Christmas Questions: How can this be? (Luke 1:34)

Bob Brannon, DPhil   -  

Christmas is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, but for many of us, it falls far short of that ideal. Instead of the enchantment and joy we long for – festive gatherings with family and friends – many people experience loneliness and sadness. And this raises all kinds of questions.

You might be prone to wonder, “what difference does Christmas and the birth of Christ actually make in my daily life: at home with family, at school, at work?

What difference does it make in the wider world of politics, the economy, and the terrible animosity in the world today?

What difference does Christmas make with the pandemic and all the vaccine madness? Is the story real? Does Jesus’ birth make a difference beyond the idealized, sanitized version of Christmas?

Or is it little more than a nostalgic tale we traditionally celebrate?

How does the birth of Jesus Christ impact what we see on the evening news or social media?

By addressing these very real questions, instead of papering over them with a Norman Rockwell painting, we have the opportunity to address our pain and heartache during this time of year.

Most important of all, we have the chance to encounter the living Christ of Christmas – to encounter Christ right in the middle of the questions, tension, and disappointment of Christmas 2021.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be addressing questions raised by familiar characters like Mary, Zechariah, Simeon, and the Magi. They had questions just like you do. Considering their questions will help us better grapple with the questions we bring to this season.

We begin with teenaged Mary; she’s probably 13 or 14 years old. Her life is about as ordinary as it gets for a teenaged Jewish girl in the first century. But then everything changes when an angel named Gabriel comes calling.

Virgin Birth: Surrender When God’s Plan Seems Impossible – Luke 1:26-38

28 – ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’ Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most of us would be very surprised if God spoke to us in a vision or dream or if an angel showed up at our house with a message from God. God has given me visions a few times, but they’ve been rare.

Mary was very surprised, terrified even, when an angel suddenly appeared to her.

But Gabriel immediately calmed Mary’s fears and told her the news. She would give birth to a son and would name him Jesus. And he made it clear this would be no ordinary child. He would be a king!

32-33 – ‘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.’

As astounding as this announcement sounded, there is one problem, right?

Mary isn’t married. She’s a virgin.

And that leads us to our first question. A very natural question; an innocent question.

The question is HOW?

34 – ‘How will this be since I am a virgin?’

The truth is, sometimes we don’t understand what God is saying when he speaks to us.

Sometimes it is crystal clear, but at times we have questions or need clarification.

That’s okay.

I say this to everyone, but especially to young teens, like Mary. Let me say it plainly. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions.

If you sincerely want to know the truth, ask.

Ask your parents or a youth leader. Ask your friends. Ask me.

Don’t bury your questions or doubts. Expose them and seek answers.

God has nothing to hide; Jesus is the truth and he will guide you into truth. He will help you find answers to your questions.

Gabriel answered her question, though I’m pretty sure it didn’t exactly make things clear. He told her the Holy Spirit would come upon her so that the child would be called the Son of God. As surprised and confused as she was at that moment, what is most surprising is her response.

38 – ‘May it be so’, Mary answered.I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.’

Think about that.

However surprising and joyous this news might have been, the truth is that when she said, may it be so, the seams of her life were shredded.

Remember, this occurred months before she said “I do” to Joseph. There’s little doubt that in Mary’s mind her pregnancy would directly lead to her being suspected of adultery, and all the public humiliation it would bring to her, her family, and to Joseph. Plus she had no idea how Joseph would react to this unimaginable news. But she had a very good idea how she’d be treated by villagers in her hometown.

And what about the baby? He, too, would be the subject of taunting and ostracism. Moreover, she and Joseph were poor, so what would all of this do but make their lives even more difficult. She would never have a normal life again, neither would her family. People would never look at her the same. So actually, her may it be so was a courageous act of faith.

Here’s the point I don’t want you to miss.

Mary surrendered to God’s plan even though she didn’t fully understand how it could work.

She had no knowledge or understanding of how she could bear a child without being married or being intimate with a man.

She asked questions. She got answers.

But she still didn’t understand.

At times we find ourselves in similar circumstances. God speaks to us, but what he says seems impossible.

Sometimes God helps us understand how his plan will be accomplished, but other times we simply must take him at his word and trust he will do it.

Take Zechariah for example. He had a similar experience as Mary. The same angel, Gabriel, appeared to him when he was serving in the temple. Gabriel told him his wife would have a baby, even though he and his wife were both old and barren. Do you remember how he responded? He asked a question. How can I be sure of this? (1:18).

I also thought of Joshua facing his enemies behind the fortified walls of Jericho. The Lord said to Joshua, ‘See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of ram’s horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in.

I’m not sure about Joshua, but I can tell you what would be running through my mind at that point.

