How Can This Be? – December 14, 2008
Isaiah 7:10-17, Luke 1:26-38
December 14, 2008
We started out in Advent talking about the visit of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah and Elizabeth in the beginning of the Christmas story. Then we looked at the story of John the Baptist and his Old Testament roots in the book of Malachi. Well, today we focus in on the story of Jesus, and we think about the wonder and amazement and the glorious anticipation of the world at that time of his coming.
The background of that story is the anticipation of God’s people, who had been waiting for their messiah since the prophets began talking about it, almost a thousand years before. Now that time was drawing near. And much of that wonder and amazement lands on the shoulders of this young woman named Mary. Today we have the story of how she was visited by that same angel, Gabriel – with his horn, of course! Mary hears the angel’s message and asks “How can this be?”
Do you wonder about that question? Do you think Mary had heard what happened when Zechariah questioned this same angel? If you did, do you think she asked it with some “fear and trembling?” Whatever the case, Gabriel seemed to go a little easier on her. He didn’t get all indignant on her, which we observed before is not something you want an angel to do. I wonder if Gabriel had reported back to God after his first “delivery,” and God now gave him his next message, saying, “And go a little easier on this girl, will ya?”
This is a wonderful story. And I don’t even think it makes sense to ask the question “what would we have done?” Because I don’t think we can even begin to think what it was like to be in her shoes!! She is a person unique in all of history. And her “assignment” in this story, and the fact that she took it on so willingly, is part of the wonder and amazement of this whole celebration!
When Gabriel speaks with Mary, I want you to notice that the words “Christ” or “Messiah” were never used. But they didn’t have to be. The things Gabriel said about this boy are things that said “Messiah” in large letters. “The Son of the Most High.” “The throne of David.” “His Eternal Kingdom.” There seemed no doubt to Mary what was happening here. And I don’t know about you, but to me, one of the most amazing and wondrous parts of this story is that it is taking place in the life of the least likely of people. Mary is a simple peasant girl. Most scholars think she was a teenager. She doesn’t live anywhere near the center of anything. She isn’t from a wealthy or even a notable family. (Though her husband can trace his lineage back to David!) She’s a nobody!
That’s one of my fascinations with “The Lord of the Rings.” by J. R. R. Tolkien. The same thing happens in that story. The great ring of power, the magic ring made by the dark lord Sauron to conquer and rule all the free people’s of the earth, was found and kept by the most unlikely person of all, little Bilbo Baggins a hobbit living on the far edge of the inhabited world, far from kingdoms and powers and armies and fortresses. Yet, as was said in that story, it was the actions of the least that would rule the fate of many. “This is the hour of the shire folk,” noted the great master Elrond, “when they will arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and councils of the Great.” “Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it?” (Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship of the Ring)
It’s no coincidence to me that Tolkien wrote from a Christian perspective. Because here we have the ultimate story of that same thing. This seemingly unimportant girl from the backwater of the great Roman Empire – an empire at it’s highest power – this most unlikely of people would change the fate of the world! The willingness of this girl to do God’s will would alter the course of history!
“How can this be?” That was Mary’s first question. How can this be that a virgin can conceive and bear a child? And many people have asked that same question over the centuries. (The virgin birth is ever a controversy in the Church!) I say the more amazing thing is how this unknown young woman could be the one through which God would come to earth? That’s just as unlikely an occurrence. That’s at least as a great a miracle!
I believe something else happened in this encounter. I believe that Mary was given the vision to know what all this meant. We read later in verse 46 her words that have come to be known as “the magnificat.” “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she said, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth, all generations will call me blessed.”
Mary knew! Somehow in this, she knew! And that’s amazing in and of itself! Who among us would have believed it if it happened to us, and who would have understood it’s true meaning. I doubt any of us would. And don’t forget, our perspective that Jesus has already been part of the picture. It’s hard for us to imagine what it was like without that background. We wouldn’t have been able to know all the ramifications of that which hadn’t happened before! But I believe Mary knew. Somehow she was given the understanding by God. And she answered the call. She who would have had no social status. She who would have been totally unnoticed in history otherwise. She was part of “the incarnation” – God taking on human form!
That’s the amazing story of the people of God. He doesn’t take the powerful and use them to change the fate of the weak. On the contrary, he uses the least to change the great. As Paul would later write, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.” (I Corinthians 1:27-28) Do you think Tolkien knew those words? Do you think Mary did? Even though they were written later, she of all people would understand them the best.
The same is said of us. Paul was writing to tell the people about their place in God’s kingdom – a kingdom in which the last would be first, and the greatest would be the servants. And that is the kingdom of which we are a part, too. We recognize that it is not by our might, nor by our power, but by the spirit of God that we are used for his kingdom. (To quote Zechariah 4:6) God told the people of Israel, “I didn’t choose you because you were the greatest and most powerful. I chose you because you were the least of people.” God chooses us not because we are powerful, or talented, or wise, but because we are willing!
That’s the power of this story. A young woman who would be mother to the Savior of the world. A baby in Bethlehem, who would challenge an empire! And truly The Empire Strikes Back. (to quote Star Wars!) That’s the picture that’s painted for us in Matthew’s version of this story. And that empire would back strike back against Christians for three centuries. The Church was persecuted for a time longer than the history of this country. (History that’s all around us here!) But then the most unlikely thing would happen. The Church would prevail over the mighty Roman Empire – “not by might nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord.”
So then, with all of that in mind, I ask you, in what ways is God using the least likely among us?
Eternal God, your purpose is ever more amazing to us the more we consider the story of Mary. Help us to know that you use us, too. Help us to know that, by the way we love, by the way we speak, and by the way we act toward others, we are changing the course of their lives. May we know all that that means, like Mary knew. Thank you for this story, and all it means to us. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.