Sermon by Rev Allister Lane on 22 December 2019
Readings were Luke 1:5-20 and Luke 1:26-38
If you think it seems you’ve heard these Bible readings recently – don’t worry it’s not you, it’s me. We did hear this story a few weeks ago, read for our worship.
I’m wanting us to dwell more on this stunning visit Mary has from an angel – and perhaps even more stunning: Mary’s response!
You see, Mary’s encounter with the incarnation (whilst unique) tells us something about our encounter with the incarnation. The central point I want to draw from this reading is how Mary doubted honestly. This points to something important for our faith – that honest doubt is good and helpful for knowing God, and for living as God wants us to.
How is doubt good? Well, compare Mary’s doubt with the doubt of Zechariah (earlier in chapter 1 of Luke).
When the angel comes to Zechariah to tell him his wife Elizabeth is going to have a baby, he says:
Do you expect me to believe this? I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman. (Luke 1:18, The MSG)
And how does the angel respond?
Because you won’t believe me, you’ll be unable to say a word until the day of your son’s birth.
Because he doubts, the angel makes him mute.
When the angel comes to Mary to tell her she’s going to have a baby, Mary says:
But how? I’ve never slept with a man.
And how does the angel respond?
Well Mary, nothing is impossible with God…
In response to Mary’s doubt, the angel gives assurances and explanation!
What’s going on here…? Is the angel playing favourites? Is this angel being inconsistent? …or is the angel just ‘a few feathers short of a flock’?
I suggest that, in God’s Word, we are presented with different types of doubt.
1. Doubt that’s good for us, is doubt that asks questions, actually wanting an answer, in order to understand more.
That’s an honest doubt. Mary asks the questions because she wants an answer; she doubts and she wants to understand how, what the angels proclaims, can be true (with hope that it can be).
2. Doubt that’s unhelpful for us, is doubt that rules things out automatically.
A question may be asked, but it’s a question that doesn’t want an answer. It’s a cynical question “Do you expect me to believe this?” I don’t want an answer; there can’t be an answer. It is not seeking to understand.
And in that sense, it’s not actually doubt at all; it’s not wavering uncertainty, but is a kind of self-assured, dogmatic, distorted faith. It’s asserting a reality that is assumed to be true and unchangeable. It’s not doubt at all. And that is why the angel responds harshly to Zachariah.
Honest doubt is so great for our faith. It’s characterised in two ways.
- It is humble. It’s honest about not knowing.
- It is brave. Because if you ask a real questions, well, you might get a real answer!
That can be scary. And that’s why sometimes we don’t express doubt – we’d prefer to assert what we already believe; we don’t want to be challenged by anything new.
We see that Mary is both humble and brave. And because of it we know her as someone God uses for the wonderful plans of the incarnation, plans that fulfil God’s purposes. If Mary hadn’t doubted, if she hadn’t asked the question, perhaps we’d never know the additional material the angel shares.
We’d never have this heart-warming assurance:
Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.
(Isn’t that one of the best promises God gives us?) And we wouldn’t even have it if Mary hadn’t doubted and asked the question.
So, consider your faith, follow your doubts and always ask the questions – with humility and courage. And may the Holy Spirit continue to show us the way to the One who offers us life – in its fullness.