How Can This Be?


What would you say if told you that a man printed the entire Bible on a credit card? Both Old and New Testaments are printed just on the front. You can even read it if you have a 100-power microscope. Can you believe that? All 34,000 verses, all 720,000 plus words on 6 ½ square inches of plastic? How can this be? The young virgin, named Mary, was moved to ask the angel Gabriel that same question when he told her “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son.” How can this be?

Hearing Mary openly express her doubt gives us the courage to face our own. How can my marriage work? How can I stand this job? How can this church go on? Isn’t “how can this be” a good question for Advent? It is if it’s not from unbelief. Unbelieving questions have no place in Advent and we seek to drive them out of heart not face them. Although, even at Christ’s first Advent someone did have one. Remember who? Zacharias. Our text connects to that by the phrase “In the 6th month…” This refers to 6th month of Zacharias’ wife Elizabeth being pregnant. When Gabriel told Zach he and his aged wife we’re going to have child, he couldn’t believe it true. He didn’t ask ‘How can this be’ but, “How can I know what you say is true?” That was an unbelieving question and Zacharias was rebuked and punished. He who put his foot in his mouth found his mouth sealed shut until his son, John the Baptist was born.

In Mary’s case, there’s no rebuke or punishment. That’s because Mary’s question didn’t come from unbelief. Look at the other wonderous things the angel tells her that she didn’t question. Her Son will be called the Son of the Most High; He will be the greatest of the great; the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David; He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end! All those amazing statements and Mary only asks about the conception of her Son not about her having one or about the glorious, divine things spoken about Him.

So, are your questions like Zach’s or Mary’s? Do they come from unbelief or faith? An unbelieving doubt is one that isn’t sure God will or can do what He promised? God promises to bless marriage. If you doubt He has, does, or will, that’s unbelief. God promises to provide for your family. If you doubt that He can, has, and will do that through your miserable job, poor pay, or rising prices, that’s unbelief. God promises that the gates of Hell cannot prevail against His Church. If you doubt that’s true for this church, you’re being unbelieving, not realistic. But we still have doubts, don’t we? How many times have I come to that despairing thought "how can this be?” I didn’t want to be unbelieving, but I can’t pretend that I didn’t and still do have very real questions about how things can be solved.

Let’s put some distance between ourselves and the problems that face us. Let’s focus on another situation far beyond our ability to work it out. God taking on flesh and blood. How can this be? How did God become what we are? How did the Creator become a creature? How did the Lord of lords become a Man among men? Talk about problems, about not being able to see how things can work out! God taking on flesh in a virgin’s womb far surpasses any difficulty you do or will face. If you don’t see this, I wonder are you really grasping what we celebrate tonight? We’re not celebrating Jesus’ birth as a president’s birthday is celebrated. 3rd century church fathers regarded it as “sinful to observe the birth of Christ” as though He were an earthly ruler (Panati, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, 33). We’re celebrating “Immanuel’ which means “God with us” and not in the sense He’s omnipresent. We’re talking about the Word becoming flesh, and as we say in the Athanasian Creed: This miracle is “not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into God.”

This is astounding. The One who knit us together in our mother’s womb allows Himself to be formed in a virgin’s womb. Almighty God could’ve come down from heaven and assumed a full-grown body. But look, He goes through 9 months of gestation in the womb. Then born in the usual way He passes through the stages of infant, toddler, boy, and teen! This beggars the imagination. The One who feeds the world by opening His hands and satisfying the desire of every living thing is found nursing at His mother’s breast like billions of other babies have! The One who knows the joys and splendors of heaven itself becomes a baby. These are the astonishing perplexities that unbeliever’s have always stumbled over. The Greek essayist and pagan priest Plutarch writing 70  years after Christ said that it made sense to him that God should be a lover of men rather than horses or birds. So it made sense to him that God should want to communicate with men rather than animals. But it was altogether impossible for him to believe that God should have any love for these vile bodies of ours.

