Behold The God Who Does The Impossible!
Topic: Advent Passage: Luke 1:26–38
BEHOLD THE GOD WHO DOES THE IMPOSSIBLE!
An Exposition of Luke 1:26-38
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: December 10, 2017 (Second Sunday of Advent)
Series: Advent 2017
Note: Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
We have now come to that moment when I get to preach my first sermon as the pastor of South Paris Baptist Church. You only have one opportunity to deliver a first sermon. What shall I preach about? What passage shall we consider? What theme shall we unpack?
We find ourselves in two seasons: the season of Advent and also in a new season of ministry as a church community. We have turned the page, so to speak, on a new chapter, and now we anticipate what the subsequent pages will reveal. And even as we anticipate good fruit in the months and years ahead, some of us or perhaps even many of us have certain expectations or dreams or desires for this congregation. That is a good thing, so long as we hold those expectations and dreams and desires with an open hand before the sovereign King of heaven and earth. For we must be convinced that it is God’s good and perfect will that shall be done, and not our own.
That said, it is fitting that we human beings, created in God’s image, should have ambition and should take aim at a goal and should strive toward the development of a plan. Sad indeed is that man who hopes for nothing and lives for nothing, except to play the role of cynic or pessimist. Far better to have a heart full of purpose, with noble desires for your family and for your church family and for your wider community. Far better to have high hopes and to suffer disappointments that force you to cast yourself afresh on God’s mercy, than to die a slow death without any desire that the cold wintry night should pass and that a warmer day of springtime renewal should come. Do you long for renewal?
Before I take a dive into Advent, which I shall do in about twelve minutes, I want to take a step back and help to set – or reset – our desires for this new chapter of life together at South Paris Baptist Church. And here is the point I wish to make, namely, that
God’s Word directs us to desire the impossible;
God’s will is that we yearn for things that are impossible for us to produce on our own;
God’s desire is that we seek spiritual fruit that is only possible for God to produce;
Scripture’s mandate is that we hunger for what God is able to do in and through us – that we hunger and thirst for God’s work to shine forth.
And it is impossible for us, on our own – in our own wisdom and strength – to produce God’s work. “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” (Psalm 127:1)
So I ask you this day: what do you want for South Paris Baptist Church and for the townships where we live and work? Do you want man-made efforts to make things a little bit better? Or do you want God the Father Almighty to stretch forth His hand and show forth the power and might of His kingdom? Are your desires high, holy, heavenly, and honoring to God? Or would you settle for a well-oiled man-made ministry machine?
This past October I participated in my sixth Workshop on Biblical Exposition, a workshop aimed at equipping preachers to more faithfully handle God’s Word. One of the workshop instructors was Pastor Aaron Messner from Atlanta, and he gave a wonderful presentation about why preaching God’s Word is an indispensable key to a healthy church. In the course of that presentation he unpacked how we can get duped into settling for a church ministry characterized by mere human effort. It happens something like this: we offer really great programs, accompanied by entertaining music and interesting sermons, so that we can attract new people and grow our numbers, so that as a result we can grow our budget and thereby grow and polish our programs and services, so that we can wield more influence in our region – and our rising influence will cycle back to ministry central where we can continually boost our programs, numbers, and finances – and so many people will be inspired along the way! What could possibly be wrong with all that? Well, a lot could be wrong with that if we aren’t preaching the Gospel, if we aren’t growing in love for the Lord, and if we aren’t making true disciples. We must beware of a ministry output machine that we can engineer in our own strength. We ought rather to set our aim on things that will not be accomplished unless God shows up in power and grace!
So let me be very clear as I begin my pastoral work here: my aim is not a well-oiled man-made outwardly impressive ministry machine. My aim, rather, is that we be in the stream of God’s miraculous redemptive work.
First, we want sinners to experience the miracle of being born again. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) This spiritual birth is the work of God from start to finish. The raw material of the sinful human heart is corruption and death, but when God saves sinners He reaches into their dead hearts and makes them alive with spiritual life; He removes their hard and stony heart and replaces it with a heart that is tender toward the Lord; and by His Spirit He graciously transforms them and empowers them to live a godly life. That is the miracle we must desire for every unconverted person. What good is good external behavior, or smart brains, or social courtesies, if our hearts are far from God?
