How Will These Things Be? Back to all sermons
Date: December 5, 2014
Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen
Scripture: Luke 1:26–1:38
Synopsis: This is the first of three Christmas messages as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus. In this message, (titled How Will These Things Be?) we explore the events of the first Christmas from the perspective of Mary. When the angel appeared to her (in Luke 1:26-38) and announced that she would be the mother of the Messiah, this was great good news, but it came with a serious down side for Mary personally. In Mary’s response to the angel we find a wonderful model for all servants of the Lord as well as an example of true faith.
This will be my last December as pastor of ECC. We will be celebrating our 25th and final Christmas here in Abu Dhabi. So I have decided to do things a little differently. Over the last few years, we have prepared for the coming of Christmas and the Advent season by lighting an Advent candle and having Christmas readings at the beginning of each service. We are not going to do that this year. Instead, I am going to preach a different Christmas message in each of the 3 Fridays before Christmas as we prepare our hearts to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus. Each week will also feature at least some Christmas music and a Scripture reading containing a part of the Christmas story. It will be a kind of month long “festival of Christmas.”
The Christmas story is filled with a fascinating collection of characters; faithful Zechariah and gentle Elizabeth, Joseph, with calloused hands but a tender heart, uncouth shepherds, singing angels, mysterious magi from the east, brutal King Herod, pious Simeon and faithful Anna. We have seen them portrayed in countless Christmas pageants, and we have read their stories Christmas after Christmas. Each one had a unique perspective on the events of the first Christmas.
This morning, I want to consider the Christmas story from the perspective of the person most closely involved and most dramatically affected other than Jesus himself. That is Mary, the mother of Jesus. She has been, over the years, a figure of some mystery and even of some controversy as different branches of the Christian church have attributed different roles and attributes to her. But as I read her story it strikes me that there is one thing all Christians can agree on; she was a remarkable servant of the Lord. She played a key role in the fulfilling of God’s plan on earth. She was a true hero of our faith. In fact, of all those involved in the events of the first Christmas, she was the one who was required to take the greatest step of faith.
Let’s pick up the story in Luke 1:26-27:
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.
These are fascinating verses because of the mixture of the human and the divine, the natural and the supernatural, the earthly and the heavenly. God sent an angel. That’s the divine, the supernatural. Where did the angel go? To Nazareth, a town in Galilee. Rooted in geography, precisely located on the earth’s map. It is still there today. You can go on Google Earth, type in Nazareth, and you will be looking at it. A real place on earth. The angel went to talk to a specific person; a young woman with a name: Mary. We are told her state in life. She is a virgin, and she is engaged to be married. We are also told her fiancé’s name: Joseph. We are even told his ancestry. He is a descendant of David. All of these are earthly, natural, human details. God is making contact. Heaven is preparing to come to earth. It is that mixture of the heavenly and the earthly that gives the story of Christmas its unique fascination. Nowhere is that mixture more strongly displayed than in the life and body of Mary herself.
In Mary’s words and responses to the angel in Luke 1:26-38 we also find some powerful life lessons; lessons that are valuable to all of us as God’s servants. They are lessons about faith and about the essential, fundamental life attitude required of all of us who desire to be truly effective in our service for Christ.
I would summarize these lessons this way: True faith is believing what God says to the point of submission and obedience.
We will take that in two sections and see how Mary sets an admirable example for us. True faith is believing what God says.
There is a very strong emphasis in this account of Mary and the angel on the words of God. Faith is sometimes defined as simply believing in God. This is certainly an important beginning point for faith. Hebrews 11:6 says that for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists.
But believing that God exists is not in and of itself Biblical faith. As James tells us in James 2:19 in the NIV version: You believe that God exists? Good. Even the demons believe that and tremble. No, true faith involves more than simply believing in the existence of God. When we study Biblical faith we find that there is a very strong link between faith and the word of God; between believing in God and believing what he says. This is clearly illustrated in Mary’s example.
Let’s look at her interaction with the angel:
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.
I think we can all empathize with Mary’s reaction. An angel appears to you and says, in essence, “Congratulations!” We would all be wondering what is going on! Gabriel then continues with words that must have been absolutely overwhelming to Mary.