May we not stumble at these things, but instead fall on our knees in wonder crying, "How can this be?” How can this be that the Creator of blood has blood to shed? How can this be that He who inhabits the mansions of eternity lies in the cramped spaces of a womb? How can the bundle of baby in our space and time be the Wonderful Counselor, the Prince of Peace, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father? How, how, how? The laws of biology don’t allow for a  virgin to conceive let alone for a woman to give birth to God in the flesh. How can the earthly bear the heavenly? How can what is mortal bring forth immortality? How can the finite give birth to the infinite? The Reformed say it can’t and human reason agrees. How? How? How?

Because the question ‘how’ racks our brains, it does not mean we’re unbelieving. When the Twin Towers fell in 2001 the country asked, “How can this be?” We weren’t saying it didn’t happen. We we’re wondering howit did. Unbelief wasn’t indicated by the question; in fact, belief was. Let me illustrate: The child who hears the story of Santa for the first time gets the part about reindeer on the roof, a flying sled, and a jolly fat man living at the North Pole. But when you get to the part about him sliding down the chimney, he wants to know how Santa can get his fat belly down that skinny chimney. It’s because the boy believes all the other things that he asks about the how of the chimney. Likewise, it’s because Mary believes the things about her Son that she asks about the how of conceiving Him. 

The same can be true of our how questions. They can come from belief not unbelief. It’s because I believe what Scripture says about my sinful flesh and this fallen world that I ask, “How can my marriage work?” It’s because I believe my job is difficult and myself weak that I ask, “How can I endure this?” It’s because I believe Christianity is being attacked from without and within as seldom before that I ask, “How can this church survive?” We can ask these questions because we take seriously the facts that cause them to arise. And God wants us to ask them. God wants us to come face to face with the impossibility of some situations so that we might ponder anew what the Almighty can do.

Gabirel answers the question of how a virgin can conceive and God become man simply, directly. The power of the Most High directed by the Holy Spirit will do it. He will overshadow the virgin Mary like He overshadowed the OT Church in the wilderness in a Cloud. Just as the Cloudy Presence descended and the Lord came into the Tent of Meeting, so the Most High would come into the womb of the Virgin. But with this difference: this time God the Son stays for good and forever. Mary does nothing for this miracle to happen. She didn’t concentrate hard, believe hard or be especially pious so the Lord would come. God came to her because of His gracious choosing and by His almighty power. From the dark womb of the virgin the Lord brings the Light of the world. From a lifeless womb, the Lord brings the lifegiving One.

If our Lord can do this, He can certainly bring light and life to us. He brings life to lifeless relationships. No matter how dark your life, your future, your hope, He brings light to it. If God the Son consented to dwell in a virgin’s womb and in our flesh and blood forever, He will dwell with you whatever your situation may be. No matter how dead we feel in body and soul, in our life, our job, our world, our Lord Jesus promises to bring life. The Virgin Birth is proof that God has arrived on our scene. He has descended into our lives be they harsh, hopeless, impoverished, dirty, or dead. As the Lamb of God carrying the sins of the world, as the Passover Lamb sacrificed to pay and cover the sins of the world, He brings beauty, forgiveness, light, and life into ugly, sinful, dark, dead ones. Since God loved humanity so much that He willingly chose to be born of a virgin, what lengths won’t He go to for you His child, His sibling?Having come all this way to get us, having been through so much to redeem, restore, and forgive us, you think anything in your life will be so dark, bad, dirty, or ugly, He’ll turn back? Well, I just don’t see how!

Believing that God did and does do what we believe to be impossible, doesn’t mean we understand the how. Much of what God does, I don’t understand. I don’t understand how He created this earth, how He can recreate me through the Waters of Baptism, forgive me by the Words of Absolution, give me His Body and Blood in Communion. I can’t understand how He laid Himself in the Virgin’s womb, into a manger, and unto a cross for poor miserable sinners like us. I can’t understand how God works, but I believe He can do anything He wills to do.

I’m amazed that men are able to write all of God’s Word on one side of a credit card. That’s ‘miraculous’ to me. If men can do that with God’s written Word and we ‘adore’ it without understanding it, can’t we do the same with the Eternal Word conceived in a Virgin’s Womb? I don’t see how we can’t. Amen. 

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Fourth Sunday in Advent (20231224); Luke 1:26-38