Second, as we live out our lives as God’s sons and daughters, we want our homes and our church community to be characterized by love, joy, and peace. God calls us together in community with one another. The point of being together is not to stay out of each other’s way so each person can selfishly carry on with his or her own little agenda. The point of being together is to be in deep relationship, having a common mind, sharing the same purpose, working side by side for the sake of God’s kingdom, and serving each other with glad hearts. This depth of fellowship is impossible to attain without God’s renewing grace. You know your Bible. Love, joy, and peace are the fruit of what? The fruit of the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22) And whenever we find an ungodly attitude rear its head, Romans 8:13 directs us to put it to death “by the Spirit”. This is the ongoing miracle we must desire for one another, that each and every one of us be filled with the Spirit, that we might be Christ’s loving servants in every aspect of our lives. We must not settle for good intentions or New Year’s resolutions. We rather seek the work of Almighty God in our hearts and minds.
Finally, we do well to remember that we can accomplish nothing of any eternal significance apart from close fellowship with our Savior. Jesus put the matter simply,
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)
And so it is that we want the miracle of spiritual transformation to be accompanied by the miracle of effective, fruitful service. Let’s not lower the bar to a string of activities that we can manage on our own, but let’s raise the bar of expectation to what the risen Lord Jesus Christ is able to accomplish through us as we abide in Him.
Let the Lord’s words sink in: “… apart from me you can do nothing.” As you have come to service this morning, do you find yourself attempting to accomplish good things in your own strength? What kind of a return are you getting for all your efforts? As spouses seeking to develop your home life, as parents seeking to disciple your children, as church members seeking to serve your congregation, as neighbors seeking to bring a little beauty and good cheer to your neighborhood, as workers seeking to fulfill your duties at the factory or office, what are your efforts producing? Satisfaction? Frustration? Despair?
God’s desire is that we desire the impossible – that we draw near to the God of all grace and humbly depend upon Him to perform His supernatural work among us and around us. As we find ourselves in this season of Advent, I want to remind us that Christianity’s supernatural character goes back to the Incarnation itself, to that stunning moment when the eternal Son of God entered into our world through a miraculous conception in the womb of the virgin Mary. Whether you are a seasoned saint who is surprised at how much God has done in your life, or a weary disciple who has been running on the fumes of human effort for far too long, or an unconverted sinner who is attempting in vain to climb to heaven on the strength of your own two feet, I invite you to stand back from the noise of your everyday life and take a good look at the God who does great and awesome things for the salvation of His people.
THE SCRIPTURAL TEXT
Let us behold our great God in Luke 1:26-38. Holy Scripture says:
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. 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.”
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
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. 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.” 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. (Luke 1:26-38)
PART 1: THE CONTEXT
Our passage begins in verse 26 with reference to “the sixth month”, which relates to the events of Luke 1:5-25. Six months ago the miracle of conception had taken place in the barren womb of a godly old woman named Elizabeth. Elizabeth was married to the godly priest Zechariah, and they remained childless into old age. Then the angel Gabriel paid a visit to Zechariah and told him that he and Elizabeth would have a son named John, and that John would be a faithful servant of God who would prepare the people for the Lord’s coming. Our God, who is sovereign over all things, opened Elizabeth’s barren womb and a son was conceived to her and her husband Zechariah. God is mighty and merciful to His people!
That improbable conception occurred six months ago. Now God dispatched the angel Gabriel on a second visitation. The first visitation was to an old man, a priest, who was serving at the temple in the capital city, Jerusalem. This second visitation was to a young girl, a virgin, who was living in the middle of nowhere, in a town called Nazareth. If I may borrow a line of thought from Francis Schaeffer and John Piper, God Almighty visits insignificant people in insignificant places and graciously involves them in His work.
