The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached November 29, 2020*
Sermon Audio: A Thrill of Hope (Luke 1:26-38)
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 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, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. – Luke 1:26-38
What feels impossible for you? My children are currently in love with superheroes; they love to see people do what is normally impossible for human beings to do: shoot lasers out of their hands, fly through the air, lift inhumanely heavy objects over their heads. Luckily they are still young enough (and I am still young enough) that I can pick them up and fly them around, pretending that they can zoom across our living room. We love the idea of being able to transcend limitations, to imagine to do the impossible. And while there is a childlike wonder in all of us that the best of fairytales draw out, the “real world” has taught us that there is no such thing as superheroes and that fairytales are just that—fairy tales, myths. They are nice forms of escape from the drudgery of real life—paying taxes, lower back pain, receiving disappointing news—but nothing more. Before C.S. Lewis was a Christian he was in a conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien about the ancient Norse myths that they both loved. Though Lewis adored these ancient stories, he admitted that they were merely, “lies breathed through silver.” They are great tales, but fundamentally not true.
The real world rather harshly disabuses us of our childlike notions of wonder at the impossible made possible. Of course, from early on we learn that men can’t run faster than speeding trains or leap over buildings in a single bound. But in time the world cools our eagerness for much, much more important possibilities: will the world always be broken the way it is? Will the brutal and strong always crush the weak? Will I be left alone to fend for myself? Will I ever change?
We know that beauties don’t really fall in love with beasts, and beasts don’t magically change into princes. We know that overcoming evil isn’t as simple as a slaying a dragon or breaking a spell. We know that when the hero sacrifices himself, there is no magic that will bring him back, no matter how hard a princess or companion cries over him, and evil princes often rule without any righteous kings to return to depose them. This is why Lewis said that they were lies, even if they are breathed through silver. You want those to be true—we want to believe that evil will finally be overcome, that our beastliness can be changed to beauty, that death will not have the final word. We want to see justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream, to see all of creation be reenchanted and cured from the dreary pall that lay over it. But wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true, right? What is life? Shakespeare bleakly tells us: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound of fury, signifying nothing.” There is no magic, there is no grand united purpose for everything that happens, there is no happy ending—just meaningless sound and fury.
Is that true? Well, it should serve as a caution that it is a guilt-ridden, crazed Macbeth who is slipping into total insanity who tells us this. Tolkien, on his part, disagreed with his friend Lewis. He believed that the great myths that so quickly captivate our imagination and hearts because they tap into fundamental truths—what he referred to as the “true myth” of Christianity. These great myths of old and their fairy tales capture the wonder, beauty, and power over the impossible that we find in the Christian faith, where we see good really does triumph over evil, sinners are transformed into saints, and death is finally defeated through the hero’s sacrifice. Of course, Tolkien admits, the Bible is not naïve about the bleak and dark realities of the world, of our own human nature—in fact, it is more frank about these than even the darkest philosopher. But it is against these dark and brooding colors that God paints the dazzling portrait of salvation. And at the center of this painting lies a plan that is birthed out of impossibility: the arrival of the Messiah through at the most difficult time, to the most unlikely of people, in the most impossible of ways.
The gospel of Luke opens with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, a married couple who echo the story of Abraham and Sarah. They are elderly and without children when an angel, Gabriel, shows up to inform Zechariah that his barren wife will conceive and bear a son in her old age. This son will be a new kind of Elijah who will prepare the way for the Lord. Six months later, Gabriel is sent to the tiny town of Nazareth ( Luke 1:26). Nazareth is never mentioned in the Old Testament nor in any contemporary or rabbinic literature. It was a very, very small village, which apparently had a slightly negative reputation locally (John 1:46). But there, in that tiny town, was a relative of Elizabeth (perhaps a niece?), named “Mary.” We are told that she is, “a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David,” (Luke 1:27). At that time, Jewish women were pledged to be married at a young age (as young as 12, some scholars say). Betrothals were similar to what our engagements are today, but were legally binding and could not be broken off easily. This is important for us to know for the story because it tells us that (1) Mary was unmarried, yet had a legal tie to the lineage of David through Joseph, and (2) she was likely very young, probably a teenager. Gabriel is going to reveal himself to this young teenage girl and emphasize three things: her status before God, the birth of the King and the Kingdom, and how this king will come. In all of these, however, God wants to drive home the point: “Nothing will be impossible with God,” Luke 1:37.
