2 December 2023

Advent 2023: Born of the Spirit

Captain Naomi Kelly

Captain Naomi Kelly begins an Advent series with a reminder of Mary’s willing involvement in God’s plan to save us.

Key text

My dad was a great storyteller. One story he told was about a school trip to the zoo when he was 10 years old. He recalled how he and his friends watched the penguin parade, and the hilarity as they did so. He claimed that, during their homeward bus journey, one of the children pulled back their coat to reveal that they had taken one of the penguins. He told it with such conviction that I honestly couldn’t tell you if the story was true.

No one verified my dad’s story. There was no report in the local newspaper. Years later, there is no one, other than my dad, retelling that story.

Pause and reflect

  • How can you tell if a story is true?

There is so much within the story of Jesus that seems too extreme to be true. We struggle to understand how some of the things happened. Perhaps this is because these things are of God.

Our study passage in Luke, and also the account in Matthew 1:18–25, tells the story of Mary conceiving a child – God’s son, Jesus, who will save his people. Some details may differ, yet they have the same outcome: in each account, an angel of the Lord tells of the birth of the Son of God through an immaculate conception (see Matthew 1:20 and Luke 1:35). These two Gospel writers lead us to a belief that the story must, in fact, be true.

Evelyn Underhill, English writer and pacifist, is quoted as saying: ‘If God were small enough to be understood, he would not be big enough to be worshipped.’

Ultimately, we are not God. We can try to understand him, but we will be forever learning. It never ceases to amaze me that theologians can study God their whole lives and still not understand him completely. However, as Evelyn Underhill suggests, an all-powerful God who is worthy of our worship is not small enough to be understood.

Pause and reflect

  • Have you ever seen God do something beyond explanation?
  • Have you ever prayed for something and been surprised when it happened?
A photo of Mary and baby Jesus

Luke 1:35

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.

Read Luke 1

An angel announces to Mary that the Holy Spirit will be upon her: ‘The power of the Most High will overshadow you’ (v35). Not only is she being told that the Spirit is going to enable her to do something otherwise thought impossible, but also that God will be there to look after her completely.

To be overshadowed by something is to be covered by it totally. Mary must have been terrified when the angel appeared to her and perhaps even more terrified when she came to learn that she, a virgin, was going to give birth to a child. And not just any child – the Son of God! To then learn that the Most High would overshadow her must have been very comforting indeed.

Pause and reflect

  • Think of a time you have been scared. What brought you comfort?
  • Is there something in your life that you need God to be an overshadowing presence over?

Notice the way that Mary ends her encounter with the angel. She answers: ‘I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled’ (v38).

Ultimately, Mary was a poor, young woman. In those days, this might make her appear unsuitable to be used for any of God’s major works. Yet God still chose Mary to be involved in his work of salvation, and that demanded her willingness and obedience.

We can read about other times in the Bible when God chooses someone unlikely to fulfil a purpose. Despite Moses being ‘slow of speech and tongue’, God chose him to speak to his people and to Pharaoh (see Exodus 4:10). David was only a young, shepherd boy when God sent the prophet Samuel to anoint him to be king (see 1 Samuel 16). Although Saul had murderous intent against the Lord’s disciples, Jesus chose him to take the message to the Gentiles, their kings and the people of Israel (see Acts 9:1–19).

Sadly, it is often the case that people lack self-belief. We think we are not good enough, not clever enough, too old or lack experience. By thinking these things, we effectively limit God’s choices.

Mary very clearly said ‘yes’ to God. This was a decision that led to a lot of heartache for her. Although she was richly blessed by having such a great honour bestowed upon her, it came with a lot of hardship. Her peers would have ridiculed her. Joseph, her fiancé, considered leaving her. Imagine her family’s reaction to her news! Later, Mary watched as her son, Jesus, suffered unimaginable pain dying on a cross. Just because she was chosen by God and blessed, that did not mean life would be plain sailing for her.

This serves as a useful reminder for us as we experience hardships in life. Often, although we pray and seek to follow God’s leading, the way is still tough. Remember Mary’s story when you feel these pains and frustrations.

Pause and reflect

  • Think of a time you followed God’s leading. How did you know it was of God?
  • What difficulties did you encounter?

When God sent his angel to Mary, she submitted herself fully to him. She felt afraid but was full of faith. It would have been easier for her to say, ‘Not me, Lord, I can’t do it.’ Instead, she trusted God and allowed herself to be used in a mighty way. Let her example serve as a reminder to us that God can use anyone. Even us.

Bible study by

A photo of Captain Naomi Kelly

Captain Naomi Kelly

Corps Officer, Middlesbrough Citadel

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