Mary was troubled by Gabriel’s words. “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” She couldn’t decide whether or not this was a welcome greeting. If she was troubled by these words, she would have been more troubled by the words to come, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. And he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” She was chewing on it. Perhaps after a moment, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
Mary was clearly an obedient daughter of Abraham, yielded to the Lord and yet she was given some information by a supernatural being that was at once troubling and puzzling. Her worldview, her character, her sense of morality all railed against the idea that she would become pregnant–she was unmarried and would never willingly cross that line. Yet, her obedient and loving heart toward Elohim would not allow her to dismiss this message outright, so she asked the question. The answer was tender and gracious: “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 called holy–the Son of God.”
This response ministered to Mary’s heart on many levels. The imagery of the response would have brought to Mary’s mind the imagery of the tabernacle in the wilderness.
“Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.” Exodus 40:34-38, ESV.
The cloud was overshadowing Mary’s life on the outside, the fire of his glory within her womb. The imagery reinforced to Mary: “The Lord is with you in holiness, in glory, in power, and in leading.” Shortly thereafter Gabriel revealed another comforting fact: “Your old cousin Elizabeth, though she’s been barren her whole life, is pregnant in her old age. Nothing is impossible with God.
This passage seems to dispel a number of misunderstandings about taking the gospel across cultural boundaries:
Myth #1: A person will always interpret God through the lens of their own worldview.
Worldview exercises a powerful influence on how we think and how we interpret that which is hard (or impossible) to explain. However, Mary, while considering the implications of her worldview, listened to the angelic message and evaluated it based upon God’s character and promise. In the end, she behaved counter to her culture/worldview in obedience to God.
Likewise, each of us or those to whom we go can choose to evaluate situations that are puzzling based not merely on reason alone, but also on the evidence of God’s character and promise. God’s character and promises are revealed in His Word. The crux of the problem for many peoples, especially those who do not have access to the Word in a language that speaks to their heart, is that this revelation remains largely concealed to them. They cannot take it in and so they are left to their presuppositions about life. The message from Gabriel to Mary was given in the context of an extensive familiarity with the Old Testament. What of these unreached peoples? Will they be able to step outside the worldview in lieu of revealed Truth?
Myth #2: God will only work through what we deem to be reasonable and respectable to accomplish his purposes.
How reasonable or respectable is it to expect an unmarried virgin to give birth to the long-awaited Messiah? Wouldn’t it have made more sense not to shame this favored, obedient daughter of Israel rather than expose her to the shame she endured as everyone assumed that her “angel” story was a fabrication designed to cover up out-of-wedlock fornication? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to make his coming a little bit more culturally acceptable? Clearly God had something different in mind.
Wouldn’t it have been more reasonable, even respectable, to simply take a Somau Garia speaker from among them, either give him the gift of interpretation or send him off to school somewhere in America or Europe and return him to Papua New Guinea to translate the Scriptures? What sense does it make to send American, urban, bookish Christians to do this job? Clearly God had something different in mind.
Myth #3: Our service will be without trouble, our obedience easy and reasonable, his purpose in any particular situation clear.
Mary didn’t seem to react that Gabriel was there, but was troubled that he was there with a message from God for her. It made her uncomfortable and afraid. Her obedience exposed her to the shame, derision, and rejection as she faced sneers and gossip and even the possibility of stoning as Nazarene society assumed that she was wrongly pregnant out of wedlock.
Most of us find that Jesus’ later promise that that there would be trouble in this life to be true. Obedience usually costs us something. While his general purpose is clear, his specific purpose can be rather vague. This is no less true for those obeying the call to translate the Bible. It is also no less true for those Papua New Guineans who choose to work with us. They face troubles, rejection, and opposition on a regular basis.
I will close this post with Gabriel’s observation: “Nothing is impossible with God.”
God can and does break through our worldview, our reason, and our method to establish and fulfill his Kingdom purpose. He enables us to live outside of our experience to bring his plan to be. His purpose will not be thwarted. Aligned with his purpose, we can shake the gates of Hell!