Luke 1:26-38

This text is used for the Lectionary Year B on December 21, 2014.

When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her that she will have a son who will be the Son of God, her response is, “How can this be?” (Luke 1:34). It’s a fair question! In this passage, Luke shows us that God is about to do something completely new – something that’s never been done before. But in order to understand more fully the extent of what God is about to do, we first need to read this text in light of other call narratives throughout the Bible.

Biblical call narratives often follow a similar pattern of five main elements. First, an angel or divine being appears (1). The person to whom they appear expresses confusion, fear, or concern (2). Then, the angel brings the person a message or some words of instruction (3). The person usually objects or questions this message in some way (4), until lastly, the angel responds by giving a sign (5). This text follows each of the five main elements of this pattern: an angel appears to Mary in Galilee (1), and she is greatly troubled (2). The angel tells her not to be afraid because she has found favor with God. She will give birth to a son, Jesus, who will be the Son of the Most High (3). Mary questions how this can be since she is a virgin (4), and the angel tells her that the Holy Spirit will overcome her. He also tells her that Elizabeth is also going to give birth, even in her old age (5).

So, how does Mary’s call narrative stand up in comparison to other call narratives? The angel’s words, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37) immediately take us back to another call narrative Genesis 18. Here, three visitors come to tell Abraham that his wife will have a son. However, Sarah and Abraham are very old, so old, in fact, that Sarah actually laughs out loud at the idea of having a baby at her age. In response to her laughter, the Lord says, “Is anything to wonderful for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14). And sure enough, Sarah gives birth to a boy, Isaac, of whom she says “God has brought laughter for me” (Genesis 21:6).

With Sarah, God’s intervention was certainly dramatic and miraculous, given her age. And there are similar narratives throughout the Old Testament in which barren women are told they will have a child: Rebekah (Genesis 25); Rachel (Genesis 30); Hannah (1 Samuel 1); the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4). But with Mary, we’ve never seen anything quite like this before. A baby born of a virgin? How can this be?

Like Mary, many of us respond to the challenge of faith with feelings of doubt and disbelief. If we’re being honest, “how can this be?” is a question all of us ask, whether or not we ever say it out loud. How can this be that God is all-powerful when there is so much brokenness in the world? How can God be a God of love when there is so much hate?  How can God’s light shine in a world of such darkness? How can God make a way where there seems to be no possible way? How can this be?

There’s another scene in the New Testament of an angel visiting someone old in age to tell him that he will have a child: the call of Zechariah in Luke 1. Zechariah is a priest who has grown up in the temple. One would think that of all the biblical characters, a priest would be the least surprised by the appearance of an angel. Yet upon seeing the angel, Zechariah is “terrified” and “fear overwhelmed him” (Luke 1:12).

Mary’s call narrative is quite powerful when read in contrast with the call of Zechariah. Zechariah can not believe the angel’s words. His faith can not fathom beyond “how can this be?” so the angel silences him, and Zechariah is unable to talk. Unlike Zechariah, whom readers would have expected to respond positively, Mary is not a man, not a priest, and not even an adult. She is likely between the ages of 12-16. Yet this young teenage girl ultimately demonstrates more faith than the priest who has spent his life in the temple because she is able to move beyond “how can this be?” to “let it be with me.” Unlike Zechariah, Mary’s words help us move from a spirit of questioning God’s presence to trusting in God’s promises, even when they can’t yet be seen.

Isn’t this the same progression we experience as we move from Advent to Christmas? We’ve spent the past few weeks waiting and watching and hoping and praying for God to show up, for God’s light to shine somewhere in our darkness, and for Jesus to break into our world. But sometimes, the darkness is overwhelming. The brokenness is all-consuming. We are told that God’s light will pierce through this darkness, yet everything and everyone around us begs the question, “How can this be?”

Mary’s voice helps us move toward the hope of Christmas. She helps us move from the darkness of the shadows to the light that now completes the circles of our Advent wreaths. She inches us closer to the belief that God’s light will break into our darkness, and as dark and broken as our world may be, darkness can not, does not, and will not overcome the light. “Let it be with me according to your Word,” Mary says. Let it be with all of us as we seek to preach the message of the hope of Christmas. Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

MaryAliceMary Alice Birdwhistell
Associate Pastor, Calvary Baptist Church
Waco, Texas

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