How Can This Be?

Luke 1:26-38, 46b-55     Fourth Sunday of Advent     December 24, 2017

“How can this be?”  That’s what Mary asks, of the angel Gabriel.

In the painting above, Irish painter Adam Pomeroy imagines Mary as a contemporary young Irish woman.  It’s a striking depiction of what Mary’s face and body language might have looked like.

Specifically, Mary asks, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” – because she is 13 years old, perhaps, and has been promised by her father to a man named Joseph, who has contracted for Mary to be his wife.  If she is pregnant before the marriage, though, Joseph will reject the deal, because the only value of a woman in that culture was that she could bear children to a man who could be sure the children are his.  That was crucial, because inheritance rules were so important.  But this child would not be Joseph’s!  Mary’s father would throw her out.  Without a father or a husband to give her protection and sustenance, her only option would be prostitution.  (She can’t just go out and look for a job, as a young woman could do today!)  No wonder Mary asks, “How can this be?”

Do you see what God has done?  God has sent the angel Gabriel to overturn what has been worked out for Mary.  Now: “Mary, God’s favored one, [will be] blessed with having a child out of wedlock who would later be executed as a criminal.”[1]  Now the question is: Will the Spirit open her up to what God is doing?  Will she believe what the angel tells her?  “For nothing will be impossible with God.”[2]

Do you believe that is true?  Whenever we decide to limit what is possible, that’s when we’re in danger of falling into despair.  When I allow the daily routine to define the limits of my awareness, when I’m thinking that I have to carry all the weight myself, that I need to keep it all under control, that it’s all up to me, then something has to happen to disrupt all of this!  Something needs to open me up to what God is doing!

One of my theological mentors is one of Jack and Dianne Harris’ sons-in-law, Dwight Cossitt.  Sometimes, Dwight says, “God plays rough.”  What he means is that there are times when God causes a disruption because God has needed to shake Dwight out of his comfort zone, to break him down, so he’ll be open to what God is doing.

Dwight’s been formed by the Bible to think God is like that!  Of course, that doesn’t fit our middle class American view of a comfortable God who would never cause anything unpleasant to happen.  The alternative view (if you need to protect your conception of what a good God is like) is to say that bad things happen; that God doesn’t cause them to happen, but that God works with them for our growth.  Both views are reasonable.  I’ll leave it to you to decide what makes most sense for you!

In the gospel passage, it is God who is overturning all that has been arranged for Mary’s future safety and security.  The question is whether this will open her up to what God is doing.  I don’t take a romantic view of this scene, because I assume that Mary is just as human as you and me.  She is struggling to understand, just as you and I would.  She needs to reel from the shock.  She needs to jump start her brain, her thinking processes, before she can even begin to formulate a response.

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,…”  (I’m not sure that is particularly helpful!)   The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God….For nothing will be impossible with God.”

How long do you think the angel had to wait for Mary to work through her shock, to process, to respond?  The angel has overturned her future.  But, it turns out, God has opened her up to what God is doing.  Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  And then  Mary bursts into song!  See, that’s what happens when God overturns our plans and assumptions!  When God busts through the limits of what you and I think is possible, then we become the people God has created us to be, and we do the work God has given us to do, energized by joy!

The story continues in Luke and we come to Mary’s song, which we used in place of a Psalm this morning.  (We’ve also been singing a translation of this every Wednesday night during Holden Evening Prayer.)  Mary sings of God:

“He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.”

Does this sound like good news to you?  It might not, since you and I are the ones who are rich, we are the ones filled with good things, now.  But this was great good news to those who had been attracted to Jesus the Christ and who were the first ones hearing this story.  They were impoverished and oppressed by the Roman Empire’s occupation army.  They were disdained by the religious leaders, those who were “the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”  What great good news this was – that God would bring down the powerful from their thrones and would lift up the lowly!  God would be playing rough with those in power in first century Palestine!

You know, I wonder if God is playing rough with us, in our nation?  I wonder if it’s God who has overthrown our taken-for-granted ways of doing politics because we haven’t been compassionate in our public policy towards those who do not have adequate work or shelter, who do not have enough food to eat or medical care?  We haven’t been compassionate in our public policy towards those who have been left behind by the economy over the past 40 or so years.  So far, neither political party is responding in helpful ways.  The Republicans are doing their best to eliminate compassion in our public policy.  The Democrats have no better ideas than to keep expanding old-idea programs that will hurtle us over a cliff into severe fiscal crisis by the time my grandchildren are grownups.  Is God is playing rough with us to open us up to what God desires, so that we’ll get on with the work in sustainable ways?

These are Advent questions (and it’s still Advent for a few more hours).  These are John the Baptizer questions.  These are angel Gabriel questions.

What about you?  What has overturned your set plans and opened you up to what God is doing – and it has not been comfortable or calming at all?  Has it been a test result, a diagnosis?  Was it your loved one’s death?  Was it the ending of a job, or the ending of a marriage, or the ending of a physical ability?

Here are some words from the 13th century poet, Rumi:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.


A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.


Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.


The dark thought, the shame, the malice.

Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.

Because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.[3]

I wonder if the whole point of the life of faith – if all God is trying to do – is to overturn our desperate need to stay in control; to handle everything ourselves; without any help – because, if we can handle it all, then who needs God?  But – and this happens frequently for some and eventually for all – something happens and it breaks us down.  We can’t handle it!  If, in the end, there is not the grace of God, then there is only despair.  The good news is that God overturns our illusions of control; God opens us up to receiving grace.  And we break into song!

“Lord Jesus, the incarnate Word, when you consented to dwell with us, the heavens were glad and the earth rejoiced.  In hope and love we await your return.  Help us to proclaim your glory to those who do not know you, until the whole earth sings a new song to you and the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.”[4]

Pastor Andy Ballentine

[1] R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), page 52.

[2] Click this link to see other paintings by the Irish artist Adam Pomeroy:


[3] Jellaludin Rumi, “The Guest House,” translation by Coleman Barks.

[4] Psalm prayer for Psalm 96, Lutheran Book of Worship

About Pastor Andy Ballentine

Pastor Andy Ballentine retired in July 2019 after 40 years of ordained ministry. He loved serving as a parish pastor! Pastor Ballentine took his BA degree from the University of Virginia (with a major in sociology) and earned the Master of Divinity degree at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He earned the Master of Sacred Theology degree at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, with the thesis topic of: "How Benedictine Monastic Spirituality Nourishes Parish Ministry." He has completed the program of Spiritual Direction from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Ballentine has served as Dean of the Peninsula Conference and as chaplain to the candidates in the Virginia Synod’s Candidacy process (those on the way to being approved for ordained and professional ministries in the church). He has staffed many, many Virginia Synod youth events!