What Only God Can Do [Part 2]
Nothing will be impossible with God. . . . Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. Luke 1:37-38
The whole Bible is about what only God can do. Our lives are about what only God can do. The angel Gabriel says here, in verse 37, “Nothing shall be impossible with God.” We may or may not know much theology. But it’s obvious that, if nothing is impossible with God, then everything changes for us. For example, we look out into what could be a meaningless universe, and we say, “God created this, and for a good reason too. I’m glad to be here.” We look at the brutal melodrama of human history, and we say, “It’s going somewhere hopeful, and even I matter in it all.” We look at our own failures and weaknesses, and we say, “I’m a complete idiot. My future is incredibly bright. Anyone can get in on this.” If nothing is impossible with God, if God cannot be defeated, then everything changes for us in a wonderful way. The real story of our lives is what only God can do.
We make many difficult judgment calls in this life. But the most important question is simple: Is God limited or unlimited? Can God’s purpose be thwarted, or is our hope rock solid? The assurance of the Christian gospel is that the promises of God cannot unravel. We have many personal problems. Our nation is deeply troubled. There is so much we cannot foresee or control. But we’re pinning our hopes not on ourselves, not on mankind, not on the state, not on the universities and think tanks. We’re moving all our chips over onto God’s square. Nothing is more wonderful to us than God being all that he claims to be. If God really is limited, we’re toast. But if God really is free and sovereign and full and near to us and wholehearted for us, and he is, then we’re home free. So let’s settle this question in our own minds: Can God really be God to us? If so, our future is incredibly bright. If not, why bother with God at all? A. W. Tozer defined it well: “For true faith, it is either God or total collapse. And not since Adam first stood up on the earth has God failed a single man or woman who trusted him.”
We want to get beyond treating God as a fall-back theory to account for the odds and ends of life that we can’t figure out for ourselves and that don’t matter all that much anyway. Let’s take a step forward today. Let’s decide, not on the basis of favorable trends but on the basis of the Word of God, to enjoy God as our Father and Ally for whom nothing is impossible.
Maybe some of us here today think that’s crazy. Maybe you think that, if you believe that, you’ll end up looking stupid. You’ve been betrayed before, and you’re not going to let that happen again. Of course, you feel that way. But this is God we’re talking about now. And believing God means that we do believe crazy things – crazy wonderful things, like all the evil in the world today is the merest fleck of darkness soon to float away into fading nothingness, swallowed up in the infinite ocean of the surging happiness of God, and we who love Jesus will play there forever in total healing and joy. That future is what Christmas declares. It’s what Luke chapter 1 is pointing us toward.
Here is what we see in Mary. If we love Jesus, the impossible no longer applies to us. Our lives have been redefined as a story of what only God can do. At one level, we sin and we suffer loss. But at a deeper level, God has set for us a course of grace and restoration. What feels like robbery is in fact reinvestment. What feels like risk is in fact safety. What feels like death and obliteration is in fact promotion. And the way to walk into your God-given destiny is what we see here in Mary – her humble openness to the call of God upon her life. Verse 38: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” If you look at yourself and think, “God couldn’t use me, I don’t count, I have nothing to contribute,” that’s the whole point. Mary was not a rising star in the who’s who of the ancient world. She was just a face in the crowd. Luke has to tell us who she was: “And the virgin’s name was Mary.” Luke has to tell us where she lived: “. . . a city of Galilee named Nazareth.” She’s not in Rome. She’s from a town so obscure it’s never even mentioned in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, Josephus, or the Talmud. God bypassed the top people and the cool places. He went down to a nobody in Nowheresville, to prove what only he can do. Verses 52-53, “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” God doesn’t need the advantages that are so important to us – position, place, prestige. When Jesus entered this world with an intervention that will change everything forever, God flipped our social order upside down and downside up. He was saying to us, “Everything you’re banking on for a better future, how you order your society so that you feel significant and hopeful – I don’t need it. Jesus is how I will create a new culture of humaneness forever. Nothing in your world can help me, and nothing in your world can stop me.” We just love that about God. We love not being stuck inside our own impasse and blind spots and narrow-mindedness any longer. We love what only God can do.