Really? The walls will just fall down on their own when we march around the city and yell. How’s that going to work?

Yet, like Mary, even though it seemed impossible, Joshua surrendered to God’s plan and witnessed the power of God pull the walls down.

What walls need to come down for you this Christmas?

Maybe it’s to experience peace in your family during the holiday season. There’s so much division and fighting over the vaccine and mask wearing. The sides are formed, people are dug in to their positions, and they don’t want to change or even listen to other views. In some families you can’t get together or even talk on the phone without fighting. There seems to be no path to peace.

Humanly speaking, maybe it is hopeless.

Will you surrender and allow God to do his work?

Will you trust him and surrender to his plan even though you don’t have all the answers ahead of time?

I believe the reason he told Mary what he was going to do ahead of time is because he knew she would surrender to his plan even though it seemed impossible. I pray you will do the same.

Do you ever imagine what it would’ve been like to walk with Jesus through Palestine during his earthly ministry, to hear him preach or watch him cast out a demon, to witness him walking on the water or turning water into wine? I do.

But have you ever considered what his life was like as a child? Or what it would have been like for Mary and Joseph to parent teenage Jesus? That’d be a trip.

Mary & Joseph were godly parents. We know this because we often read of them acting according the customs and Law of Moses. At the end of chapter two, Luke fast forwards from Jesus’ infancy to his twelfth year. On this particular occasion Mary & Joseph are following the custom of pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. This was a family affair, a time when family clans traveled together to Jerusalem for this annual festival.

Presumably, Luke could have described many events in the childhood of Jesus, what he did or said. But of all the things he could have recorded, he chose only this one incident. Therefore, it must have some special significance.

Bewildering Behavior: Trust When God’s Ways Don’t Make Sense – Luke 2:41-52

41-42 – Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom.

Think of your family gathering at Thanksgiving or Christmas. I remember huge family reunions back at my wife Teresa’s home farm in Wisconsin. Scores of people gathered together from across the country for a several days of fun, food, and most importantly, family. While the pig was in the spit, cousins ran and played as the old timers’ sipped lemonade in the shade and reminisced about the glory days before tractors and modern machinery. The sound of laughter and the clank of horseshoes filled the air. You could smell the pork roasting as the tables filled with potato salad, deviled eggs, sweet corn, green beans, fresh buns, and mouth-watering pies and cakes. When our kids were young they loved family reunions. We hardly saw them. They were busy having fun running around the farm with their cousins.

43-44 – After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends.

Joseph’s clan traveling to Jerusalem likely numbered upward to 100. Just like our family reunions, boys would be running ahead, young girls playing hop-scotch as they skipped along the dusty roads. Parents and older adults might be riding a wagon or a beast of burden, chatting and sharing the latest gossip. And for anyone who has left a child at church, you can understand how easy it would be for Mary and Joseph to accidentally leave Jesus behind. They just assumed he was with his cousins, aunts, or uncles.

Most parents can recall a time when they lost sight of one of their kids at a store, a mall, or some other large gathering. Can you remember that happening? It might have only been 10 or 20 seconds, but that panic is visceral, isn’t it? You can understand, then, how Mary felt when she discovered after a day’s travel that Jesus was not with the group.

45-47 – When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.

How do you think Mary felt when she finally found him after terrifying days of searching frantically for him? He was only twelve, after all.

Notice how Luke narrows the focus here to Mary’s reaction when she finally finds him in the temple. You can almost feel the relief, anger, and confusion in her voice when she abruptly blurts out a question that seems more like a reprimand.

This is our second question.

The first question was HOW.

This question is WHY?

48 – When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.’

What would you say to your twelve-year old son who’d been lost for days and then you find him like this? I’m pretty sure I know what I’d say. I think I know what Teresa would say too. There’d be a release of pent-up emotion, for sure.

Mary reacted like any good mother would react. She was shocked and bewildered by his behavior.

But notice how he was equally surprised at her worrying about him. And now, Jesus has some questions for her.

49-50 – ‘Why were you searching for me,’ he asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

Mary knows of course he’s not talking about Joseph. He’s telling Mary that the one true God, the God of Israel, is his Father.

With this question, he is expanding her knowledge of his divinity and that his relationship with his Father in heaven is unlike any human relationship he has, even with his mother.

Let that sink in.

This is a twelve-year old talking, telling his mother that his relationship with God supersedes his relationship with her. His mission is more important than his relationship to his earthly mother and father.

But don’t miss what is happening to Mary here.

The story she had been composing in her mind about Jesus – the picture she had of him – was based on what she’d been told up to that point.

She’d heard Gabriel say Jesus would sit on the throne of David and his kingdom would never end.

