Extraordinary Submission – Luke 1:34-38
By: Alistair Brown
“Nothing I have ever studied prepared me for this,” I muttered, staring down a dark hole in the church floor. Our church handyman and I were trying to wire a cable across a room. We’d got it down the back of the wall, but now we needed to get it across the space under the floor to the other side. The problem? There was a hatch opening to get down, but it was designed for very little people, and the handyman was not a little person, and I was even further from being a little person.
But my son was there – also called Alistair – about twelve years old at that time and thinner than a broom handle. I called him over, showed him the hatch, and explained what needed to be done, and reassured him it was completely safe (which it was, since I knew there was no power at all to the whole area). “Yes, I’ll do it,” Alistair said, and down the hole in the floor he went into the blackness. As we shone flashlights he got the cable, pulled it across, and a minute later he threaded it up inside the wall on the other side. Moments after that his head popped up through the hatch, we lifted him out and there was a big grin on his face. “Did it!” he said.
“Were you frightened at all down there in the dark?” I asked. “No!” he said, as if offended I’d even asked. “You said it was safe; you said I would be fine. So I knew I would be.”
He’d believed. He’d trusted his father. And so he hadn’t hesitated.
This study is about a young, Jewish girl from Galilee called Mary who trusted her heavenly Father and went forward with faith and confidence to do his will.
The angel of God, Gabriel, has told Mary she will conceive a son. Her son, yes, but also the Son of the Most High God. Now, there’s a birth announcement if there ever was one… and it leaves one major issue unresolved.
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
What happens in this passage can be summarized under four key words:
1. A sincere question.
Mary has just heard the most amazing promises about the baby she will conceive. But there is that one obvious question: “’How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’” (v. 34).
That is not the same kind of response Zechariah gave when the angel promised that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son even though they were long past childbearing age. Zechariah couldn’t believe it, and asked for proof (Luke 1:18). His unbelief was serious, and he lost the power to speak until the baby was born.
Mary is not like Zechariah. She does not doubt but she is puzzled. Mary was only thirteen or fourteen years of age, but she understands very well how babies are made. There has to be sex. The implication in Gabriel’s words is that she will conceive immediately but she has never had sex, not with Joseph to whom she is betrothed or with anyone else. So the sincere question: “How will this be since I am a virgin?”
Mary, therefore, understood very well that humanly she could not conceive a child without a sexual relationship. She had never had a sexual relationship, so how could she become pregnant?
With the rise of science as the supposed explanation for everything, many skeptics have said that the only reason people of ancient times believed in miracles was because they did not understand fundamental principles of science – in this case, how biological processes work. Nonsense! Mary very certainly understood the basics of conception, and that is why she asked the question.
C.S. Lewis pours his logical scorn on the skeptics who imagine that those who lived in ‘olden times’ believed in miracles only because they did not know the laws of Nature. He writes:
Such people seem to have an idea that belief in miracles arose at a period when men were so ignorant of the cause of nature that they did not perceive a miracle to be contrary to it. A moment’s thought shows this to be nonsense: and the story of the Virgin Birth is a particularly striking example. When St. Joseph discovered that his fiancée was going to have a baby, he not unnaturally decided to repudiate her. Why? Because he knew just as well as any modern gynaecologist that in the ordinary course of nature women do not have babies unless they have lain with men. No doubt the modern gynaecologist knows several things about birth and begetting which St. Joseph did not know. But those things do not concern the main point – that a virgin birth is contrary to the course of nature. And St. Joseph obviously knew that.
In any sense in which it is true to say now, “The thing is scientifically impossible,” he would have said the same: the thing always was, and was always known to be, impossible unless the regular processes of nature were, in this particular case, being over-ruled or supplemented by something from beyond nature. When St. Joseph finally accepted the view that his fiancée’s pregnancy was due not to unchastity but to a miracle, he accepted the miracle as something contrary to the known order of nature.
Lewis is, of course, quite right. Those who believe that no-one and nothing – not even God as they imagine him to be – can break immutable laws of science, these people are bound by their own flawed logic to deny any miracle. But Christians don’t believe in a god who is subject to his own creation. We believe in an Almighty God who made the world and all that is in it, who holds it together with his powerful hand, who can reach into that world and bring anything at all to pass which is his will.
Mary did not doubt. She asked a sincere question and was about to learn just how big, how great and how almighty the Lord God really is.
2. A powerful answer.
Gabriel is very straightforward in his answer to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (v. 35).
Mary is told four very major facts here, two about how she will conceive and two about the one who will be conceived.
First, Mary is not to understand God will have any kind of sexual relationship with her. We might never imagine that, but the ancient Greek world had many stories of gods coming down to earth to mate with humans. Those stories were widely known. The angel ensures Mary will never think like that. “The Holy Spirit will come on you,” Gabriel says. The presence of the Holy Spirit in her life will bring about this conception. It will be God’s work done in a very sensitive way.