The Virgin Birth
Gabriel announces to Mary, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,” Luke 1:31. Mary’s first response is understandably incredulous: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (lit. “since I have had no sexual relations with a man”) Luke 1:34. Every now and then someone tries to trot out the idea that the word “virgin” in verse 27 (parthenos) maybe doesn’t mean “virgin”, but just a young woman, or someone who gets pregnant upon the first time they have intercourse. While that is simply not true, the context of verse 31 makes this unquestionable. Mary is still unmarried, she has never had a sexual encounter with a man, so she has never even had the opportunity to conceive. The shock of Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary is precisely because she is really a virgin. The whole point here is that something is being announced that is humanly impossible (cf. Luke 1:37).
Gabriel responds, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God,” Luke 1:35-37. The previous story of Elizabeth conceiving in her old age is extraordinary and displays God’s power to overcome what is nearly impossible (an elderly birth)—here, however, this is beyond extraordinary. This is literally, humanly impossible, but what is impossible with man is possible with God (cf. Mark 10:27). The Holy Spirit will overshadow Mary and she will be found pregnant with, literally, the Son of God. And, while this is certainly the most eye-popping of the three announcements, it is not the most profound. Far weightier and significant is the identity of who this son, Jesus, will be.
The Coming King
Earlier, Gabriel explains that this son named 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,” Luke 1:32-33. Gabriel gives five descriptors of Jesus: (1) he will be great, (2) called Son of the Most High, (3) given the throne of his father David, (4) reign over Israel forever, and (5) he will have an eternal kingdom. These five descriptions make the identity of Mary’s child undeniable: He will be the long awaited for Messiah! Israel has eagerly anticipated the coming King, the son of David, who would return to redeem Israel from exile and establish the kingdom of God.
In the Old Testament, the adjective “great” when ascribed to someone without any other descriptor is almost always (two exceptions) used to describe God alone, but here we are told that Jesus will be “great,” just like God is described. Further, in 2 Samuel 7 foretold of how the sons of David would have God as their father, and they would be His sons (vs. 14) and how David’s throne over Israel would be established forever (vs. 13, 16). But Gabriel doesn’t want to only attach Jesus’ identity to the expectation of the coming Davidic king, but also to the book of Daniel. The title “Most High” is the most common title for God given in the book of Daniel and the book is also the only other place in the entire Bible we meet the angel Gabriel (Dan 8:16; 9:21). In Daniel we are told of a “Son of Man” who is co-equal with God who receives an eternal kingdom that will never end (Dan 7:13-14) in which all of God’s enemies are destroyed (Dan 7:9-12). So here we have a weaving together of divine, Davidic, and Danielic expectations.
This is the child that Mary is to give birth to.
While in Mary’s day there appears to be little understanding of who this Danielic “Son of Man” was to be or that the Messiah was to be divine in any way, there was a very strong, robust expectation of the Davidic King coming. But this is precisely what would have made Gabriel’s announcement so eyebrow raising. Israel had not had a king sitting on David’s throne for nearly 600 years. They had been brutally dominated by pagan nations, had there temple destroyed, and were currently living under a tenuous oversight of Rome. For Mary to be told that the Messiah was coming who would establish the kingdom of God would have felt almost impossible.
