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“In Times of Uncertainty”

Luke 1:26-38
Bob DeGray
November 25, 2001

Key Sentence

God’s promises reassure us in times of change or uncertainty.


I. Troubling Times (Luke 1:26-29)
II. God’s Promises (Luke 1:30-33)
III. Uncertain Circumstances (Luke 1:34)
IV. God’s Reassurance (Luke 1:35-37)
V. The Response of Faith (Luke 1:38)


        In the fourteenth year of Augustus, near twilight on an insignificant day, I sat outside my father’s house, grinding wheat to flour in the ancient mortar that had stood by our door my whole life. The rhythm of the pestle against the wheat was as familiar as the sounds of our village, Nazareth, and made as little impression on my thoughts. Instead, I was daydreaming about what it would be like if the Messiah came.

        Like nearly all the Jews I know, I was eager that He come. We needed God to show up! We were downcast. We doubted the hope we needed to live. It is hard to believe you are loved of God when you are hated by those who hold political sway. The Romans! How tired we were of their swaggering arrogance. Meditating upon the suffering of Israel, I breathed half-aloud, “Lord, this would be a good time for you to send your Messiah. When will you save your people?”

        “Greetings,” said a voice behind me. I spun around in the half light. There stood a man I had never seen. An aura of light seemed to surround him. My breath stopped! “Greetings,” he repeated, “you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you!”

        I was terrified! I begged my mind to tell me who this being really was. Why had he come to my father’s house? What had he meant by “you who are highly favored”? The awesomeness of the moment was almost more than I could bear. I felt too small to respond to such an imposing visitor. I had unconsciously risen to my knees, and I knelt there for several long moments in fear of him, and wonder at his words.

        “Don’t be afraid, Mary!” the angel went on. “You have found favor with God. You will have a child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom will never end.”

        At last I spoke, as one coming out of a stupor, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Gabriel answered with further wonders. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” he said, “and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So that Holy One to be born from you will be called the Son of God.” Gabriel paused. Perhaps he knew I needed time to sort this sheaf of mysteries and set his words in order. “Even Elizabeth, your relative, is going to have a child in her old age, and she who is said to be barren, is already in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”

        Even though I didn’t understand, I recognized this message as coming from the God of my fathers: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

        This episode, adapted by Calvin Miller from Luke chapter 1, and further adapted by me, is one of many attempts to get a feel for the experience of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It’s not easy, because what happened to her is so incredibly unique. But in this advent season, we’re going to look at Mary’s story and apply her lessons to our daily lives as believers. We’re going to attempt to find principles in the life of Mary for the Christmas we’ve always longed for. We begin with this episode in Luke 1:26-35. What life principles do we see? We have the opportunity, as Mary did, to cling to God’s promises, which reassure us in times of uncertainty and change.

        Uncertainty and change have been very common terms since September 11th. The media has emphasized that everything is different now. Nancy Gibbs, in last week’s Time magazine writes “everyone is a pilgrim now, stripped down to bare essentials and a single carry-on bag to sustain us into a strange new world.” and “In the past two months our public conversation has changed almost beyond recognition.” In a poll in the same magazine 39 percent said they thought the attacks would impact their lives in the future. 48 percent said Thanksgiving this year would feel different as a result of September 11th. 69 percent thought the attacks would define a generation in the same way the assassination of President Kennedy did. 48 percent admitted having trouble with depression or sleeplessness, but 57 percent said that they thought more about their spiritual lives since the attack.

        So the national perception is that we are living in times of change and uncertainty. No one is quite sure when or whether or where another attack will come. But this rare national uncertainty is not rare at all in our personal lives and situations. Each of us knows the reality of uncertainty, the challenge of change. All of us, for example, have experienced uncertainty about the purchase of the Friendswood buildings, and we still have a lot of change to work through and mangage in the coming year.

        But what is true for the nation, and for Trinity, is even more true in your personal life and mine. Daily, we face change and uncertainty. Whether it is a house fire, or the death of a beloved relative, or the scare of a heart condition, or the loss of income and financial stability, or the grinding panic of marriage or family stress, uncertainty and change are endemic. I could name four or five things that have happened in our family to produce uncertainty this fall, things that loom on the horizon as uncertain but likely changes. You could probably do the same. The question we want to explore in our Scripture this morning is just this: what do we cling to for reassurance in the face of this uncertainty and change? The answer is simple, though applying it is not - we cling for reassurance to the promises of God.

