We all have fears. And sometimes our fears are so powerful that they can be debilitating. Sometimes a fear is so controlling that it governs our actions and determines our decisions.
In the last post, we looked at the old priest Zechariah, and how the angel Gabriel appeared to him to give him an answer to his prayer. Gabriel told him that his wife, Elizabeth, would have a child in her old age, and he would be the messenger of the Messiah, one spoken of by the prophet Malachi. His son, John, would prepare people for the coming of Jesus.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had given up all hope of having a child. Because it seemed impossible to him, Zechariah doubted Gabriel’s word, so he was struck mute and deaf for nine months. But God kept his promise to them, and John was born just as the angel has promised.
Today, we’ll be looking at Mary, the mother of Jesus. We are going to pick up the story during this time of Zechariah’s silence, while Elizabeth was pregnant with John.
26 In the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy] 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.
Let’s stop there. If you remember, Gabriel the angel had been sent by God to tell Zechariah the good news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Six months later, God sent him on another mission—a mission to a young girl from Nazareth, up in Galilee.
This young girl’s name was Mary, or Miriam, which was her Hebrew name. She was a virgin, and she was pledged to a man named Joseph. Joseph, were told, was a descendant of King David.
Who is this young virgin named Mary? Here’s what we know about her from different parts of Luke’s gospel:
- Her father’s name was Eli.
- She had a sister named Salome
- She had a relative named Elizabeth.
- She is young.
- She is a virgin.
- She is poor.
- She is a devout believer in God.
- She is pledged to be married.
Back in first century Israel, women married very young. According to the Jewish custom of the day, women married as young as 13 or 14 years old. Men, on average, married around age 17 or 18. Mary and Joseph could have been that young, or they could have been older; we really don’t know.
When the story opens, Mary is “betrothed,” or pledged, or engaged to Joseph. Typically, the parents arranged the match, with the husband-to-be giving a sum of money to the girl’s father to secure her hand in marriage. Then the engaged couple entered a formal betrothal period, which often lasted a year. During that period the couple was considered to be married and were called husband and wife. In fact, only a formal divorce could dissolve their union.
During this time, Mary would have lived with her parents and Joseph with his. The couple did not live together and did not consummate their marriage physically. A written contract sealed the arrangement, and a moral breach constituted adultery and was punishable by death. After the twelfth month, the groom would come to claim his bride, consummate the marriage, and bring her to the home he had prepared for them.
Let’s pick up the story in verse 28.
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.”
This is now our second angelic pregnancy announcement. Before we look at the details of Gabriel’s words, I want to pause and put ourselves in Mary’s shoes (of sandals) for a moment. Here’s, say, a 14-year-old girl pledged to be married to a man within the year. So imagine what’s going on in her life at this time. She’s probably very excited. I imagine she’s spending a lot of time on Pinterest, looking at creative wedding decor and ideas for the invitations. She’s practicing signing her new last name. Or maybe she’s imagining names for her future children. And suddenly this angel interrupts all of her wedding planning with a different future than what she had been imagining.
Have you ever experienced that? Not the being greeted by an angel part, but the interruption in your life by God part? One very important principle we can learn from this story is this: what we call “interruptions” are often God’s invitations.
There are times when God interrupts what we have going on in life. And when he does that, he is actually calling us to something higher or better than what we have planned.
Back in September 1998, I was sitting alone in a cold, dark Russian flat, having just signed the required government documents to turn over the Christian publishing house we had started six years earlier to Russian control—with a new Russian director. I was effectively ending my own job, not knowing what lay ahead.
In an amazing work of God, which is another story, I ended up contacting and getting hired by a ministry that we had translated and published a book for. After discussions with them, the plan was for Missy and I to return to Russia and work for them. At this point, Kate was 6, Spencer was 4, and Cooper was 1. We were excited to be joining this new ministry, and excited to return to life in Russia.
But then came God’s interruption. Instead of moving us to Russia, we were told by the ministry that they wanted us to spend a year living in the mountains of North Carolina, at a missionary training facility to help prepare us for the field. We were disappointed. We were sure that this was not God’s plan. We told them so. We told them that we didn’t need more preparation, that we were sure God wanted us to go to Russia, that we had no interest in moving to North Carolina for a year. But, they were determined, and so we submitted, and off we went to the mountains of North Carolina.
Well, that interruption . . . was God’s invitation. Our year in North Carolina turned out to be one of the best years for our family. We now have good friendships from our time there. We learned some valuable things while there. Ultimately, we ended up staying in the states, moving to Florida with the ministry, and then to Indiana. Who knows if we would even be here today if not for that interruption in our plans. And without that year there, Kate and Amir would probably never have met.
Of course, it’s easy to see the wisdom of God’s interruptions in hindsight, but the hard part is to accept them by faith when they happen—and not just accept them, but embrace them.