The Bible is all about God’s surprising strategy to use us for the renewing of this world. We see it here in Luke 1, in two steps. One, who Jesus is (verses 26-33). Two, how we participate in his success (verses 34-38). When everything else has fallen into a heap of rubble, one reality will still be standing – the kingdom of Jesus. And we can be a part of it.
Who Jesus is (verses 26-33)
Four things here about Jesus, from verses 32-33. One, “He shall be great.” So already, I know that my sermon will fail. What can I say, to do justice to his greatness? But I cannot say nothing. Here is what we all can say. Nothing about Jesus will come up short. Everything about Jesus will be impressive. The more we know the great people of this world, the less impressed we are. But the more we learn about Jesus, the better he looks. This world chooses the wrong heroes. They will all be forgotten, and quickly. I think of music, of course. I think of Junior Walker and the All-Stars, I think of Mitch Rider and the Detroit Wheels, I think of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. I enjoyed them all. They were important to me. But you don’t even know who they were – already. Jesus goes on from generation to generation. He’s not fading away. And it isn’t the church that keeps him going. The church is a mess. He keeps us going. Jesus is great in his teachings, great in his example, great in his atoning death, great in his resurrection power, great in his glory at the right hand of the Father. And what power is there in this world that can undo any of that? Do you see any let-up in his greatness? I see no limitation here.
Two, “He will be called the Son of the Most High.” The point being, in all of reality there is no one higher, except the Most High. And he will be called the Son of the Most High. He will be revered and rejoiced over as the uniquely exalted one. So we who love him don’t envy him. When he is lifted up here among us, we’re not jealous; we’re happy. We were created to praise him for all that he is. And we’re just a small part of a massive shift in the human scene – a new tribe, a new movement, growing all over the world today, and at a faster pace than ever before in human history. Here is where it’s going. The prophets foresaw the day when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14), and “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the nations shall worship before you” (Psalm 22:27), and “behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, . . . crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10). He is, and he will be admired as, the Son of the Most High. I see no fear of failure here. I see no limitation.
Three, “and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David.” The great civilizations of history represent our attempts to create a better world. Greece was intellectually great. Rome was militarily great. The USA is economically great. Other cultures have been impressive. But human social constructs all break down. Why? It isn’t because of a lack of guns and bombs. Our cultures collapse under the weight of our own pride. We see it in little ways, like the great palaces of Europe – how many of the families that built them still live in them? Every hope grounded in what we can do will fail. Even the people of God in the days of the Old Testament corrupted themselves. The last two words, at the end of the Old Testament, are “utter destruction.” But God promised us a Messiah “on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness” (Isaiah 9:7). The kingdom of Christ is not secured by dollars but by justice and righteousness. He never compromises, he never lies, so he’s never caught and cornered and pressured. His kingdom has God’s approval all over it. Which means this world has a future worth getting excited about. Malcolm Muggeridge helped us see this:
Can this really be what life is about, as the media insist? This endless soap opera going on from century to century, whose old discarded sets and props litter the earth? Surely not. Was it to provide a location for so repetitive and vulgar a performance that the universe was created and man came into existence? I can’t believe it. If this were all, then the cynics and the suicides would be right. The most we could hope for from life is some passing amusement, some gratification of our senses, and death. But it’s not all. . . . As Christians we know that here we have no continuing city, that royal crowns roll in the mud, and every earthly kingdom must sometime flounder, whereas we acknowledge a king men did not crown and cannot dethrone. We are citizens of a city of God they did not build and cannot destroy.
The climactic scene at the end of the Bible shows an eternal city coming down into this world from God above. Jesus himself said, “My kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36). I see no limitation here.
Four, “he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Until Jesus came, God kept paving the way for him, preparing history for him. But now, God has nothing planned for the future bigger than Jesus. He is the game-winning touchdown in God’s plan. He will never be voted out, and he’s not going to resign. Instead, we who love him will spend eternity enjoying his grandeur as his glory unfolds more and more, endlessly. I see no limitation here.