I. Troubling Times (Luke 1:26-29)

        This is what we learn from the account of Mary and the angel Gabriel. There has probably never been such a troubling announcement as the one Mary received, such a rapid dawn of uncertainty. And yet Gabriel was careful to give her a number of promises to which she could cling for reassurance. Listen to the first few verses of the text.

        Luke 1:26-29. In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." 29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.

        As many times as we have heard this text, we still can’t really grasp how revolutionary this moment was in the life of a young girl. We have to believe Mary’s previous life was as ordinary as any. There is no evidence that she was wealthy, there is no evidence that she had a family of influence or even piety. We know that Nazareth was an obscure town, never mentioned in the Old Testament. In New Testament times the closest city was Gentile: its Roman and Greek influence would have cast a shadow over little Nazareth. No wonder Nathaniel the disciple later asked “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth wasn’t much.

        In the world’s eyes Mary wasn’t much either. She was too young to have accomplished much - maybe thirteen or fourteen. A peasant, she would have been illiterate, her knowledge of the Scriptures limited to what she had heard in the synagogue or memorized in her home. Her experience of the world beyond her dusty village would have been equally limited. How could she cope with the appearance of an angel like Gabriel? Zechariah, her cousin Elizabeth’s husband, had been struck speechless when Gabriel appeared. The prophet Daniel some 500 years before had also fallen mute at the appearance of Gabriel. Meeting Gabriel was intimidating - but maybe Mary needed that so she could be sure whose message he brought.

        Certainly his words made the moment even more confusing and uncertain: “Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you.” The old Catholic version of the Bible said ‘Hail Mary, full of grace.’ But the translation ‘Greetings, favored one’ is closer to the Greek: literally ‘Greetings, you who have received grace.’ The point is not that Mary had some reservoir of grace or righteousness of her own that was recognized by the angel. The point is that she had been chosen by God to receive the free and unearned gift of God favor. She had been chosen to be the mother of Jesus - which is without doubt a tremendous blessing. It doesn’t justify some of the distortions the Catholic church has made of who Mary is, but it is a remarkable use by God of someone who should have been a very unremarkable person.

        Clearly, for Mary, this is an unexpected revolution beginning in her life. How does she respond? She is troubled, just as you or I would be. Verse 29: “Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” The word ‘troubled’ is an emphatic form of a word that means ‘stirred up’. It is used literally, for example, of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda, who had wanted to be put in the water when it was ‘stirred up’. It is used often of troubled hearts: the hearts of the disciples, and even Jesus’ heart as he faced the crucifixion.

        The feeling Mary felt was the same feeling you feel in trouble or distress. You know what it feels like to have your heart stirred up. As you enter this season you may be troubled about the impact Christmas will have on your relationships or your time or your finances or simply your mental outlook. You may be facing troubling health circumstances or troubling work situations or difficulties with children or loved ones that grieve your heart. What do you do when your soul is stirred up about these things? The key is to cling to the promises of God - to ponder and apply them.

        Notice that meditation is exactly what Mary does as she considers this troubling greeting. The word ‘wondered’, or ‘pondered’ in the English reflects another emphatic Greek word, ‘dialogizomai’, from which we get our word dialog. It implies an internal dialog of the kind we have when we truly meditate on Scripture, or when we debate a course of action. Mary did not respond just with emotion - she immediately began to think through what this might mean - to her and in the larger scheme of things.

        In troubling circumstances, uncertain times, time of change, the right response is not to panic but to ponder. I’ve used an illustration before from Jim Berg’s introduction to counseling. He said he was driving a singing group from the college to an event, and it was rainy and dark when a big truck came the other way. They were forced onto the shoulder and slipped a little bit and then recovered. While it was happening some in the group panicked and screamed. Jim pulled to the side of the road and said simply: “Look, I’m driving the bus, and you don’t have any reason to panic until you see me panic.” God says the same to us: no matter how troubling our circumstances, how imminent the changes in our lives, until God panics, there is no reason to panic - instead we can ponder what he is doing and what it means.

II. God’s Promises (Luke 1:30-33)

        When we do that we will almost always be reassured as we rediscover God’s promises. Verses 30 to33: But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
        From Mary’s point of view, the angel responds to her uncertainty by saying, ‘I’ve got bad news and good news.’ One of the worst things that can ever happen to a young unmarried girl is going to happen to you - but the good news is it is part of God’s larger and eternal plan. A major part: the fulfillment of his promises. In times of uncertainty we are reassured by the fact that God is working out his purposes and fulfilling his promises - even when things seem to be disastrous.