Mary was probably looking forward to her life with Joseph. Get married, have some kids, live in a cozy little home in Nazareth. Be involved in the local synagogue. Go on coffee dates with her girlfriends. And then God interrupted her life.
Mary would probably never have chosen the type of life God had in store for her—moving around in fear for her life for the first couple of years, raising God’s child (talk about stress!), having your son be hated and mocked by many, and eventually watching him be crucified on a cross. Mary would never have chosen those hardships. But had she not submitted to God’s will, she would never have had the honor of bearing and raising the Son of God.
God often interrupted people’s lives in the Bible. He interrupted Moses when he was a shepherd in Midian by showing him a burning bush and inviting him to be the deliverer of Israel. He interrupted Jonah with a call to preach repentance to a country of rebellious people. He interrupted Saul’s life of persecuting Christians with a blinding light from heaven and changed him into an apostle of Jesus. God often interrupts people and changes the direction of their lives.
We need to be very careful that we don’t just shake off and ignore God’s invitations by calling them “interruptions.” God is at work in our lives, and he wants to work in and through us. And he knows what we need.
I don’t know what this might look like for you, but if you’ll be sensitive enough to begin to think through the interruptions in your life as possible invitations from God, he might take your life somewhere you could have never predicted or planned on your own.
And that’s what happened to Mary. An angel of God appears to Mary and tells her that God has something radical planned for her life.
You can imagine that this young girl would be afraid. And so, the angel, in verse 30 says to Mary, “Fear not” in the King James. In the ESV, “Do not be afraid, Mary: for you have found favor with God.”
Why did the angel say fear not? Well, I think there are a couple of reasons. Like we talked about last week, angels are scary beings! They are fierce, war-like creatures—not fat, little bald babies with golden harps. Angels are able to strike down nations at God’s command. And so, when Gabriel appears to Mary, I imagine he says, “Fear not” so she knows he’s not there to kill her.
But I think there’s a second reason. Take a look at Mary’s response in verse 29: “Mary was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” Mary was greatly troubled at the saying. Well, what had he said to her? He said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”
I think when Mary heard that she was favored, she may have already had an inkling that God had a job for her to do and that it might interrupt the plans she had been imagining for her life. Well, she was right. Let’s look again at what the angel said to her.
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.”
God’s purpose for Mary was WAY different than her plans. Can you imagine the emotions she experienced as she heard this? Mary had a thousand legitimate reasons to be afraid.
How would she explain this to Joseph? He would never believe that God made her pregnant! She could lose her husband! What would she say to her neighbors and friends? She would be the loose one, the promiscuous one. She could lose her reputation. But not only could she lose her husband and her reputation, she could lose her life. Getting pregnant out of wedlock in the first century was a sin punishable by stoning.
God said in Isaiah 55:9, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Again, I don’t know how this will play out in your life, but I promise as you pay attention to God’s guidance and his interruptions in your life, if you submit to his direction, you will find that his purposes are greater and his ways are higher than your plans.
I hesitate to say that God’s plans are “better” than your plans. Let me explain. Sometimes God puts people through extremely difficult circumstances. He called the apostle Paul to great suffering and ultimately martyrdom. He calls some to walk through sorrowful family situations. He calls some to bear the weight of terrible sicknesses, like cancer.
Sometimes when something doesn’t work out for someone, we might try to encourage them by saying something like, “That didn’t work out, but don’t worry, God has something better for you.” Have you ever said something like that? Is that a true statement? Well, it depends on how you define the word “better.”
God’s goal for his children is NOT that we be healthy, wealthy, and happy, and that all our dreams come true. His goal for us is that we be more like his Son, Jesus.
His goal is our holiness. And he will do whatever it takes to reach that goal. Sometimes that requires suffering, hardship, difficulties, trials, and adversity.
Romans 8:28 tells us that “God works all things together for our good.” But that good is what God calls good, not what we might call good. His better for me is not necessarily what I would call better.
My first cousin, Bambie, lives in Ventura, California with her husband, Mark. Last week, they were out on a cruise in the Caribbean. While they were gone, wildfires spread rapidly in Ventura, and on Wednesday, while in St. Martin, on Fox news they saw their house engulfed in flames . They lost their home and their dog in the fire. And it was three days before they could get home. I can’t even imagine what that would be like.
Thankfully, Bambie knows the Lord. And though this is a great trial, she messaged us and told us that God is good. She said that Jesus is everything to her. Though numb and weary, they are hope-filled.
Trials grow our faith. They strip us of our independence and make us dependent on God. They remind us of what’s truly important. No one would say that having your house incinerated is “good” or “better,” and yet with the eyes of faith, we can proclaim that God is good and that he is working all things together for our good and his glory.
How do you respond to God’s “interruptions”? With doubt? With fear? With faith? How did Mary respond to this angelic appearance? How would you respond? Would you argue? Would you ask for more details? Would you call 911? What does Mary do?