Verse 27 introduces us to Mary, who was to become the mother of Jesus. She was “a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph.” In other words, Mary was a young unmarried woman who had never had conjugal relations with a man. At the same time, she was betrothed to Joseph. Betrothal in the ancient world was a stronger bond than what we refer to as engagement. Engaged couples, though they have voluntarily promised themselves to each other, are under no legal obligation to fulfill their promise. Betrothal, on the other hand, was a solemn pledge in which each party was legally obliged to follow through to the point of marriage. So Joseph and Mary were pledged to one another – the marriage union and consequent consummation were imminent, but they had not happened yet. They were anticipating the marriage to come, and then God showed up with a plan of His own!
It is important to note that Mary’s fiancée Joseph was “of the house of David.” If you are familiar with the Old Testament, then this phrase “the house of David” is full of meaning – and bells should be going off in your ears. For it takes us all the way back to King David and to the lineage of kings that God promised should rule over Israel in perpetuity. The sad reality, however, is that most of the kings proved to be men of disobedience, and in time this wayward royal family and the wayward nation entered into God’s judgment. Now the kingship was broken, the kingdom was in tatters, the glory of the Davidic Age was long gone, and now the nation existed under the thumb of Roman rule. But there was a promise!
Do you know the promise? The promise was that a new day would arise, that a descendant of David would reclaim the throne, and that the kingdom would be re-established in righteousness, justice, and peace. So our ears should perk up when we hear that phrase “of the house of David.” Could it be that “the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1) – Jesse was the father of King David, and the beautiful tree of David’s royal family had been reduced to an insignificant stump – could it be that “the stump of Jesse” was about to bring forth a special son who would renew the kingship for the good of the people?
PART 2: THE GREETING
Gabriel, having traveled all the way from God’s throne in heaven to an out-of-the-way city on earth, was ready to speak to Mary.
“And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”” (v. 28)
Can you imagine what it would be like to have such an angelic visitation? Let us be clear that angels are not like cute cuddly little stuffed cherubs who whisper sweetly in your ear and make you smile. Angels are mighty creatures who reflect the authority and glory of God. So we need to appreciate the transcendent dimension of this encounter. Mary is an insignificant, humble, unassuming youth without ambition for great things; and this ordinary peasant girl is visited by an awesome heavenly creature who lives in the presence of the splendor of the infinitely great God; and he says to her, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” Notice that Mary does not respond by saying, “Well, naturally; I already knew that; of course God’s favor rests on me, and of course He is with me. I’m the virgin Mary, after all!” I dare say that there is too much familiarity, and not enough reverence, in the American church today. We need to rediscover what it means to be overwhelmed and astonished at God’s gracious presence.
For Mary’s part, “she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” (v. 29) It is as if she was stopped in her tracks, knocked off her horse, and overwhelmed by the angel’s mysterious and powerful voice. But though “she was greatly troubled,” she made an effort to understand what was happening. She was ready to receive additional information.
PART 3: THE PROMISE OF GOOD NEWS
“And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 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 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.”” (v. 30-33)
The Scriptural pattern of encountering God is that God reveals Himself to us, that our initial response to that revelation is to be brought low in great fear, and that God then graciously lifts us up and comforts us with the good news of His grace. So here, God’s spokesperson – the angel Gabriel – seeks to comfort the “greatly troubled” Mary with words of peace and reassures her that she has “found favor with God.”
Now our 21st century Americanized individualized self-impressed ears are apt to think that the reason Mary has “found favor with God” is because there is something special about Mary. But that line of thought wouldn’t be quite right. But however noteworthy Mary’s spiritual character may have been, the deeper reality is that God is sovereignly gracious and He chose to bestow His favor on Mary and entrust her with an exceedingly special mission. So when we hear that she had “found favor with God”, don’t put the emphasis on her favorability ratings, but rather put the emphasis on God’s gracious disposition to show mercy to insignificant sinners like Mary, like you, and like me. For we also may find God’s favor through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Once Gabriel has comforted Mary with the assurance of God’s favor, He proceeds to announce to her the Good News, the holy Gospel, the long-awaited fulfillment of God’s promise. When you hear the word “Gospel” or the phrase “Good News”, what you should be thinking about is the person and work of the Lord Jesus. The Gospel is about Jesus’ infinite worth as the Son of God and King of glory, and it is about His obedient life and faithful ministry, especially His atoning death for our sins and His victorious resurrection from the dead.
