what she will wear and where they will house the people coming in from out-of-town. Mary had never been happier. This was the most exciting time of her life.
It is right at this point that God breaks in. He is about to ask an unknown teenage girl to take part in something that is so shocking as to be totally unbelievable. What God asks Mary to do will change her life forever.
Gone are the happy dreams of a beautiful wedding; gone are the days of sweet anticipation; gone are the carefully-thought out plans for the wedding feast; gone are the hopes for “the most beautiful wedding to the most wonderful man who ever lived;” gone are all her girlish hopes of a quiet life in the home she would personally decorate. Most of all, gone are the visions of a houseful of children conceived in love and raised with tender care.
She will be married, but not before rumors spread through the countryside. There will be a wedding feast, but not the way she planned. She will have a home, and it will be filled with children, but over her family will rest an uneasy cloud of dark suspicion.
It will all happen, but not the way she expected.
Luke 1:26-38 tells us how it all began.
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. (26-27)
These two verses set the historical framework. They let us know that what is about to happen really happened, that this episode is not the figment of some writer’s imagination or some kind of religious upper-story hallucination. To use Francis Schaeffer’s term, this is “true truth.” If we had been there, we would have seen what Mary saw.
Well, what did Mary see? She saw an angel named Gabriel. We know his name because the text tells us; we don’t know if Mary knew his name. We know a few other facts as well. It happened in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy; We know it happened in the little village of Nazareth in Galilee. We know it happened while she and Joseph were “pledged” to be married.
These verses stress two facts about Mary. First, she is a virgin. Verse 27 mentions that fact twice. The Greek word involved (parthenos) leaves no room for doubt on that issue. It means a young woman of marriagable age who has never had sexual relations with a man. Second, she has no idea what is about to happen. Mary is completely in the dark, without a clue that her life is about to be changed forever.
The other fact we need to know at this point is that Mary and Gabriel are about to have a conversation in which Gabriel will do most of the talking. He says three different things to her (28, 30-33, 35-37) and she responds to what he says (29, 34, 38). Each time Mary responds we see how she begins to believe the impossible.
THE 2 PM MID-AFTERNOON, I-MISS-MY-BOYFRIEND BLUES
Let’s see if we can’t use our imagination to reset the scene. Let’s suppose that Gabriel first appeared to Mary one day when she was at home helping her mother around the house. Let’s further suppose that it happened during the middle of the afternoon.
What’s Mary doing? Outwardly, she is doing her chores. In this case, she’s about to go to the well and draw some water to do the laundry. It’s 2:00 P.M. and Joseph is coming over tonight for supper. She’s excited to see him and excited because she wants to talk over her newest idea for the wedding feast, something about a new dress she thinks he’s going to love. It features a bright scarf around the neck, the kind Joseph seems to favor. In her mind, she’s ticking off the things she wants to talk to him about. So many details and so little time. Tonight the two of them will probably take a romantic walk along the road leading to Capernaum. Mary can hardly wait to start getting ready for Joseph’s arrival.
Her mother interrupts her reverie by asking her to fetch the water from the well. But Mary is quite happy to do it, in part because she enjoys working around the house, in part because her mind is filled with Joseph and marriage and happy thoughts of the future.
Which is why she didn’t see the stranger standing by the olive tree in the back yard. In fact, she wouldn’t have noticed him at all except that she bumped into him. He was about six feet tall, dark-complected, with medium brown curly hair and a closely-cropped beard. She glanced up at him, started to say “Excuse me” when something made her hesitate. It wasn’t fear exactly, more like surprise and bafflement. Who was this strange man and why was he standing in her backyard?
Then he spoke and she got spooked: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” (28) Mary quite simply did not know what to make of it. It’s as if someone you’ve never seen came up to you and said, “Good news. This is your lucky day. God has chosen you for a special blessing.” How do you respond to that?