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
Mary asks only one question, a technical matter she would like cleared up: “How can this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
Now, you might remember earlier in Luke 1 when Zechariah questioned Gabriel’s announcement that his wife Elizabeth was going to have a son in her old age. He replied, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” You might wonder why Mary got off the hook, but Zech got a 9-month timeout.
Zechariah wanted more evidence—”how can I be sure of this?” he asked. In other words, “I don’t believe you.” And as a result, he was disciplined by the Lord because he did not believe the message.
But in Mary’s case, there wasn’t unbelief. God sees her heart. She asked a perfectly natural question. Mary has never had sexual relations with any man. So how then can she become pregnant and bear a son?
The angel’s announcement must have sounded incredible, but May didn’t doubt. She believed what the angel said. Her only question had to do with how it would happen. “All right. I’m willing to do my part, but you need to explain how we’re gonna handle this one little problem.” So, Gabriel explains to Mary just how it’s going to work.
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.”
Gabe explains how it’s going to work. “First, the Holy Spirit will come upon you. OK? And then the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Got that? And as a result, the child you will have will be the holy Son of God.”
That’s helpful. The fact is, the virgin birth is a miracle. We can’t understand it. Mary didn’t understand it. Gabe didn’t explain it all that well. But Mary was willing to follow God’s will for her life even if it didn’t make sense.
Since Mary would likely have doubts about all this, Gabriel says some words to encourage her.
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.”
The angel calls her attention to the case of her relative Elizabeth. She is now in her sixth month of pregnancy even though she had been barren and was past childbearing age. Gabriel’s point was that both pregnancies are examples of human impossibilities made possible by the word and promise of God.
Which brings us to verse 37, one of the most encouraging verses in the whole of Scripture: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” In other words, God is able to do anything he decides to do. If he wants to cause a virgin to conceive, he can do it. If he wants to cause a barren old lady to have a baby, he can do it. If he wants to part an impassible sea, he can do it. If he wants to heal a man born blind, he can do it. If he wants to save a foul-mouthed, self-righteous, deceived teenager back in 1979, he can do it. If he wants to come as a man, die on a cross, and then rise from the dead to save sinners, he can do it.
Whatever you are facing today that seems impossible, hang on to this verse: “For nothing will impossible with God.” God delights in doing the impossible.
So, how does Mary respond to this unbelievable, earth-shaking news that will alter the rest of her life?
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.
Without exaggeration, we can call this one of the greatest statements of faith in all the Bible. Gabe tells this 14-year-old, poor girl, “You’re going to get pregnant;you’re going to give birth to a son; he’s going to be the Son of God.” And when she asks how, he says, “Don’t worry about it. The Holy Spirit will cover you like a cloud and you’ll end up pregnant. That’s all there is to it.”
What do you say to that? Mary said yes. She said yes to God, yes to God’s plan for her.
Mary couldn’t possibly know what the future would hold. Before it was all over, she would experience heartache, opposition, slander, confusion, anguish, despair, and loneliness. In the end she would face the greatest pain a mother can endure when she would watch her Son die on a cross.
Mary couldn’t know any of those things when she said yes. Perhaps if she had known, she might not have said yes. I used to think how great it would be if I could see the future; that I’d love to know what’s going to happen. But if you really think about it, that would be horrible. Thankfully, God hides that from us; he alone sees the future. It is ours to trust and obey, and to leave the outcome with him.
Faith is saying yes to what God is asking of you, no matter how impossible it seems, no matter what the consequences might be.
Let me ask you, what interruptions has God brought into your life? What is he inviting you to do? What trial are you experiencing? How is he calling you to trust and obey him?
When you know the answer to that question, when you feel that you know the step of faith that God is asking you take, don’t let fear take hold. I want you to remember something: Obedience is your responsibility; outcome is God’s responsibility. Let me repeat that. Obedience is your responsibility; outcome is God’s responsibility.
“But, what’s going to happen? How will it all work out? What if . . .” No. Stop. Mary probably had a million what-ifs. You and I are called to take a step of faith and obey. To say yes to his plans, and to leave the outcome with him.
Mary sets the perfect example for us. Look at her response in verse 38. She says, “I am the Lord’s servant.” There are several Greek words for servant, but this one is doulos—it means slave. “I am the Lord’s slave.”
When God interrupted Mary’s life and put before her something so scary and so intimidating and completely different from her own plans for her life, she reminded herself who she was and whose she was: “I belong to the King of kings. He is my Lord, and I am called to serve him. And even though I don’t understand, and can’t figure it all out, and it will certainly cost me, and it’s probably going to be harder than I can even imagine, I am his slave. I belong to him. I can trust him with the outcome, and I will be obedient.”
“Let it be to me according to your word.” In other words, “I trust your plans, God. I know that You are good and just and loving and gracious and sovereign, and if you are interrupting me then I want to surrender my plans and do what you want because your ways are higher than my ways, and your purposes are greater than my plans.”
May we respond to God like Mary did.