Verses 31-33 don’t tell us everything there is to tell about the Gospel, but these verses introduce us to the Lord Jesus.
First, the angel tells Mary that she herself “will conceive… and bear a son”. (v. 31) That alone is utterly remarkable, as we shall see in just a few moments. Mary’s son would be named Jesus, which means “The Lord saves” or “The Lord is salvation.” Jesus is the Lord – the Lord who comes to save His people.
Second, the angel tells Mary that Jesus “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” (v. 32) It is one thing to be great. After all, if you go back to Luke 1:5-25 and Gabriel’s first visitation to Zechariah, Gabriel told Zechariah that his son John “[would] be great before the Lord.” (Luke 1:15) So John the Baptist was to be great, and Jesus was to be great. But not all greatness is equal! John the Baptist’s greatness was the greatness of a prophet, the greatness of a faithful servant, the greatness of a reliable witness. Jesus’ greatness, however, reaches a higher key, because Jesus’ greatness is the greatness of a Son – “the Son of the Most High.” Here is One who stands in special relation to God the Father!
Third, the angel tells Mary that Jesus will reign forever as King on the throne of David:
“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.” (v. 32-33)
The royal family tree that was reduced to a mere stump, shall be renewed. The kingship that was broken, shall be reclaimed. The kingdom that was in tatters, shall be restored – and not only for Israel’s sake, as is emphasized here, but also for the sake of all peoples. All of this grace is centered on the Lord Jesus Christ, the true King who has come to save us.
In the words of Charles Wesley:
“Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.”
Would it be fair to say that our world today stands in dire need of healing? Even a cursory glance at the daily news, or a simple awareness of popular culture, turns up a picture of desperation, corruption, and vanity. The divine word spoken through the prophet Hosea seems as applicable now as it was then:
“There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land; there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.” (Hosea 4:1a-2)
We need a kingdom made out of something better than human plots and schemes. We need a government with a foundation that is more reliable than that which is “of the people, by the people, [and] for the people.” We do not expect a parliament or congress to save the day; we do not expect a human court to bring forth justice; we do not expect a prime minister or president to lead us to glory; we do not expect corrupt men to build an empire that endures forever. On the contrary, we recognize that we need nothing less than a mighty King who has the authority to make all things new, who has the wisdom to do all things well, and who has the grace to leverage His power for our good. I don’t know about you, but I want the government to be on the shoulders of such a King:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)
How remarkable that this all-glorious and divine King should enter into this world as a human baby, and live upon this earth as a man, and conduct Himself as an obedient servant, and offer Himself upon the cross as a sacrifice for the vile sins of His lawless subjects!
PART 4: BEHOLD THE GOD WHO DOES IMPOSSIBLE THINGS!
What the angel has told Mary is good news indeed! But there is one important little detail that is not lost on Mary: she is a virgin, she has never had conjugal relations with a man, and she has not yet consummated her impending marriage to Joseph. So how in the world can she conceive a son in her womb?
“And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”” (v. 34)
That is a very good question. In the history of the world, a virgin had never conceived a child. Indeed it is a human impossibility. God created the first man, Adam, out of the dust of the ground. God created the first woman, Eve, out of Adam’s side. Since that time, human beings have been created in one way and one way only: through the sexual union of a man and a woman. Now the angel tells the virgin Mary that she is going to conceive a son, and as she starts to do the math, the numbers don’t add up. How can she possibly have a baby without the contribution of a man?
