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Luke 1:26-38

Two of the most unlikely acts: a barren woman and a virgin, both getting pregnant.

In the passage immediately preceding 26 to 38, we see the angel Gabriel announcing to an incredulous Zecharias the soon-coming birth of his new son. Zecharias immediately receives his penalty for his doubt: a muted tongue, which will only be alleviated several months later by his confession that the name of his newly born child will, indeed, be John. Then, in this passage, we see the declaration by the same angel to Mary about the birth of the Messiah. While it is met with a similar question (“how will this be?”), Mary’s response appears to be one searching for biological or “mechanical” explanation (“since I have not known a man”) rather than Zecharias’ response emphasizing personal assurance (“how will I know this”). Gabriel responds to Mary’s question with the news of God’s specific intervention: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”

We probably shouldn’t be surprised at the rapid succession of these two miracles. Throughout Israel’s history, God has been using unexpected pregnancies to show His faithfulness in raising up leaders for His people. The barren wombs of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah were all divinely invigorated, resulting in patriarchs and judges of Israel. However, we see here the hand of God bringing a new motif to the deliverance of Israel: the virgin will conceive and bear a son. “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 His kingdom will have no end.” While no specific Old Testament reference seems to be in mind (other than potentially 2 Samuel 7:13), the pronouncement does seem to be a “greatest hits” of the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.

Mary’s interaction with the angel, however, is certainly noteworthy. The pronouncement both mirrors and diverges from the previous declaration of Zecharias. When she receives the message, Mary is in the backwoods of Galilee while Zecharias is in the Judean religious and political epicenter of the Jerusalem temple. Zecharias is in the process of performing priestly duties when he receives the message. We are given no indication that Mary is doing anything outside the ordinary life of a Galilean woman. However, the angel’s words follow a predictable pattern for both. Similar to OT angelic appearances, the word begins with (or is prefaced with) “Do not fear” (Gen 16:11; Is 7:14). This ubiquitous greeting of angels should underscore what a truly terrifying experience this must be for any humans in their presence. As Zecharias is told his son will bear witness and go before Him in the spirit of Elijah, Mary is given the word that her child will be called son of the Most High and will reign over the house of Jacob forever. Both are to play distinct roles in this unfolding drama of salvation.

Mary’s response of perplexion and inquiry should come as an encouragement to all those facing situations in which they are unable to perceive the hand of God at work. We don’t find Mary, here, to be a pillar of confidence and wisdom. While the magnificat of Luke 1:46-55 shows a much more exultant Mary, in these verses, we find her just as confused as any of us might be. She doesn’t understand why God has sent an angel and addressed her as “favored one,” nor does she see how God’s plan can involve her in her unmarried state. However, her final answer of submission (“Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word”) offers to God precisely what He desires in this time of confusion: humble faith. She undoubtedly knew the social disapproval and ostracism she would receive; the shame she would bring on her family and the impending rejection by her betrothed. But, her faith allowed the Spirit of God to work in her, and those around her, to accomplish the miraculous.

This advent, as we commemorate Christ’s first coming and wait expectantly for His second, let us allow Mary’s example to shape our obedience in the midst of chaotic situations. Let us believe that the God of promises and miracles still wants to use our submissive, obedient, faith – even if it’s wrapped in layers of doubt, confusion, or even frustration – to accomplish His good will; to fulfill promises and eneact miracles. And, may our answer, both in word and action, be the same as Mary’s: “We are your bondslaves – may your will be done in us according to your word.” Though His word seem as unlikely to be fulfilled as the promise of a child to a barren woman or a virgin, may our faith open us to the possibility, even the probability, that God will achieve the impossible.