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.”
What an incredible pronouncement! “Congratulations, Mary! You have been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah!”
There are a number of Old Testament promises wrapped up in Gabriel’s words. The first is found in the name Jesus. Jesus is the Greek version of the Hebrew name “Joshua”. It is based on two words: Yah, the first syllable of God’s special name, and “shua” to save. So the etymology of the name is clear: “God saves.”
“He will be called the Son of the Most High.” This is truly a remarkable statement; the Son of God himself.
“The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David.” This is the fulfillment of God’s promise to David of a descendant who will sit on his throne.
“Of his kingdom there will be no end.” It is the promise of an eternal kingdom and Mary’s son would be that eternal king.
Clearly and without ambiguity, the angel is saying to Mary: “You will be the mother of the Messiah.” It was the fulfillment of every Jewish maiden’s fondest dream.
But there is one major difficulty. Mary is a very down to earth and practical person. She asks a very direct and practical question.
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
The angel answers and gives the closest thing the Scriptures offer to an explanation of the virgin birth:
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.
We stand here in the presence of mystery and miracle. This is the ultimate merging of the divine and the human, the supernatural with the natural. There was no human father. The Holy Spirit would come upon her. Did she feel his presence? We do not know. The power of the Most High is described only as “overshadowing” her. And by that miraculous power of God, the egg in her womb would be fertilized, not by a human seed, but miraculously by God himself. It is the ultimate mix of the human and the divine; something unique happened in the womb of Mary, resulting in a unique being, both human and divine. God in human flesh took up residence and began to grow in Mary’s womb. The one to be born is described as “holy”. Holy because he did not carry the sin nature that is the inheritance of every baby born of the seed of a human father. He will called the Son of God in a very literal sense.
What Gabriel describes to Mary is the fulfillment of an Old Testament promise found in Isaiah 7:14:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
The word “Immanuel” simply means “God with us.”
Think of the significance of what the angel has just said. The Messiah is about to be born. He will be conceived in and born from your womb, Mary. This will happen without any sexual contact with a man. This child will not only be the Messiah. He will be called the Son of God. It is absolutely incredible!
Now, remember my earlier statement: True faith is believing what God says. So here is a question to consider. Would you have believed the angel’s message? The angel recognizes the difficulty of his words, and gives a word of exhortation to boost Mary’s faith in verse 36-37:
"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.”
It is so easy to say the words, “It’s impossible.” I am sure, under the circumstances, that it was a strong temptation to Mary. But Gabriel anticipates her objection. He first tells her how God has already done the impossible in the life of her relative, Elizabeth.
Then he adds these strong words: For nothing will be impossible with God. I have spent quite a bit of time looking at that sentence in the original language. While I think it is clear enough in its intent, it is very difficult to translate it smoothly into English. In a literal, word by word translation it would read: “For not impossible on the side of God every word.” What is not clear in most of the translations is the emphasis on the spoken and revealed word of God. This is not a generic statement about the power of God, but rather a statement that links God’s power to his word. We might paraphrase it: “If God says it, he is powerful enough to do it.” Or, more succinctly, “Nothing God says is impossible.”
God has all power. He can do anything. But he commits his power to do what he says he will do. Biblical faith is always linked to God’s words. Faith is believing that what God says he intends to do, his is able to do and he will do. I believe some modern faith teaching goes astray here. In what is sometimes called the “word of faith” movement, the emphasis is on our word as believers. If we say something and believe it and get others to say it and believe it with us, then God will do it. This is not the Biblical emphasis. True faith lies in believing. Believing what? God. His word. His power to do what he says he will do and to keep his promises. This is Biblical faith. This is what the angel is telling Mary. “Nothing God says is impossible. If he says it, he can do it and he will do it.”
This is the essential, working end of faith for every believer. True faith is believing what God says. But there is another part to the theme of our message today. True faith can never end with a simple theoretical affirmation. True faith is believing what God says to the point of submission and obedience.
Before we look at Mary’s response, let’s take a moment to look at some of the personal implications for Mary. If we were reading glibly along, so far we might conclude that everything the angel has said sounds like wonderful good news. And it is. But there is a serious down side to the angel’s words. And it is a very serious down side for Mary personally.
