This morning we are in the third week of our Advent series, Obeying God in the Hard. So far we have looked at how to respond when God calls us to do things that are hard. When God called the priests of Israel to carry the ark of the covenant into the raging waters of the flood-swollen Jordan River, this was something that was unquestionably hard. It took a lot of courage to head straight for that river carrying the single most important object the nation possessed. Yet, take up the courage they had to because the next steps on their journey to take possession of the land God had promised them were not going to be revealed until they stepped out in obedience. Indeed, more than a generation before they had been standing at roughly the same place, responded faithlessly, doubting God’s goodness and ability, and as a result, found themselves wandering around in the desert for the next 40 years. They weren’t going to replay that episode and so walk forward they did. And when they did, God made the way He was leading them plain. He parted the Jordan River for them in much the same way (though different in the details) He had the Red Sea about 42 years earlier. We found in this story that the next steps with God we need to take at similar moments in our own lives are often not going to be revealed to us until we step out in faith and courage to take the first one.
Now, if God only called us to things that were simply hard we might be able to adjust to it, gradually build up our faith muscle, learning to do hard things kind of like we learned to eat vegetables—by repetition. We could probably get to the point that we looked forward to the challenges that God brought before us, jumping at the first hard step while eagerly anticipating what was coming next. But, God doesn’t just ask us to do things that are hard. Sometimes He sails right on past hard to nonsensical. We saw that last week. When God called Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac as a burnt offering that crossed the line from hard into the realm of apparent nonsense. I mean, yes, we know from reading the story now that God never intended for Abraham to go through with it, but was rather giving him an opportunity to put his faith on brilliant display, but Abraham didn’t know that going into the experience. All he knew was that God had asked him to do something that didn’t make sense. In the same way, there are times in our lives when God asks us to do something that doesn’t make any sense. He asks us to give up something or go somewhere or not go somewhere or talk to someone or give of ourselves or whatever, but the point is that it’s something that for us doesn’t make sense. We can’t wrap our minds around it. Stepping out in obedience here makes about as much sense as flying pigs.
And yet what did Abraham do? He stepped out. He had learned over the course of 25 years of not merely obeying in the hard, but living in the hard, that when God is moving in a certain direction life may not necessarily be easier when you go with Him, but it’s always better than the alternative. And so Abraham loaded up everything he needed to make the sacrifice, traveled to the place, got everything ready, and at the last minute God stopped him, saying, “Hold up there, Abraham. You passed. You have demonstrated conclusively that you are willing to be faithful even when it doesn’t make any sense. Now, receive my blessing.” Indeed, what we saw last week is that obedience in the hard always brings blessing. God responds to our faithfulness with blessing every single time.
So then, we’ve covered how to respond in the hard and even in the nonsensical, but what about the impossible? What about when God comes to us and asks us to do something that simply isn’t possible? It’s not that it’s hard—we can deal with hard. It’s not even that it doesn’t make any sense—something that’s possible but which we just don’t understand (like being told to sacrifice a child). It’s simply not possible. We’d be happy to do it (or maybe not so happy, but that’s another matter), but it literally can’t be done…at least as far as we understand the word “can’t.” Well, this morning I want to tell you the story of a time when God came to a young woman and announced that He intended to do something impossible and would she like to go with Him? Unlike the last couple of weeks, though, this is a story with which most of you are probably intimately familiar. As my character said at the cantata last Sunday evening, you’ve all heard this story in one fashion or another. It has a “common familiarity that we find comforting at this time of year.” All the same, this is a good and powerful story and I’m going to tell it to you anyway. The story itself can be found in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 1 and if you’ll grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures you can take a look at this with me.
We’re going to focus our attention starting at v. 26, but I want you to see the whole picture of what God is doing here. It has been about 400 years since the last real prophet of God had spoken a word to the people of Israel—the same amount of time they had lingered in slavery in Egypt, apparently forgotten by God. During this time the people of Israel had been passed around like a hot potato from one foreign nation to another. They had had their language, customs, and religious sensibilities thrown to the side and trodden upon time and time again. The last prophet, Malachi, talked about the coming redeemer as well as His herald, but that was 400 years ago. Needless to say, the people were ready for God to fulfill His promise. Charismatic men had begun claiming to be this redeemer, and yet time and time again these messiah pretenders were rounded up and killed by whichever was currently the nation in power. Most recently this had been Rome which always seemed especially intolerant toward anyone they deemed to be an interruption of the peace. In fact, by the waning years of the first century B.C. things had gotten to a point that the way everybody knew a messiah claimant was simply another false messiah was that he and all his followers were killed by Rome.
