The third great impossibility brought about through the birth of Jesus was the salvation of sinners. I don’t know whether Mary specifically had this in her mind when the angel appeared to her and announced the birth of Christ. Very little is said here that would indicate what Mary was thinking, but she may well have been, because just a few verses further on, in that great psalm of praise known as the Magsnificat, Mary prays, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” So she was thinking of salvation. And if she was thinking of salvation, she must have thought, as the godly throughout all ages have thought, how is the salvation of sinners possible? It might be all right for God to be powerful. God can certainly do such things as a virgin birth and an incarnation, but how can God save sinners? God is the Holy God. He is the Judge. God must punish sin, and we are sinners. How can God save us and remain just at the same time?
This great impossibility is something that occurred in a somewhat devilish way to Christ’s enemies later on in the story. These men were opposed to the Lord because of his righteousness, and they went about trying to invent ways to trap him. One device was this. They had a situation in which they had found a woman who was taken in the very act of adultery. They had witnesses to it. In the Law that God had given, adulterers were to be stoned. That is what the Law said. What did Jesus say? They came to him to ask that question. Jesus had a reputation for being merciful. Everybody knew that. But after all, this was the Law, and it was the Law of God. So he was merciful. Doesn’t everybody want to be merciful? But the Law said such a one should be stoned. What did Jesus say?
Now they had hit with rather devilish insight upon a real problem. But they didn’t want to find the solution; they wanted to trap Jesus. It was just a case of their sin lashing out against the Savior, but they had hit upon a problem. It might be all right to want to be forgiving, but how can we be forgiving and just at the same time? What is more to the point, how can God forgive? How can God save, and, at the same time, maintain his justice? Now we know the answer. The answer is the atonement. That is what the whole incarnation was about. God sent Jesus Christ to die in the place of sinners, so he bore their punishment. That is how God could be both just and merciful at the same time. But early on in the story, they didn’t understand that. The disciples didn’t understand it. When Jesus talked about the cross, they hadn’t the faintest idea why he was talking about that. They were thinking of salvation in terms of a political deliverance. They wanted somebody powerful enough to drive out the Romans. When the angel appeared to Joseph in that annunciation, the angel said, “You shall call him ‘Jesus’ because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Joseph might well have said, “Well, how is that possible?”–a third great impossibility.
And then there is a fourth impossibility too: breaking through the hardness of men’s hearts. Mary might very well have thought of that because Mary knew the Psalms. That is why she was able to compose such a magnificent psalm herself–this Magnificat. Mary knew the Psalms, and she knew what the Psalms said. The fourteenth Psalm explains how hard the heart of man is. “All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3). She knew the prophets. Jeremiah had declared that the heart of man is deceitful and wicked above all things. Who can know it? “Its evil is so deep it is unfathomable,” is what Jeremiah said.
So if Mary had been thinking through the matter at that point, she might have said, “Suppose God does provide salvation. Why should we think that human beings, with hearts as hard as they are, would ever accept it? Salvation may be there, but how is it ever going to come to a race as sinful as ours?” Yet we need to hear the word of the angel at precisely this point, because the angel said to Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God.”