        In verse 30 the angel repeats himself by saying ‘you have found favor with God.’ which could be translated ‘you have received grace from God’ - again emphasizing that the source of the grace is God, not some merit or sinlessness on the part of Mary.

        In this circumstance, as sometimes in ours, God’s grace comes in the form of a trial and difficulty. “You will be with child, and you will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus.” We hear this and think ‘wonderful, great, what an honor to give birth to Jesus’. But if you were Mary you wouldn’t have heard the words that way. It’s true that ‘Jesus’ meant ‘Yahweh saves’, but it was also a common name - nothing about it would set off bells for Mary, or offset the distressing news. In that culture giving birth out of wedlock was a real problem. The law allowed stoning for this sin, and though that extreme penalty was rare, public disgrace and exclusion from society and synagogue were the norm. A young girl who became pregnant could never go back to what she was before. Society guaranteed that.

        But, the angel promises, this birth will be different. This apparently illegitimate baby, verse 32 “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David.” The first of those promises is startling enough - that a child like this could be great and have a name that associated him intimately with God. But the second was even more startling, because Mary would understand it as a reference to the messianic prophecy she had heard time and again in the synagogue. Gabriel’s promises are first found in 2nd Samuel 7 and prophesied in Isaiah 9: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. . . . He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” Mary would see that the angel has promised the fulfillment of these prophecies: “You are going to become pregnant; you are going to call your Son’s name Salvation; He is the Son of God and He will be the Messiah.” What an earful!

        So God responds to Mary’s initial doubt and uncertainty with words that intensify that uncertainty, but that also comfort and reassure in the midst of uncertainty because God’s promises are being fulfilled, his purposes are working out. The same thing is true of us in moments of change or uncertainty. For two thousand years God’s people have clung to his promises, and found the comfort, strength and reassurance they need for trying times. We don’t have an angel who shows up to reassure us, but ‘we have the word of God made more certain’ by the Holy Spirit in our lives.

        We have these promises throughout Scripture. In Deuteronomy we learn that “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged." In Jeremiah we hear that “I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” In Romans we are assured that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” We have God’s promises - and it is to those promise we must turn in times of national or personal uncertainty to find reassurance and hope.

III. Uncertain Circumstances (Luke 1:34)
        This doesn’t mean, though, that change is easy. In verse 34 Mary asks a significant question to indicate how unknown her own future is despite the promises she has been given. "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"

        There has been too much debate in the last hundred years about the virgin birth of Jesus. If we believe the Bible, this debate is a non-issue because this text we’re studying is clear. In verse 27 the Greek word for virgin is used, a word which meant a young woman sexually a virgin. Verse 31 is a partial quote of Isaiah 7:14 “Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son.” The Hebrew word, like the Greek, was used of a young woman still a virgin. Finally, in 34, Mary affirms unequivocally that she does not ‘know a man.’ To scoff at the virgin birth is to put yourself above Scripture, judging that these words are some kind of lie. We dare not do that.

        A more difficult question is why Mary asks at all. She is, after all, betrothed to one from the house and lineage of David. Yet she doesn’t presume that the angel is talking of a child she will bear after her marriage. There must have been something in what the angel said or how he said it to convince her that this would happen immediately, not some months down the road when her betrothal was due to end. If so, then it was a logical question: “How can this be? Virgins don’t have babies. How can I?”

        On a certain level we can relate to this question as well. How many of you, when change has been on the horizon have not asked ‘How is this possible?’ Up until last Sunday some or all of us were asking that question about our down payment. If you look around the group and see how many people have financial concerns or modest jobs or high expenses you might say ‘how is this possible?’ But God is the God of the impossible - even in your personal financial, relational, emotional, or work life. I think of Caroline Casselberry, whose task is to finish raising four children alone. You know she has got to have asked ‘God, how is it possible for me to do this?’ Yet God has promised special strength to widows and those left fatherless - and it is the promises of God that reassure us in moments of change.

IV. God’s Reassurance (Luke 1:35-37)

        The angel responds to Mary’s question with just such promises. Verse 35: The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37For nothing is impossible with God."

        Just as the world was created from nothing as the Spirit of God hovered in the darkness, so too the living embryo of the child Jesus would be created without a human father by the power of God through the Holy Spirit. In an instant an unfertilized egg in Mary’s fallopian tube became suddenly a fertilized living embryo. Mary cannot have understood all that the angel meant, because no one can fully understand how Jesus was incarnate, how deity and humanity were joined.

