10. A Kingdom of Impossibilities

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  10. A Kingdom of Impossibilities

Luke 1:26-28  In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Perhaps when you read Scripture regularly there is the danger of it becoming commonplace and our attitude casual. When these verses are read every year in Christmas Services and maybe even at Nativity plays, then there must be that danger of reading the words but losing the impact. Luke, who at the beginning of his book is so careful to explain that he has carefully researched everything and now wants to write an account that is full of integrity, drops this bomb on us and we don’t realise the enormity of it.

There is no room for half-hearted belief here. You either believe it as it stands or evaporate it away by saying – well I don’t know what you would say, but people do manage to overcome their intellects and rubbish the truth! But just look at what he says so simply: God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee.” (v.26). There are three things of note here for sermon constructors.

First, things happen here because God takes the initiative. In fact nothing of the Christmas story will happen unless God is in it. Even before this passage in chapter 1 of Luke, God sends an angel to Zechariah in the Temple and then God enables aging Elizabeth to have a baby. In the verses that follow, God is going to speak to Mary through the angel and then God is going to enable her to conceive without the help of a man. God is going to come to Joseph in a dream, to convince him not to break off his relationship with Mary.  After the baby is born, God is going to send an angel to shepherds on a hillside and God is going to provide guidance for wise men from the East. God is going to warn the family to flee to Egypt and then later to return to Israel. God is in this every step of the way. If you have a trouble with believing in God, this is not a story for you!

Second, note that this God communicates and for this task He uses an angel so that a human figure stands before Mary and holds a conversation with her. Have you noticed in Scripture, it seems that often a word simply comes to someone but sometimes it needs more than a simple word, it needs a conversation, and so in those times God sends an angel. On this occasion quite a lot of information is to be imparted and so Mary has an angel sent to her by God.

Third, in this one simple verse, note the mention of places – “Nazareth, a town in Galilee.”  We have this remarkable supernatural event but it is anchored in time space history in a known geographical location. Again and again in Scripture we find this mix of the supernatural with the down to earth daily life or here and now time-space history. This is not a book of weird and wonderful spiritual goings on and you may find in other religions. This is the record of activity of God here on this earth with very ordinary people in very ordinary circumstances. Mary was an ordinary Jewish girl living an ordinary life there in Nazareth and until this thing happens, she probably had no inkling of her destiny.

But then, as an even greater challenge to the materialistically-fixed-mind-set people, the next verse starts moving us towards an uncomfortable challenge: “to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” (v.27)  Twice there Luke seems to almost emphasise the fact that Mary is a virgin. Now there are those who would seek to suggest that the word for virgin can also be used to simply describe a young woman but the account that follows refuses to allow us to go down that path. Mary is going to question the possibility of having a child without a man, and the angel explains it will be the Holy Spirit who will bring about what is otherwise impossible.  You have to go to Matthew’s Gospel to see Joseph’s side of it and see that he has had nothing to do with it.

For the skeptic, the only other possibility is that Mary had a sexual relationship with some other man but in that culture that would have been virtually impossible without it becoming public knowledge but no such thing was suggested. Luke is absolutely sure in his researches that this is just as it says. God intervenes and we have a miracle of a virgin birth. Once you believe in God, this should be no problem.

What are some of the outworkings of this storyFirst, the God we hear of is a communicating God and has no trouble with communicating with us. We may have a problem with hearing (because of our unbelief) but that is another story. It is unlikely that you or I will have an angelic encounter; they seem to be saved for major occasions and so if you do, you’re either in big trouble or God is about to lead you into major life changes.

Second, the God we find in the Bible is no God who stands afar off and leaves us entirely to our own devices. He comes and involves Himself in our lives and from time to time, when the circumstances demand it, He does what we would otherwise consider impossible. How much we hear or see Him in our lives depends, I believe, on how open we are to Him. If we maintain the materialistic mindset that the rest of the world has, we will rarely hear Him and never see a miracle. If we open our hearts to Him and make ourselves available to Him and listen for His quiet voice, and then respond to what we hear, we will find ourselves venturing out on the waters of faith and will find our testimony growing exponentially. When you hear this gem of a story every Christmas, don’t let it pass you by leaving you untouched. When Christmas comes, pray, “Lord open my eyes to see the wonder and the truth of these accounts and may my life be changed for ever because of them.”

