‘How will this be?’ asked Mary when Gabriel announced that she would give birth to Jesus. ‘How will this be? I’m a virgin.’
It was a good question. After all, true faith isn’t, as a child is reported to have said, believing in things you know aren’t true. One of the main arguments perpetuated by the modern atheist lobby is that believers are simple people, believing superstitious nonsense, whilst they just look at the world as it is.
That wasn’t Mary’s faith. She might only have been 12 or 13, from, Nazareth, a bit of a backwater town. Chances are she was uneducated, illiterate even. But she wasn’t gullible. She knew where babies came from - and she’d not been there. She knew what she’d just been told didn’t make a huge amount of sense. But she’s not afraid to ask the question. For Mary, belief in God didn’t mean leaving her brains at the door.
So often in churches we don’t really offer space for questions. Some churches quite explicitly condemn it. Others are more subtle. Early in my ministry someone wiser than me, warned me against referring to ‘what God has given me today’ because it can suggest that ‘God’s given it, so don’t you question it.’ Even the lecture style set up of our worship can create that kind of impression.
But Mary asks a good question and isn’t chastised for doing so. But nor is her question utterly sceptical. Her questions isn’t ‘how can this be?’, but ‘how shall it be?’ There’s a sense of ‘ok, I believe you, now show me how that works.’
It’s a really good question for the Advent season. We are people, like the Jews of Mary’s day, with a promise that has not yet been fulfilled. We have that great Revelation promise that ‘he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. I am making everything new.’
And we might ask the question... how will this happen... after all, this person’s cancer continues to spread, these two people haven’t spoken in years, nobody’s taking on new staff these days... you fill in the blank. When millions of people across our globe have no access to medication, how will that happen?
Mary isn’t left completely without evidence. Some of it is within her, in the Holy Spirit overshadowing her. Some of it is external - why else would she go dashing off to see Elizabeth - she wants to know if it’s true.
And before all that she is offered a reason, a why it will happen. Which on the face of it is no reason at all. Because she is favoured and God is with her. The word for favour is the same word as the word for grace.
Why do we believe God will keep his promise? Because God is good, God is gracious. When we ask how will it happen, we can’t see it because we look at ourselves and realise our own inability to bring it about. And God says ‘that’s hardly the point - it happens because of grace.’
Ultimately she is left with one proposition she has to accept - that nothing is impossible with God. At Advent I can name the reasons why on the face of it God can’t keep his promise and we’re not chastised for doing so, but because of Jesus we can say ‘ok I believe you, now show me how that works.’ And we can ask that because nothing is impossible with God.