by Robert Austell
Scripture: Luke 1.34-38
Today we are going to focus on verses 34-38, from Mary’s, “How can this be?” to the angel’s assertion, “Nothing will be impossible with God…” to Mary’s obedient and faithful response. This story is at the very heart of the Christmas story. It is not only the promise of the birth of Jesus, but the claim that God is a God of the miraculous, the seemingly impossible. And that’s not all, God offers Mary proof of the impossible – her relative, Elizabeth, who was old and unable to bear children is pregnant as a sign of God’s miraculous power.
This is a story to lose faith over. I know that sounds strange and provocative. I’m not saying you SHOULD lose faith from this story, I’m saying that this is the kind of Biblical story that is something that many people trip over. The Bible is full of the miraculous, of course, but this one is perhaps the most “in your face” of all of them. Somehow people can get around dealing with healings and walking on water and even resurrection, but pinning the Godhood of Jesus and the salvation of the human race on a divinely sanctioned virgin birth… that’s a biggie. We’ll look at that question with Mary, who asks, “How can this be?”
The second way people can lose faith over this story is by clinging inappropriately to the answer to that question. The angel answers, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And we read that and get our hopes up and God seems to disappoint, and our hopes are dashed. We’ll also look at that frustrating and disillusioning thought as we look at Mary’s final response to the angel.
Finally, we’ll also look back at the questions from the past two weeks and see how they bear on the miraculous claims held up in this passage.
How Can This Be? (v. 34)
Mary asks, “How can this be?” How will she conceive a child when she’s never known a man? How could that baby possibly be the chosen one, the Messiah? How can the Messiah – the mighty warrior King – come as a baby? Her baby? And how in the world can it be that God chose HER to be the Savior’s mother? How can this be?
The angel gives three answers.
1. The specifics: the angel tells her what is going to happen… how it’s going to work. The Holy Spirit will “overshadow” Mary – in other words, the conception will be divine, miraculous, of God. For that reason, the child will be holy and called the Son of God. It’s not scientifically specific, but it’s specific enough to give Mary an idea of what will happen. In other words, it’s not proof, but it’s direction.
2. Proof by sign: the angel offers another miracle (also involving conception and birth) as a sign that God is at work. Elizabeth was past child-bearing age and had never been able to conceive. The angel offers Elizabeth’s miraculous conception as a sign to Mary of the assertion he makes next.
3. Declaration of truth: “nothing will be impossible with God.” Basically the angel says it can be because God stands behind it, and God can do anything.
Now here’s how that thinking can go…
Simply dealing with the declaration of truth is so hard. It requires such faith! God says it is so; the Bible says it is so; the Bible is from God. So much there to take on faith. Better to have some kind of sign.
Yes, a big sign, that’s what I need… something unmistakable. But that’s so subjective. Maybe an older woman who never could have a baby COULD have a baby. Is that really a miracle? That’s what I meant about all the other miracles in the Bible. Jesus did them as a sign of who he was and where he came from, but it can be easy to write many of them off. Maybe a sign won’t do it. Better to have more specific proof.
Yes, proof, that’s what I need. I need God to spell out what He wants and how it’s going to happen. Who should I marry? Where should I work? What should I do next? Some kind of angelic, personal text messaging – like a magic 8 ball. Funny that I might trust a magic 8 ball more than God’s Word… hmmm. We do so like specifics. And better yet, scientific proof – regarding creation, dinosaurs, miracles, even God’s existence. That’d do it. Except science is only good for what is natural, not what is supernatural. You can’t dissect a miracle. You can’t reduce God to a program or an experiment or a set of rules – that’s too small for a real God.
I’m not trying to trap you with all this. You know what? I get it. I understand just how hard it is to believe in, much less trust in God. My brain is not wired for the humanities; it is wired for math, programming, and science. But I see how unsatisfying the proof I would demand would be and is. It’s like telling your spouse you will only love them if they document where they are every hour of the day, whom they speak to, and what their intentions are. That doesn’t result in love, though it might satisfy curiosity. Love comes from trust extended – a kind of faith given and received. Likewise, requiring God to document His miraculous and infinite plans to our satisfaction may increasingly satisfy our curiosity, but is self-defeating in terms of faith, trust, and love. While Mary likely did not think in those terms, she heard the angel’s answer and trusted in God’s Word. She did not latch on to the specific explanation or the miraculous sign, but responded in faith to the declaration of truth that God could accomplish His Word in her life.