Even the great prophecy of a virgin giving birth to a child who will be called Immanuel would have been surprising. In Isaiah 7:14 we are given this hallmark prophecy: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (which means, ‘God with us’).” But, like most Hebrew prophecies, this has both a “near” and “far” fulfillment. Jesus’ birth is the “far” fulfillment (cf. Matt. 1:23). But the immediate fulfillment has to do with dire, dire circumstances. The nation of Israel has separated into two kingdoms and the northern kingdom has joined forces with the nation of Syria to come and destroy the southern kingdom, where Jerusalem is (Isa 7:1-2). The sign of a virgin conceiving and bearing a child named Immanuel was not a sign of tender peace, or a Thomas Kinkade scene of serenity. Not to the nation of Judah it wasn’t. Isaiah goes onto explain that Immanuel, “God with us,” is a sign that these enemies that are arrayed around them are going to be utterly destroyed. “Be broken, you peoples, and be shattered; give ear, all you far countries; strap on your armor and be shattered; strap on your armor and be shattered. Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing; speak a word, but it will not stand, for God is with us,” Isa. 8:9-10.
So, when Mary is told that though she is a virgin, she will conceive and bear a child, and Matthew’s gospel tells us that this child is to be called “Immanuel,” (Matt 1:23) God with us, one can only imagine just how incredible this would have sounded to her. Immanuel is coming? Does that mean then that God is going to totally destroy all of Israel’s enemies? Even Rome, the invincible, savage, crushing Rome? This would have been hard for any Jew to imagine happening.
Of course, one could see why so many Jews misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ coming. Jesus did come to destroy Israel’s oppressors and enemies, He came to deal with their most deadly problem—He just disagreed with everyone about what their biggest problem was. While most Jews assumed that Rome was the enemy who needed to be vanquished for their exile to end, Jesus know that it was their unforgiven sin, their unrighteousness before a holy God, that was their greatest need. So Jesus did not come to establish a military coup against Roman legions—He came to suffer, to die, to forgive. But the effect of this work was no less consequential. In fact, it was infinitely more consequential than any earthly kingdom a military leader could have established. But God taps into their felt longing for national independence to say to them, Your desire to have Rome removed is just a dim reflection of your far greater need.
Nevertheless, while Mary humbly accepts this truth, it still would have seemed so marvelous, so beyond-belief given the history, that it would have seemed impossible. But, that still wouldn’t have seemed like the only impossible thing.
When Gabriel first announces himself, he greets Mary like this: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28). What sounds like an overwhelmingly positive greeting disturbs Mary, “But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be,” Luke 1:29. Why would Mary by troubled?
Could it be that she is troubled by seeing an angel, something that often fills people with fright in the Old Testament (cf. Dan 10:2-9)? Perhaps, but Luke specifies that she is specifically troubled by “the saying,” what Gabriel said to her, not his appearance. Maybe it is the saying “the Lord is with you,” that she is troubled at, as if Gabriel is announcing to her that she is already pregnant with “the Lord,” so he is literally “with” her. But later when Gabriel explains how Mary is to conceive when she is a virgin, he uses future-tense verbs describing something that is going to happen, but has not yet occurred. Further, the phrase “the Lord is with you,” was a common phrase that simply meant: God is a present help to you (much in the same way we might tell someone, “God be with you”).
This must mean that the saying she is troubled at the greeting she receives: “Greetings, O favored one.” This is what troubles Mary. ‘O favored one’? Three times in the book of Daniel, the angel Gabriel explains to Daniel that he is “greatly loved” by God—maybe that is what this is evoking here. But what is surprising to us (and to Mary) is that we are given no reason for why Mary is favored by God. Throughout the Old Testament we are told of individuals who “find favor in God’s eyes” (Gen 6:8; Ex 33:17), but what is surprising is that in all of those we are almost never given a reason for why these people are favored by God. While these people usually are faithful to Yahweh, we are often told of their many, many flaws. Noah, for instance, is said to have found favor with God, yet his story ends in his drunkenness, a sordid affair with one of his sons, and cursing in anger. Moses is described as finding favor with God, yet doesn’t trust God and dies outside of the promised land as a consequence. Even Mary, as we saw earlier in Mark’s gospel, will go on to a season of doubting Jesus is who He said He is, to the point of even thinking that He had gone insane (Mark 3:21, 31-35). Finding favor with God doesn’t seem to be equivalent to being accepted into the honors program in God’s eyes.