Recall her situation. She is engaged, but not yet married. In those circumstances, what is her mind filled with? Wedding plans, her fiancé, the start of her new life as a married woman. Now she is told: “Mary you are going to get pregnant…before your wedding night!” Tell me, is this good news? Especially in a conservative, Jewish community. Even if they bypassed the extreme penalty of stoning her, the potential scandal, gossip and ostracism was very scary to contemplate. And how would Joseph, her fiancé, respond to the news?
Of course, Mary can always explain the real circumstances. Imagine her down by the village well, surrounded by the neighborhood women. “Yes, I am pregnant. But it is not what you think! You see, this angel appeared to me and he told me…” How many times do you think she tried that explanation?
We don’t really know how the story played out for Mary on the social and family front, with one exception. We know from Matthew’s account that when Joseph heard about her pregnancy, his compassionate response was to divorce her privately. We also know from Matthew’s account that the same angel appeared to Joseph directly and gave him the word and set him on the right course. In so doing, I believe God did work in such a way as to ease the impact of the potential scandal on her and Joseph and the family. But she didn’t know all that at this point in time. Which makes her words all the more remarkable. In spite of the tremendous personal risk she was assuming, her words remain a model for all faithful believers:
And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Mary’s response provides a wonderful model and example for every faithful believer. This is faith in action. It is first of all a statement of a relationship of submission. “I am the Lord’s servant.” Literally, “I am the Lord’s slave.” Submission and obedience. As your servant, Lord, I am yours to command. Submission to the will of God. Then she goes beyond the theological to the personal. “Let it be to me according to your word.” There is the emphasis on God’s words again. Faith is believing what God says to the point of submission and obedience. “I submit myself in obedience to you and your word and your will for my life.”
So often, if we are honest, faith breaks down here. We say we believe. We talk like we do. But there is no final step of submission and obedience. Especially when that act of obedience is costly. True faith is believing what God says to the point of submission and obedience. It is saying, with Mary, the necessary prayer of every true, faithful servant of God: “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be to me according to your word.”
As we prepare to celebrate this Christmas season, let’s ask ourselves: Do we have Biblical faith? Mary’s kind of faith? Maybe we can even call it “Christmas faith.”
Let me suggest three possible commitments to consider this morning.
1. Faith in Jesus and his identity as the Christ, the Savior. Mary believed God’s words, given to her through the angel: that the Son of God, the Savior would be born from her womb. We are asked to believe that Jesus, the Savior, was born from Mary’s womb, that he lived and died as the sacrifice for our sins, and then rose from the dead. Do you believe that? I don’t mean “believe” in a theoretical, nominal, “every Christian believes that” kind of way. But believing to the point of commitment and obedience where you go on your knees before God and put your faith and trust in Christ as your Savior.
2. Submission to Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life. To say, as Mary did, “I am your servant, Lord.” This is the commitment that Paul calls for in Romans 12:1: Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Mary very literally offered her body, her very womb to God for his use. Our sacrifice may be different, but we are asked to make the same unconditional offer of our lives and bodies to God for his service.
3. A commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord of this day, this moment, this situation. Maybe you are struggling with a particularly difficult situation; ill health, family problems, financial struggles, work stresses. Faith is the ability to say to the Lord, “I submit to you. I trust you in this. I trust what you are doing in my life. I accept your plan. I will do whatever it is that you want me to do.”
- Read Luke 1:26-38 together.
- Put yourself in Mary’s sandals. What would have been your emotions, thoughts, reactions to the appearance and the words of the angel?
- What does the angel’s pronouncement convey to us about the identity of the child that would be born?
- The first part of Pastor Cam’s theme statement was: True faith is believing what God says… Why is it important to link faith to God’s words? What happens when we fail to keep this strong connection in mind?
- Verse 37 contains a sentence that is hard to translate into English. The literal word order in the original text would read like this: “For not impossible with God every word.” Suggest some possible translations or paraphrases that might be used to capture the meaning.
- The rest of the theme statement was: …to the point of submission and obedience. Why is this an important component in understanding true faith?
- How do Mary’s words in verse 38 serve as a model for us? What are some practical applications to our lives today?