But here’s the most amazing thing about the kingdom of Jesus. You and I are involved. Jesus is the future of the world, and you and I are involved the same way Mary was involved. From the beginning, God has been bringing his redemption into this world through weak people. The powerful Jesus himself came into the world through a powerless young woman. He still comes into the world that way – through our impossible weakness. Mary says, in verse 34, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Abraham and Sarah could have asked, “How will this be, since we are so aged?” Moses could have asked, “How will this be, since Egypt has all the power?” David could have asked, “How will this be, since I’m an outsider?” The apostles could have asked, “How will this be, since Rome holds all the trump cards?” You and I can ask today, “How will this be, how can God use us, since we have no seat on the Supreme Court, no cable channel, no cover story on People magazine?” Mary was not only perplexed but also concerned. Verse 29: “She was greatly troubled.” Mary was humble enough that, when God said, “I’m going to use you to advance my kingdom in this world,” she didn’t think, “I’m finally getting the opportunity I deserve.” She felt unqualified, not entitled. And she was concerned. She knew that, if God would catch her up into his purposes, there would be a cost. When God uses us, there is always a cost. If you obey God, you’ll have to disobey others. If you serve in the power of the Holy Spirit, you’ll get tired. If you give your heart away for Jesus’ sake, a sword will pierce your heart (Luke 2:35). If you love what God can do, you will annoy people who don’t want that much of God. Jesus is bringing his eternal kingdom into this world through us, and that isn’t easy. How then does it actually work? Here is how we participate.
How we participate in his success (verses 34-38)
The key is verse 38: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” I’m grateful for that verse. It answers the how-question. How can God use you and me? Mary shows us how. Literally translated, she says, “Behold, I am the slave of the Lord.” Our English Bibles shy away from the word “slave.” To be enslaved to man is degrading. But to be enslaved to God is satisfying and thrilling. Here’s the difference. In his drama Amphitryo, the Roman author Plautus has a character say, “It’s no fun being a slave. And it’s not just the work, but knowing that you’re a slave, and that nothing can change it.” We understand that. But the gospel flips it: “It’s great being God’s slave. And it’s not just the work, but knowing that I’m his slave, and that nothing can change that.” We are not our own anymore, thank goodness. We’ve been bought with a price, the blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). And nothing will ever separate us from his love (Romans 8:31-39). Not that his promises mean our lives will go along swimmingly and we’ll be rich, healthy and popular. It wasn’t that way for Mary. But however hard it gets, the one thing that can never happen to us is the defeat of God.
So Mary said to the Lord, “I am your personal property now. My reputation among my friends, my plans with Joseph, my idea of how my future was supposed to play out – I give it all to you, Lord. I’d rather serve your purpose for me than my own purpose for me. I embrace your will and plan. In fact, I desire your plan. Oh, may it be done for me according to your word! This is the greatest moment of my life – to be completely open, happy to belong to you.”
We participate in what God is doing in our generation not by our own strength or willpower or charisma, nor by our passivity and withdrawal, but by Mary’s active receptivity. That’s how Jesus came into this world, and it’s how Jesus comes into this world – our active receptivity. It’s a mentality of faith, a new way of thinking: “Lord, all things are possible with you, and I’m available. Bring Jesus into this moment right now, even in my weakness. I consciously put myself in your hands, to do your will, by your power, for your glory.” A. W. Tozer again said it so well:
Unbelief says: Some other time, but not now; some other place, but not here; some other people, but not us. Faith says: Anything He did anywhere else He will do here; anything He did any other time He is willing to do now; anything He ever did for other people He is willing to do for us! With our feet on the ground, and our head cool, but with our heart ablaze with the love of God, we walk out in this fullness of the Spirit, if we will yield and obey. God wants to work through you!
I wonder if all of us could say this morning what Mary says here in verse 38: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Will you say that to the Lord today? “I’m here to serve you. I don’t want my life to go my own way any more. I really want to experience what only God can do.”