As we will see next week as we look at the Magnificat, Mary knows that she has nothing special about her to warrant the honor God has given her, there’s nothing that has earned the favor of God. So why would God favor her? Well, to “find favor in someone” comes from the root word χαριτόω “to show grace.” Even the very word χαῖρε, “Greetings,” Gabriel uses comes from this same word for “grace.” God has chosen Mary not because of her merit or superiority, but simply because of His grace. And this disorients Mary…what could this mean?
Marvel at God’s Power
If you take some time to consider God’s plan for the arrival of the Messiah, it seems like He was doing everything He could to make it seem as improbable and impossible as possible!
– God waits for nearly six hundred years of the nation of Israel being in exile, being almost totally wiped off the map before He sends the Messiah. He doesn’t send the Messiah when Israel is at the pinnacle of its power (David, Solomon) but when it is at its lowest.
– He does not come in power, but weakness. Not as a military commander, but as a baby.
– He is born to a poor, unwed teenage girl from a town so small it would not have even appeared on a map.
– This girl is a virgin, so she cannot conceive naturally.
– Her betrothed husband nearly divorces her on discovering the pregnancy (Matt 1:19).
– At the time of Jesus’ birth, there isn’t even the safety and comfort of a room for the delivery, but he is born in a stall for livestock, and shortly after his birth he is nearly killed by a murderous Herod.
It is like God is doing everything He can to show that, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” No matter how stacked the odds are against God, He always wins. Nothing is impossible for Him. And since God is the sovereign Lord over history, this means that He is working to make events happen as they do–He is intentionally make the circumstances more dire. But, why? So He can show His marvelous power in the face of what is normally impossible for men. When one of the Harlem Globetrotters blindfolds himself and is still able to play the game, what is he demonstrating? His superior athletic prowess–his ability is so great that he can do what normal people cannot do. And God is so set on displaying the power of His mighty arm that He will choose the most unlikely, impossible of circumstances simply to demonstrate His superior wisdom, power, and grace.
So, dear friends, I ask you again: what feels impossible to you? Do you believe that you have an omnipotent Lord who is not limited? Let’s not dishonor God by hedging our bets as we pray. Let’s not subtly teach ourselves and our families that there are just some things that really are impossible for God. In Mary’s story we see something that feels personally, nationally/socially, and physically impossible be overcome by God’s power. Maybe you are left thinking that God could never restore your family, never could heal your marriage, never could bring your wayward children back home. Friend, remember: nothing is impossible for God.
Maybe you have believed in God, believed that nothing was impossible for Him, but nothing has happened. You believe that God can heal sickness, restore what is broken, change our nation–but as you look around, it looks like God still isn’t doing anything. What are you to do then?
Well, if God desires to shine brightest in the darkest of nights, then that means there are times where God may be letting us sit in darkness for some time, waiting to respond till the moment that makes His grace look the most superior. Certainly there were faithful Jews living in the period of exile, wondering why God was so silent, why He seemed to heed their prayers so little. Little did they know that when the fullness of time would arrive, Jesus Christ would arrive. Friend, maybe you are waiting in a season of stillness where it does not seem like God is answering your prayers “Presto!”. And I encourage you to wait, God will sustain you and He will deliver you.
Respond like Mary
“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” – Luke 1:38. There are two ways to respond to the gracious call of God. One is to deny that you are worthy of it because you are too sinful, and the other is to assume that your goodness has earned it. Mary simply receives God’s grace, accepts that she has been favored by God. That is what we need if we are to persist in seasons of waiting. We need to simply receive God’s favor, the status He has bestowed on us in Christ. This way when walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we will know that we aren’t doing so because God has abandoned us or doesn’t care–we know that He cares for us an infinite amount because of the grace we have received in Christ.