“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.”” (v. 35)
Brothers and sisters, this verse takes us straightaway into the supernatural work of God. Although it is impossible, humanly speaking, for a woman to conceive a child without the help of a man, it is not impossible for God. God does many and glorious things that are impossible for people to do on their own.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2)
How do you get from a dark and formless void to the beautifully designed universe in which we live? Did chance do it? As an R. C. Sproul book title puts it, Not A Chance. Did the primordial waters smarten up and organize themselves into this detailed and orderly world? Did mankind engineer the whole thing? Of course not, we weren’t even around yet. How do get from nothingness to a heavens and earth that are full of beauty and teeming with life? Answer: The power of God! God’s Spirit hovered over the darkness, God’s voice spoke forth “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), and He fashioned every feature of our complex world.
So how do you get from an empty virgin womb to a womb pulsating with the heartbeat of God’s one and only Son? How do you get there without a man? Answer: the power of God! God’s Spirit brought life into the lifeless womb and there conceived the Incarnate Lord. Thus what we have is a pregnancy that is pregnant with meaning! For what is shows us in a very concrete way is that God, not man, is the originator of salvation. Mankind had no ability whatsoever to conceive God’s Son or bring Him into the world. Mankind had no ability whatsoever to produce the Incarnation! Mankind had no ability whatsoever to enact God’s promise that He would send a Savior! All this, dear friends, is the work of God!
The angel continues:
“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.” (v. 36-37)
The greater miracle of the virgin conception and incarnation of the great King Jesus Christ is echoed in the lesser miracle of the improbable conception of John the Baptist that took place in the barren womb of the elderly Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s conception was ordinary in the sense that it came about through conjugal relations with her husband Zechariah, but it was improbable because she was by now an older woman with a long history of barrenness. But the same God who created the world out of nothing, the same God who created Adam out of the dust, the same God who would conceive a son in Mary’s virgin womb, is the same God who opened Elizabeth’s barren womb. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION
Let those words sink in. We live far too much of our lives in dependence upon ourselves, calculating what we think we can accomplish in our own strength, and then setting our expectations correspondingly low. But God would have us repent of our stubborn self-sufficiency and cast ourselves upon Him – for He does great and mighty things, He does far more than we can ask or think, He takes what is dark and fills it with light, He takes what is empty and fills it with life, He takes what is sinful and cleanses it and redeems it for holy service, He takes what is disorderly and attunes it to wisdom and peace, and He takes a bunch of people who are misfits and brings them together as beloved brothers and sisters in the household of God!
I understand, of course, that the virgin conception and incarnation of our Lord is a unique historical event. But what we need to understand is that the whole Christian life proceeds by way of trusting confidence in the God who does things that seem impossible from a human viewpoint. Luke 1:37 assures us that “nothing will be impossible with God.” But then you read on in Luke’s Gospel and eventually you come to Luke 18 and in that chapter the Lord Jesus tells us that it is exceedingly difficult for rich people to enter God’s kingdom. And why? Because they are blinded by their wealth and they cannot imagine giving it up for the sake of following Jesus. So with a colorful metaphor Jesus says, “… it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25) And at just this point the people who were listening to Jesus replied, “Then who can be saved?” (Luke 18:26) Isn’t that a good question? And there are other Scriptural passages that would rightly elicit the same question. The apostle Paul, for instance, makes it clear that the whole human race is unrighteous, spiritually blind, uninterested in God, and frankly dead in their sin. “Then who can be saved?” What is your answer to that question? Jesus’ answer is, of course, the right one: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” (Luke 18:27)
Sounds familiar, right? The same God who brought life into a lifeless womb, brings life to spiritually dead hearts. Don’t aim low for what we might accomplish on our own, but rather let’s aim high for what God might do in and through us. Let’s not in any way push back against God’s supernatural work among us, let’s not protest the miraculous transforming power of God’s grace, and let’s not be cynics who assume that spiritual awakening and revival would never happen in our little part of the world. But rather let us be like Mary who received the promise and resolved to be a willing servant:
“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.” (v. 38)
Yes, the angel departed, but the Lord was with Mary, and the Holy Spirit would soon draw near, and great things were in store.
Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50 (Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994: p. 102-127.
Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Luke (The Pillar New Testament Commentary). Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015: p. 41-51.