        Nonetheless, it was a reassuring promise since it told her that when she became pregnant there would be no other explanation but the power of God himself. Critics have said Mary must have had some relationship that caused the pregnancy, and she made up the story about the angel in a weak attempt to preserve her reputation. In addition to totally discarding the truth of Scripture, this lie also discredits God by implying that he would make use of such an immoral relationship to advance his purposes. This child did not come through immorality, but through the holiness of God.

        Gabriel gives Mary two other promises before he leaves. One is extremely practical, a sign, if you will. He says that even Elizabeth, who was called barren has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. Luke has already given the account of how this happened when Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband met this same angel, Gabriel. Even in those days of slower communication this was verifiable. Mary, or somebody, could go and ask Elizabeth - could see that she was already six months pregnant.

        Sometimes, to reassure us, God gives us signs of his love. He gives something concrete, like a $170,000 pledge to hang on to in moments of change and uncertainty. I can’t tell you how often when our personal checking account has been exhausted, God has used one of you to supply our need. I take comfort from that when the expenses are high. In the same way I look back with assurance at the time I was getting ready to go to seminary. I had a business, Codecalc, that I planned to take with me, but before we moved two of my competitors got wind of it and made me offers for the company. One of those was generous enough that it provided the funds to pay all my tuition. Then they hired me to work part time while I was in school. I see that as God’s clear provision - a concrete sign to hang on to in times or uncertainty.

        You may have stories like that you can tell - the story Rich told about God’s provision for him to pledge to the building is like that. If you don’t have those stories, I suggest two things. First, ask God: he loves to be asked, he loves you, and will frequently provide these experiences as gifts of love. Second, go out on a limb. God provides when you have need: emotional, spiritual, physical, or financial. But if you never get to a place where you need God to intervene, you won’t see these provisions.
        Mary was given a concrete sign - actually two, because the pregnancy itself would be an irrefutable miracle. She also received a reassuring promise: “For with God, nothing will be impossible.” This is one of the great truths of Scripture; theologically we call it omnipotence. One of the earliest examples is when elderly Sarah conceives Isaac, a situation similar to elderly Elizabeth conceiving John. Genesis 18:14 “Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.” Jeremiah cries out “Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.” About salvation Jesus says to his disciples “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

V. The Response of Faith (Luke 1:38)

        So this is a promise, a reassurance Mary could cling to, and it is equally a promise we can cling to in our moments of change or uncertainty. As we head into Christmas, our hearts long to truly celebrate, but the changes on the horizon, the uncertainty we individually deal with threatens to engulf our celebration and diminish it. It is the promises of God that reassure us in times like these. It is the promises of God and even the character of God that we cling to. That’s what Mary did. Verse 38: “I am the Lord's servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”

        This is a response of humility and faith. “I am the Lord’s servant” is a humble recognition that He is the sovereign creator, and we are the creatures. Abraham was his servant. Moses was his servant. David was his servant. Mary was his maidservant. Jesus was his suffering servant. Paul was his bondslave. Should we expect to be anything else? Isn’t this humility the greatest honor we can hope to achieve? It is. The faith to face uncertainty comes when we name ourselves his servants - committing ourselves to do his will and also placing ourselves under his protection.

        “May it be done to me according to your word.” That’s the faith response of a servant. ‘Whatever you are doing, whatever you are planning, no matter how drastic and difficult and uncertain it appears from this side, it is your right to it. Keep your promises according to your word even when they involve trials and tribulation and testing. I am willing to submit to whatever you have in mind, do whatever you want me to do, gain what you want me to gain, lose what you want me to lose.’

        Of course, like most vows, that’s a lot easier to say than to do in the nitty-gritty of life. It had to be hard for Mary when she told Joseph about her pregnancy, and when she endured his doubt, and the criticism of all around her. It had to be hard for her when she had to go to Bethlehem, when she gave birth in a cow shed. It had to be terrifying when Herod targeted her little boy for destruction, and when she and Joseph fled to Egypt. It had to be disturbing when Jesus started into ministry and when he was accused of being a madman, and then charged with treason. It had to be devastating when he hung on a cross. But we will see Mary in these next few weeks clinging to God’s promises and pondering his signs and relying on his grace and favor. My prayer is that we will do the same in times of change and uncertainty: times like these, times like mine, times like yours. May we each cling to God and his promises for reassurance and peace.