Second, that last point becomes even more specific: “…the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Hearing that, Mary might easily have thought back to the wilderness wanderings of the ancient Israelites and how the glory and presence of God came down like a cloud of glory and filled the tabernacle during the wanderings in the desert of the ancient Israelites. That overshadowing was such a powerful presence of God, Moses would be unable to enter the tabernacle at those times. (Ex. 40:34-38) God’s power – as mighty as that – would be on Mary.
Third, because of that, Gabriel says, the one to be born will be “holy.” That is the Greek word hagios. It can mean ‘righteous’ or ‘good,’ but it also means ‘dedicated,’ ‘set apart,’ or ‘consecrated.’ If someone talks about a building as a ‘holy place,’ they don’t mean its stones have some ethical quality about them, but they do mean it’s a special place, perhaps somewhere set apart to worship God. Jesus from birth would be holy in that sense – someone set apart – the one whose life would be dedicated to God and for God’s work. Hence the explanation Jesus gave to Mary and Joseph not so many years later when he had stayed behind at the Temple talking with the teachers – that he had to be doing his Father’s business (Luke 2:49). Jesus knew, from his youngest, that he had a very special role, a unique mission for his life.
Fourth, Gabriel tells Mary this child “will be called the Son of God.” And he was, including by God himself. After his baptism Jesus was praying, the Holy Spirit came on him like a dove, and God spoke: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Throughout the New Testament there are over 120 references to Jesus as God’s Son or to God as his Father. Jesus would certainly be the son of Mary but also the Son of God.
Mary asked a sincere question how this could all happen and got a remarkably powerful answer!
If Mary needed any further convincing that the impossible can become possible she got it from what the angel said next.
3. An amazing example.
Gabriel says: “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail” (verses 36-37).
Just as Mary knew young girls like her – virgins – could not conceive, she knew that elderly women did not conceive either. She will have heard family members and others talking about Elizabeth. Maybe they thought Elizabeth was out of God’s favor; maybe they felt sorry for her. Whichever way the matter went, Elizabeth’s childlessness would have been a subject of gossip. And everyone knew it was now too late for her and Zechariah.
But it wasn’t? She is in her sixth month? That carries a powerful message for Mary.
If someone tells me I’ll get a phone call tomorrow from London, I might wonder who will be calling, but I won’t wonder if such a phone call could happen. It has happened before. I’ve been called before. It’s possible! So I don’t doubt it can happen again.
Mary’s mind immediately made the connection. If the impossible for her elderly relative Elizabeth had become possible, then the impossible for young Mary who had never had relations with a man is also possible. Elizabeth is an amazing example.
4. A remarkable response.
What Mary said next is one of the most striking examples of quiet submission and heroism in the whole of human history. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled” (v. 38).
Her words are a remarkable response. She calls herself “the Lord’s servant” but the sense is stronger than our translation. She actually calls herself the Lord’s slave girl – the Greek is the word doulē and describes someone who accepts the will of her master without question, someone who gives complete obedience.
Ask me to walk through a minefield, I’d rebel.
Ask me to walk through a swamp, I’d argue.
Ask me to walk through a flood, I’d look for another way.
Ask me to walk through a dangerous place late at night, I’d hesitate.
Like everyone I’d push back against any proposal that put me at risk or made me uncomfortable.
But not ‘everyone’ is like that. Mary must have known she was being asked to walk the way of ridicule, criticism, probably persecution, and almost certainly the loss of Joseph. But she doesn’t rebel, doesn’t argue, doesn’t look for another way, and doesn’t even hesitate. Instead, if this is God’s will, she is the Lord’s servant.
I listened recently to a radio interview with an author who has written a book on getting the best price for everything. One of the things he said was: “You can get a discount on anything if you just go about it the right way.”
That author mirrors the times in which we live. We like bargains. We demand bargains, and the stores know that. They hand out discount coupons; they run special sales any chance they get. They know: we never want to pay full price for anything.
Mary knew you don’t negotiate with God and you don’t get a discount on the cost of following him. To go his way could be only at the full price of surrendering her whole life, and if this, bearing his Son, was his will then it was hers too.
With quiet acceptance Mary says: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”
When I was a young Christian in my early twenties, I was very aware of things wrong in my life. It was coming close to Christmas, and I got down on my knees and prayed these words: “Lord, Christmas is your birthday, and the only gift I can give you is my life. For whatever you want, and whatever it means for me, please receive the gift of my life.” I meant that prayer with all my heart.
Mary got there years younger than I was, and she faced a road ahead far tougher than anything that’s come my way. But her life was given to God. God took the gift and did something quite extraordinary with her submission, and so the Savior of the world was born.
And what if such submission was not extraordinary but ordinary, in the sense of normal? What if yielding our lives to God for whatever he wanted was how we always responded? The extent to which that is not yet true is the extent to which Mary remains ahead of us as a truly devoted servant who will do anything asked of her by her Master.
 C.S. Lewis, Miracles (Glasgow: Collins Fontana Books, 1974), 50-51.