Verse 29 tells us that “Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” After all, it’s 2:00 in the afternoon, she’s sixteen years old, about to be married, dreaming of Joseph and their long walk on the road to Capernaum, and she just came out to the well to get a bucket of the water to do the laundry. Now some stranger says something bizarre to her. No wonder she wondered about it.
“CONGRATULATIONS! YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE A BABY!”
But that’s not the half of it. Without a pause, Gabriel proceeds to tell her something that–to use a 20th century term Mary almost certainly wouldn’t have used–blows her mind. He tells her she’s going to have a baby. And not just any baby. She’s going to give birth to the Son of God.
Listen again to these words you have heard time and again. But this time, remember that you are 16, deeply in love, and on your way to the well to get some water to do the laundry. You don’t have any inkling of what you are about to hear:
The angel said to her, “Fear not, Mary, you have found favor with God. 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.” (30-33)
Well now. How’s that for a conversational opener? What, really, do you say back to Gabriel? Remember, you’re 16, it’s 2:00 in the afternoon, you’re on the way to the well, you’re waiting to see Joseph tonight, and your life just seems perfect. Now here comes this stranger with the most preposterous-sounding thing you’ve ever heard in your life.
Do you argue? Do you ask for clarification? Do you call 911? Do you say, “Who are you and how did you get in my backyard?” Do you laugh out loud?
Mary could not be blamed for any of those responses. But she does none of those things. In fact, she passes over all the hard stuff. When Gabriel says, “He will be called the Son of the Most High,” she doesn’t ask what that means or why she was picked for such a high honor. None of those ordinary concerns seems to affect her in the least.
She only has one question, a technical matter she would like cleared up: “How can this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” (34) This is a perfectly natural question. Mary is betrothed but not formally married. She has never had sexual relations with any man. How then can she become pregnant and bear a son?
It is instructive to note that Mary does not doubt the angel’s word, even though it must have sounded incredible. She believed what the angel said. Her only question had to do with how it would happen.
In essence she says to Gabriel, “All right. I’m willing to do my part, but you need to explain how we’ll handle this one little problem.” That’s real faith. That’s believing the impossible. That’s trusting God when the “facts” argue against it.
THE “HOW” OF THE VIRGIN BIRTH
Now that the big question has been settled, there remains only one final word from Gabriel. It is the only explanation of the Virgin Birth in all the Bible:
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God. (35)
The key point in Gabriel’s explanation is that what is about to happen to Mary will be the result of the direct intervention of God. The Holy Spirit is the agent of the Virgin Birth; overshadowing is the means of the Virgin Birth; the Son of God is the result of the Virgin Birth.
This suggests something that is often denied–even in evangelical circles. It is often suggested that the Virgin Birth was not necessary even though it really happened, i.e., God could have brought Jesus into the world in some other way. Gabriel’s word seem to indicate the opposite. The whole point of verse 35 is that the Virgin Birth produces the Holy One of God. The “so” is very crucial. Without the virginal conception by the Holy Spirit, the Holy One of God will not be born.
That suggests that, in reality, there really was no other way for Jesus to be born. Gabriel’s words imply that the Virgin Birth was not just another Christmas miracle that God could have dispensed with had he so chosen. Without the Virgin Birth, there would be no Christmas at all.
If someone inquires into the biology of the virginal conception of Jesus, we have only this verse to give them. The Greek word translated “overshadow” (episkiazo) was used of God’s visible presence in the Old Testament tabernacle. It pictures the God of light personally dwelling with his people. We might also think of the Spirit of God hovering above the waters in Genesis 1:2. “God’s powerful presence will rest upon Mary, so that she will bear a child who will be the Son of God.” (Marshall, Luke, p. 71).
William Hendriksen (Luke, p. 88) adds this helpful note on Gabriel’s explanation:
Does this mean that Gabriel has now made everything ‘perfectly clear’ to Mary? Of course not. As anyone who has ever taken a course in human embryology knows, even ‘ordinary’ conception within the human womb is veiled in mystery. See Ps. 139:13-16. Therefore this unique conception, by means of which the pre-existing Word of God assumes the human nature, surpasses human comprehension all the more. Neither God nor Gabriel demands of Mary that she must understand everything. What is required of her is only this, that she believes and willingly submits.
NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD
Since Mary would likely have doubts about all this, Gabriel calls her attention to the case of her relative Elizabeth. She is now in her sixth month of pregnancy (which will result in the birth of John the Baptist) even though she had been barren and she and Zacharias were both advanced in years. That is, they were both too old to have children and yet, through a miracle of God, she is expecting her first child.
Now these cases are not the same, of course. Mary is a teenager and Elizabeth was perhaps 70 years old; Elizabeth’s conception came the natural way while Mary’s came via the Holy Spirit. But that’s not the point. The point is that both are examples of human impossibilities made possible by the word and promise of God.
“Mary, if you doubt my word, just take a look at Elizabeth. She’s expecting her first child even though she’s ‘too old’ to have children. If God can do that for her, don’t you think he can do this for you?”
Which brings us to verse 37, a great Christmas verse that is often overlooked at this time of the year. “For nothing is impossible with God.” He is able to do anything he decides to do. If he wants to cause a virgin to conceive, he can do it.
THE SIMPLE FAITH OF A TEENAGE GIRL
In the history of the church Mary has often been been portrayed as a kind of misty, other-worldly figure. If you look at some of the great paintings of Mary, they make her look so peaceful and beatific that you almost forget she was a real person. That’s a shame because Luke makes it clear that she was very real, with very real doubts, very real questions and very real faith. Nowhere is this seen with more clarity than in verse 38:
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
Without exaggeration, we may call this one of the greatest statements of faith in all the Bible. We read it so often that we forget how great it really is. But remember, it’s 2:00 in the afternoon, you’re 16 years old and very much in love. Your mom asks you go fetch some water to do the laundry and on your way to the well, you run into a man you’ve never seen before. He tells you that A. You’re going to get pregnant B. You’re going to give birth to a son C. He’s going to be the Son of God. When you ask how, he says, “Don’t worry about it. The Holy Spirit will cover you like a cloud and you’ll end up pregnant. That’s all there is to it.” What do you say to that?
Mary said Yes. Yes to God, Yes to the impossible, Yes to the plan of God.
Did her heart skip a beat when she said Yes? There she is, teen head tilted high, her hands trembling just a bit, wide-eyed, nervous, open-mouthed, questioning but not afraid, wondering but not terrified, unsure but not uncertain. When the angel said, “Nothing is impossible with God,” Mary took a deep breath and said, “Be it unto me as you have said.” And with those words Christmas came to the world.
RUMORS, LIES AND SLEEPLESS NIGHTS
Let’s not underestimate what it cost Mary to say Yes to God. From that moment on, she faced the incredulity of her friends (“Oh Mary, how could expect us to believe such a bizarre story?”), the scurrilous gossip of the neighborhood (“Did you hear about Mary? I guess Joseph finally got lucky.”) and the whispers of promiscuity that have lasted 2,000 years.
Mary knew–or would soon realize–that saying Yes to God meant misunderstanding and public shame. Gone was her pure reputation and with it her dreams of a quiet, happy life in Nazareth. In the future, her life would at times be happy but it would never again be quiet.
Since we know the end of the story we may tend to overlook the possibility of divorce. But Mary had no way of knowing how Joseph would respond to her pregnancy. Would he blow his top and walk out on her? Would he humiliate her publicly? Would he divorce her?
As the story turned out, Mary had every reason to worry about Joseph. He didn’t blow his top or try to humiliate her, but he did intend to divorce her. Only an angel’s intervention kept that from happening.
That, too, was on Mary’s mind. By saying Yes she risked losing the man she loved. Her whole future was on the line.
And all these things were just the beginning. Mary could not know what the future would hold. Before it was all over, she would experience heartache, opposition, slander, confusion, anguish, despair and loneliness. In the end she would face the greatest pain a mother can endure when she would watch her son die on a cross.