God in History

We have a pause from the “Why?” meditations to go back into the Gospels for the next two weeks, to see what Luke says about Jesus.

Readings in Luke Continued – No.1

Lk 3:1,2 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.

It’s been a long time since we first started this series and when we considered some of the fundamentals of the Gospels, and especially this one. When we leave the nativity accounts and get ready to move into the life and ministry of Jesus, probably some twenty eight years later from those accounts, we find an example of Luke’s attention to detail. Now we aren’t going to bother to check out each of the people and places mentioned here, simply to note the range of them.

As far as the Roman Empire is concerned, at the top level we have the emperor, and then at the local level we have mentioned the Roman governor. There are then three local governors under him. We also have mention of the two men who were at the ‘top of the pile’ of the religious hierarchy. We also have mention of five geographical localities. Thus there is no doubt that Luke, who has already commented on the care he has taken in writing this Gospel, is ensuring that we understand that what he is writing about is well and truly set in history in a specific geographical location. This is not just some made up story. Luke wants is to realise that it all took place in the time of specific historical figures and places. This IS history.

Now we really do need to emphasise this and, although we’ve already done it before, we really do need to do it again because so many people tend to forget this point and we therefore hear many silly comments about the Christian faith just being a bunch of ideas that men have made up. No, the truth is that the Christian faith is uniquely grounded in history. It is entirely based on things that happened in history, things that, if you were able to travel back in time on this planet, you would have been able to see happening in the part of the world that Luke is writing about. This happened!

So, having set the scene in time-space history, what actually happened? Well according to this doctor, whose life is involved with relieving human illness and suffering who, in other words, is as grounded in the harsh realities of life as you can get, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. Now we should consider this slowly because it makes an assumption and a claim which some would stumble over. When Luke speaks about the word of God, he is making a massive assumption that we, his readers, are quite happy with the idea that a) there is a God, a Supreme Being, and b) He communicates.

The Bible never defends or tries to explain God. As far as these writers are concerned His reality is beyond debate. It’s just a case of recording what He did. For Luke, who has travelled extensively with the apostle Paul who wrote so many of the letters in the New Testament, and who has seen the works of God through the early church, when it comes to recording what he has been told, there is no question of its veracity – it is true, and he doesn’t need to prove it. It is only twenty-first century unbelieving minds that struggle because they have become so self-centred that they leave no room for God.

The claim that Luke goes on to make is that John the Baptist’s ministry started because God spoke to him while he was living, rather like a hermit, in the desert. We know nothing about John’s earlier years beyond what we have already seen in Luke’s Gospel. Matthew tells us, “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” (Mt 3:4-6).  Mark tells us, “And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” (Mk 1:4-6).  Luke simply goes on to say, “He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (v.3).  Luke isn’t concerned with what he looked like or the other details that the others gave, simply that he was God sent!

This is Luke who, as we’ve previously commented, is the Gospel writer who, more than any of the others, is concerned to point out the divine working of God, the moving of His Holy Spirit. Thus it is that we’re left with only Luke who makes this point – that John started his ministry because God spoke to him and started him off.

In an age where we do things because WE thought it was a good idea, this comes rather as a bolt out of the blue. In the light of all that follows we need to remember this, that John is doing what he is doing because God has said it to him!

For those of us who are Christian leaders, can we say the same thing? Are we energised and motivated by God’s word that has come to us? Are there leaders who find the thought of God speaking to them an alien thing? Then we need to get to grips with the Scripture. This is how it always was and always will be. We deal with a God who communicates, energises and empowers. Christian ‘ministry’ should always be God inspired, God energised and God directed. When it is, things will happen!