She heard Elizabeth proclaim her to be the mother of the Lord.

She’d listened in wonder as shepherd’s described angelic choirs announcing Jesus’ birth, and she remembered the Magi kneeling in worship of her baby.

For twelve years, this image of her son as the Messianic King had developed and everything seemed to be progressing according to plan as she understood it.

But after this experience, Mary begins to wonder if she ever really knew this son of hers.

If we’re honest, many of us would have to admit we’ve had similar experiences.

We’re sailing along in our faith, growing in the grace and knowledge of God, enjoying fellowship with Jesus and experiencing his presence and blessing in our lives. We may not consciously think about it, but essentially, we believe we have God and his ways pretty well figured out. But then something happens, and all we knew about him is suddenly shattered, leaving us with more questions than answers.

That’s what happened to Mary.

She witnesses this bewildering behavior of twelve-year-old boy Jesus and she realizes she doesn’t really understand God or his plan as well as she thought she did.

Yet, once again, as she grappled with reality, she trusted God and remained faithful to his plan and purpose for her life – even though it didn’t make sense.  

51-52 – Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.  

Trusting God when he doesn’t make sense can be difficult.

I’ve seen a lot of things that don’t make sense to me.

Let me give you a few examples.

It was many years ago. Steve Guthormson and his young wife were first-term missionaries in the Middle East when he discovered a lump on his back. They returned home to seek treatment.

I remember gathering at District Conference at Northbrook Church in north Minneapolis. The entire assembly gathered around Steve, laid hands on him, and prayed for his healing.

We trusted God for healing. He died a short time later.

To this day I’ve never understood that. Why call him to missions, train him, send him out, fund his ministry, and then cut his life short?

I also thought of my good friends Ken and Nancy, and their struggles. After years of prayer, they finally saw a major breakthrough!

Then, a little over a year ago, they called to tell us Nancy had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. She died only seven months later at only 57 years old.

Along with many of their friends, we’ve wondered why God would do that.

Why, after years of struggles, after finally experiencing such a dramatic answer to prayer, would God take her life? It didn’t make sense.

I have one more example.

It was a snowy December Sunday. After church Daryl & Joyce piled into his pickup along with Daryl’s parents to go out for lunch. Daryl was driving on a county highway when he hit an icy patch in the road and lost control. His truck slid sideways into oncoming traffic and was T-boned by an oncoming car.

His parents were killed instantly, his wife Joyce was critically injured, but Daryl, being the farthest from the impact, received only minor injuries.

Our church rallied to pray for Joyce. I visited her in the ICU numerous times.

For several weeks there was little improvement and it looked like she would not survive.

Then, four weeks into her hospitalization, she turned a corner and began to improve.

Daryl and the whole church rejoiced that God had answered our prayers.

Then, the day before she was scheduled to be discharged, something happened, she suddenly declined – and she died.

Again, I have never understood that. Why not just take her the day of the accident? Why after she showed signs of improvement?

From the beginning of her adventure when Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus, Mary had big questions about God’s plan. Her life with God was riddled with mysteries.

As Timothy Keller explains … why do you think Jesus Christ came into this world through a pregnant, unwed teenage girl in a patriarchal shame-and-honor culture? God didn’t have to do it that way. But I think it was his way of saying, “I don’t do things the way the world expects, but in the opposite way altogether. My power is made perfect in weakness. My Savior-Prince will be born not into a cradle in a royal palace but into a feed trough in a stable –not to powerful and famous people but to disgraced peasants. And that is all part of the pattern.”
(Timothy J. Keller, Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions)

God often does things that we don’t expect, and many of us have questions – how, why God?

Often those questions are amplified at Christmas time.

I urge you to draw near to Jesus and bring your doubts, questions, and struggles to him.

Seek him more than answers to your questions.

He is the answer.

Follow Mary’s example.

Express your doubts and questions openly.

Don’t deny them or bury them. Don’t be intimidated into silence. Don’t walk away. Seek answers. Express your questions and your doubts.

How can this be?  Why have you treated me like this?

This is what the psalmist did repeatedly. How long, O Lord, how long? Why do you hide yourself from me in times of trouble? Why have you forsaken me? Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? Will the Lord reject us forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has God forgotten to be merciful?

Draw near to Jesus and pour out your heart to him.

Surrender to God completely.

Not once you have all your questions answered.

Not when it all makes sense.

Not when you’ve run out of other options.

But right now, in the middle of the questions, doubts, tension and testing.

Surrender to his sovereign will.

Like Mary, say, I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.

Put yourself completely in the loving, sovereign hands of Jesus. Rest in his strong and loving arms.

 Blog post adapted from the message by the same name delivered on Sunday, December 5, 2021.