But then one day, a priest named Zechariah whose wife Elizabeth was barren and now past childbearing years had his name drawn to be the one to enter the holy of holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. After several days’ worth of cleansing and sacrifice and preparation the day finally came. He went behind the curtain to light the candles and burn the incense (with a rope tied around his ankle just in case he offended God and had to have his body dragged out). As he was performing this sacred act an angel appeared to him and announced that he and his wife would soon conceive and give birth to a son whom they were to name John. This boy would grow to manhood and would become the herald of the Messiah. Not long after and in spite of Zechariah’s understandable skepticism, Elizabeth became pregnant. And while she didn’t tell anybody at first (for reasons which we are not told but can certainly guess at), she basked all the while in the glory of what God had done for her. If only she knew, though, that the work of God was not done and her experience of it was not even the greatest to be had.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel appeared to a cousin of Elizabeth named Mary. Mary was probably not older than 16 and may have been as young as 12 or 13. We are told that she was betrothed to a man named Joseph who was a descendent of King David. The concept of betrothal is similar to yet different from our practice of engagement. Today when a couple gets engaged, the only thing holding their relationship together is their mutual commitment to one another. Other than the potential loss of security deposits and the embarrassment of having to return gifts there is nothing stopping an engaged couple from breaking it off if such a move becomes necessary for some reason. There is nothing legally binding them together. In the first century practice of betrothal, however, this was not the case. A betrothal carried many of the responsibilities of marriage without the benefits. The couple was legally bound to one another. Both of them were expected to remain celibate and any cheating would be looked at as adultery with all its attendant consequences, not simply cheating. The husband was duty-bound to begin providing a place for his future bride although she remained in her father’s house until the actually wedding ceremony. Getting out of a betrothal required an actual divorce certificate from the priest. So again, the situation was similar, but it was a much stronger, legally-binding bond.
In any event, Gabriel appeared to Mary one day to bring her a word from the Lord. Check this out with me in v. 29: “And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” Stop right there. That’s bible-ese for, “She was scared out of her mind and was freaking out as she tried to reason through if this heavenly figure had come to kill her or what.” Don’t miss the emotion behind the words.
Continuing: “And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God [big sigh of relief!]. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 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, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’”
That’s some pretty big news there. Let’s unpack that right quick. The angel tells her that she has found favor with God. That’s a pretty high compliment. That meant she was a righteous young woman who sought to keep the law in all the ways that she could. More than that, she had a faith in God that served as her main driving force. After all, the way to righteousness is through faith. So the message starts out really good. Then things take a rather southward turning before getting weird. Gabriel next tells her that she is going to conceive in her womb. This may have been 2,000 years ago, well before the age of modern science and our detailed understanding of the process of human reproduction at a cellular level, but even back then people understood how this happened. They knew that it took a man and a woman. When Mary is introduced into the story here, the first way she is identified, before even her name is mentioned, is as a virgin. That means conceiving in her womb isn’t possible. I mean, she could cheat, but to become pregnant by cheating would mark her as an adulteress which was a crime punishable by death according to the Law. That combined with her righteous character doesn’t really suggest she had a lot of motivation to go in that particular direction. Furthermore, even if the father was Joseph, they are betrothed, not married which would make such an action deeply immoral in the eyes of their culture. Unlike today when all the cultural weight is geared toward encouraging couples to be involved before getting married in spite of the well-documented negative consequences of such a decision, all the cultural weight then pointed in exactly the opposite direction. Desire is a powerful thing, but a sufficient amount of cultural pressure can overcome it. What more, there is a good chance this was an arranged marriage and that Joseph was much older than Mary so desire may not have even been much of a problem here. All told, Mary had neither intention nor pressure to be involved with a man so conceiving in her womb wasn’t possible.
When you combine all that with Gabriel’s use of very much messianic language to describe the identity of this impossible baby boy it’s no wonder that Mary’s first reaction is shock and skepticism. She asks the entirely logical question: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” In other words, “What you are saying isn’t possible.” It’s not possible and if God does this it will pretty much ruin her life. Absent a special message to Joseph, she’ll be divorced in disgrace. She’ll be labeled an adulteress for the rest of her life. She’ll be thrown out of her father’s house for bringing him shame. She might be stoned to death for her apparent crime—and it’s hard to hide the evidence when it’s sitting right out there where everyone can see it.