Mary couldn’t know all those things. Perhaps if she had known she might not have said Yes. But it’s just as well that she didn’t. Sometimes we say, “I wish I knew what the future holds for me.” But you really don’t want to know. It’s far better that we don’t know what life will bring us in 10 or 15 years.
Mary didn’t know the full cost of saying Yes. But having made her decision she never looked back. Those two aspects of her life may be the greatest things we can say about her:
1. She believed God when it seemed to be
2. She never looked back.
When God said, “Are you willing to believe the impossible?,” Mary said, “Yes I am!” Without that Yes, there would be no Christmas.
A WOMAN GOD COULD TRUST
I have no doubt that Mary asked, “Why me?” Why should God choose an obscure peasant girl in some out-of-the-way village as the chosen vehicle to bring his son into the world? There are many answers that have nothing to do with Mary, but there is one answer that has everything to do with her. God chose because he trusted her. He knew she was willing to believe the impossible. He also knew she was willing to pay the price for that belief. He knew she was willing to bear a child out of wedlock in order to bring God’s Son into the world.
Mary said Yes to shame and glory; she said Yes to God’s power; she said Yes to the impossible.
Saying Yes brought her … .
1. This Burden–33 years of turmoil and heartache.
2. This Joy–She was the mother of the Son of God.
3. This reward–Among women there has never been anyone greater.
If somehow Mary could be here today and we could ask her, “Was it worth it?,” she would once again say Yes.
Mary, then, stands as a model for all believers but especially for women.
1. She is a model of openness to great possibilities.
2. She is a model of faith in the face of many natural
TWO WORDS THAT ALWAYS GO TOGETHER
It’s still true that “Nothing is impossible with God.” That’s as true today as it was 2,000 years ago. It’s also true that somebody has to say Yes or else the impossible will never happen.
That ought to encourage us at this season of the year because the Christmas story is filled with miracles from beginning to end. The Wise Men see a miraculous star in the sky and travel to Bethlehem. The angels sing to the shepherds. An old woman gives birth to a son. A virgin gets pregnant. A wicked king kills all the babies in Bethlehem … except the one baby he most wanted to kill. The baby and his parents are warned in a dream of the king’s evil plan and escape to Egypt in the nick of time. There are miracles galore in the Christmas story.
Here are two words that always go together–Christmas and miracles.
That’s good news for all of us and very good news for some of us. Some of you are carrying heavy burdens today. For some of you Christmas will be lonely this year. Some of you are facing a financial crisis that looks hopeless to you right now. Some of you are out of work and don’t have a single lead on a good job. Some of you are looking at a marriage that seems worse than hopeless. Some of you are estranged from members of your own family. Some of you have children who are far away from God. Some of you feel lonely and far away from God yourselves.
The list goes on and on. But all these things have this in common: They seem impossible to solve by any human means. And for the most part they are. After all, if human means would have solved your problems, they would have been solved long ago.
Remember this: Christmas is all about miracles. They happened 2,000 years ago; they can still happen today. As the old gospel song puts it: “Got any rivers you think are uncrossable? Got any mountains you can’t tunnel through? God specializes in things thought impossible. He does the things others cannot do.”
WHAT GOD WANTS FROM US
What is it that God wants from us? Total comprehension about the future before we will trust him? No. That’s impossible. And besides, it’s better that we don’t know what the future holds. Does he want us to have perfect knowledge of the Bible? No. If that were the case, then no one would ever trust him. Do we have to be spiritually advanced to the point of sainthood? Thank God the answer is No. Very few of us would meet that qualification.
What does God want from us? The same thing he wanted from Mary. Simple faith that he will keep his word in unlikely and unexpected ways.
Our Father, we do not pray for more faith; we pray rather for courage to exercise the faith we already have. Make us more like Mary, willing to believe in spite of our doubts. We pray in the name of Him whose birth we celebrate at Christmastime. Amen.