Nothing Will Be Impossible with God (v. 37)
Let’s consider that Word for a moment: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” I’d lift out two features of that sentence. One is that ‘nothing’ can also be translated ‘no word.’ In other words, no word or promise God makes will prove impossible for God to fulfill or keep. Whether ‘word’ or ‘thing’ the point is that God has the power to fulfill what He says He will do. Secondly, the tense is important: “nothing WILL BE impossible.” The angel isn’t just speaking of what God has done in the past or with Elizabeth, but what God WILL do with Mary. This is promise language, with God’s reputation on the line. And God will keep His Word.
I mention all this because I think this one-liner is another place people lose faith with God. We want a Santa Claus Jesus rather than a Son of God Jesus. We hear “nothing will be impossible with God” and break out our wish list. And the more we pin our hopes on God giving us what we want, the more our hope and faith is dashed when it doesn’t happen.
But listen, that’s not the promise here. Neither the angel nor God is saying, “I’ll give you whatever you ask because I can do anything.” Rather, the angel is saying that God can and will keep His Word to Mary. It is fair to extend that claim to us, “God can and will keep His Word to you”; but it is not fair or a good interpretation to turn that into a magic genie God who grants our wishes. The great truth of this verse is grounded in God’s Word and will.
May It Be Done to Me According to Your Word (v. 38)
That brings me to verse 38. Mary’s response is amazing for its depth of faith and wisdom. She doesn’t latch on to the specifics of what will happen or demand more details or proof. She doesn’t say (as others like Thomas), “When I see the miraculous sign, then I’ll believe.” She latches on to the angel’s final statement, the assertion of truth grounded in God’s Word and promise: “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” Not only is she responding, “Thy will be done,” but she is pledging herself as an obedient follower and servant to that Word and will.
That brings me full circle to the questions this text has raised the past two weeks. Those are what is referenced in today’s few verses. I believe that in order to make use of today’s text, each of us first has to answer those three questions, raised in the full text of verses 26-38. “Nothing is impossible with God” is not meant to send us to God like some kind of great cosmic Santa, but to examine God’s Word and our own lives to see what God is doing with us. So let me walk through these questions once more with all this in view.
Is God trying to get your attention? I believe the answer to this is always yes. Perhaps the more important underlying question is whether you are paying attention or want to be on God’s radar. We’ve talked in past weeks about some of the reasons we try to ignore God, but also the reasons to listen.
Is God trying to tell you something? I believe the answer to this is also always yes. The Bible stands as God’s lasting message to humanity… it’s always there and always has something to say. On top of that, I believe God also helps make specific application into our lives as we read, study, and listen to that Word. Again, the underlying question is whether you want to listen.
For some, the first two questions are the struggling point, and there is no shame in that. But do struggle; don’t write God off or turn your back on Him. Give God your attention and try to listen to what He’d say. It’s only in struggling that far that you can get to the question of purpose.
What does God desire to bring about or birth in your life for His glory? We talked about that last week with some specific examples. If you need to think through that again, grab a copy of the sermon when you leave or look or listen online at our website (on bulletin). What today’s text deals with is what to do once you have an answer to that question. What if God desires to birth a new ministry? Or relationship? Or act of faithfulness?
And what if your response is like Mary’s: “How can that be?” How can I possibly do this when I’m so messed up? How can I possibly change this in my life when I feel so dependent on it? How can it be? That’s impossible, God!
Listen to this Good News: nothing that God desires will be impossible for God to accomplish. That is the bottom line of today’s text. God may offer specifics for what He would do in your life, or He may not. God may offer you some kind of sign that He is at work, or He may not. But God always offers His Word in scripture and this promise that He can accomplish what he desires. In the case of God’s will for your life and mine, He invites our participation: to listen, respond, follow, and trust.
What I’m saying is that the promise that “nothing will be impossible with God” is not for our Santa Claus wish list, but for obediently pursuing God’s desire and purpose for our lives.
So I repeat the questions from these weeks:
Is God trying to get your attention?
Is God trying to say something to you?
What does God desire to bring about or birth in you for His glory?
Will you listen and respond in faith, submitting yourself to that desire that God might indeed bring about His glory in your life?
Sound impossible? It’s not!
Say What? by Robert Austell
You Have Found Favor with God by Robert Austell
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Malankara World Special on Shunoyo of St. Mary
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