Again, then, we find ourselves in the place we started. We can deal with hard. We can conceive of the nonsensical even if we can’t wrap our minds around it. But this sailed on past both of those to the realm of impossible. Genetically- and physiologically-speaking this was impossible. Getting pregnant takes two people. Even with all the modern technology we have today, getting pregnant still takes two people. They may not know each other or have ever even been in the same place at the same time, but it takes two people. There wasn’t a second person option for Mary and thus conception wasn’t possible. How do we respond when God calls us to something that’s impossible?
Now, before some of you who are prone to giving churchy answers at a time like this jump immediately to something like, “Well, of course you say yes because it’s God doing the asking,” hold on a minute. Let’s say it again: this was something impossible. As far as Mary was concerned a pregnant virgin made about as much sense as a round square. There was no category for this in her mind. I had trouble even thinking of a modern example of something like this because by definition there’s no category in my mind either for something like this. And yet, just as He did in Mary’s life, there’s a chance God may one day come and ask you to do something or to go along with Him as He does something for which there is simply not a category in your mind. You’re not necessarily opposed to the idea of whatever it is, it is just by definition impossible and so you don’t know how to say anything other than no. There’s just one little hang-up here: God asked you to do it. And why would God ask you to do something that’s not possible without providing a pathway to make it so? This is exactly what Gabriel explained to Mary in response to her question.
Look at this with me at v. 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. 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.” Got that? Nothing will be impossible with God. With God all things are possible. God can do anything within the realm of logical possibility and a pregnant virgin falls within that realm since all it involves is something being where it wasn’t before and God can handle that. We serve a God who is able to bring possibility where before there was only the impossible. All it takes is a little power. What Gabriel announced to Mary was that the power of God was coming to bear in the situation and that what was once considered to be only an impossibility was going to become a present reality.
How do we respond when God calls us to something that’s impossible? You could find a worse example to follow than Mary’s in v. 38: “And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’” In other words, the angel came to Mary to announce that God was heading in a certain direction and that even though that road seemed impossible to travel, would she like to go there with Him? When she asked how it was going to happen, the angel responded that God’s power was going to make the impossible, possible. Hearing this, Mary said the only thing that made any sense: “Let’s go.” So how do we respond to God’s invitations to the impossible? As long as God’s power is coming to bear in the situation (and if it’s something God is doing then His power will come to bear in it), we move in His direction. When God shows His power, move in His direction. The way may seem impossible, but with God, nothing is impossible. When God shows His power, move in His direction.
Now to the real question, though: what happens then? What happens when we move in God’s direction at a display of His power? Well, for Mary, she served as the conduit to literally release that power into the world in the form of Jesus. Now, we may not all give birth to a baby when we move in God’s direction, but we can be an active part of releasing and advancing God’s power into the world around us. We can be an active part of bringing the power of the God who makes the impossible possible in situations where some possibility would be an awfully good thing. Think for a minute about all the places where this possibility-creating power could make an impact in our world. And don’t think just about the obviously big examples—end childhood hunger, world peace, cure for incurable diseases, and so on. The power of God could certainly be put to use there (and it is, by the way), but there are a lot more places closer to home than that. How about that broken relationship you have? It seems totally impossible to think that it could ever be restored. But with God all things are possible. What about the wound you bear in your heart that you received so long ago and is still causing you trouble? It’s gotten to where it is beyond the realm of possibility for you to image being whole once again. But with God all things are possible. Think about that situation at work. There’s just no way it’s going to get any better. But with God all things are possible. How about the friend whose been dealt a terrible injustice? Only in a pipe dream could that ever be made right. But with God all things are possible.
Not only are all things possible with God, but He invites us to be a part of the creation of possibility—just like He did with Mary. In such moments we are faced with two choices: let the loud impossibility of the situation lead us to walk away, or trust in the power of God and start moving in His direction. It sounds like an obvious choice when put in those terms, but when we’re not in this room and the weight of impossibility is weighing heavily on our shoulders, it’s a much more difficult choice than we’d care to admit. And yet, when God’s power is coming to the party, nothing is impossible. When God shows His power, move in His direction. There you will find the hope, the peace, the joy, and the love for which you long so desperately. There you will find the possibility you need to move forward in the direction of life. And in that life you will find the power you need to change the world. There are some impossible-seeming situations in your life right now. Friends, our perfect heavenly Father has plans to bring the possibility of His presence to bear in each of those. His invitation to you is to be a part of it. All you have to do is start moving in His direction. He’ll provide the rest. When God’s shows His power, move in His direction.