Nothing will be impossible
| Luke 1:26-55
||Sun, December 22, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|The Annunciation is one of those scenes that you see with numbing frequency in the great museums of Europe. There, in painting after painting, is the angel Gabriel saying to Mary: “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” As children of the Protestant Reformation we are inclined to walk past these portraits, having long ago dropped the catholic traditions of revering and praying to Mary. More than that, as children of the Enlightenment we have been taught that it is not reasonable to pay attention to stories about messages from angels to virgins predicting pregnancy. But here we are, also children of this story who today stop to gaze upon the portrait it paints of Gabriel announcing the future to Mary who cannot possibly be with child.
It is not possible. This text is full of impossibility. Of course, we are familiar with the impossibility of the virgin birth. It is one of the standard questions asked of a pastor in modern, secular culture ... not to mention in a liberal denomination: “You don’t believe in the virgin birth, do you?” Well, as a reasonable, relatively rational human being living in the midst of all manner of biological evidence that says that virgin birth is not possible one has to admit that saying “Yes” to such an impossible story is no easy thing. Yet I am amazed at how many imagine that saying “No” to the story at this early juncture makes believing the rest of the story any easier. I mean, a virgin birth is a relatively minor impossibility compared to a resurrection from the dead. This doesn’t make a virgin birth any easier to believe. But it does suggest that denying its truthfulness leads to a much larger denial of the impossible down the road. Soon such a church is going to be in the position of admitting that God can do nothing that is impossible.
But the angel says the opposite. Gabriel says “For nothing will be impossible with God.” It comes in the midst of a text that is filled with impossible claims. Did you hear them? There are, of course, the two impossible pregnancies - aged, barren Elizabeth and young, virginal Mary. But there is more. Mary’s unborn fetus “will be great, and be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary might be forgiven for imagining that the angel is predicting great things for her offspring. She might well take this prophetic message at face value and trust that Jesus will be enthroned in Jerusalem on David’s throne and become the long-promised King who will finally rid Israel of oppressive regimes and liberate the nation from the Roman occupying force. Nowhere does Gabriel even hint that this Messiah’s throne will be a cross and that his crown will be made of thorns and that he will rule with a bowl and a towel.
It is all so utterly impossible. Yet Mary asks only once: “How can this be since I am a virgin?” When Gabriel announces that “nothing will be impossible with God” she does not argue. Instead she puts her body and her life on the line and waits for the story to unfold as promised: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; Let it be with me according to your word.” This daring trust, this impossible believing in the impossible is not a common occurrence. When Mary rushes to see her kinfolk Elizabeth she enters the house of Zechariah. You remember Zechariah? He is the one in the nativity play with nothing to say because his disbelief in Gabriel’s impossible news silences him. Literally. He is mute. But not Elizabeth. As soon as she sets eyes on Mary she feels her own babe leap for joy and announces the first three beatitudes of the Gospel: “blessed are you among women ... blessed is the fruit of your womb ... blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary’s daring trust in the impossible news is a sign of blessing ... as is the impossible child that she now carries. Trusting this impossible news is all blessing. So our story says. And it is not finished with impossible news.
Upon hearing Elizabeth pronounce her triad of beatitudes, Mary bursts into a song of impossibility. The text of “The Magnificat” has been set to music more than any other biblical text. It is, at once, deeply familiar and yet almost forgotten in the world we inhabit. As in days long past, so in our weekly service of evening prayer here the Magnificat is always sung, remembered, prayed. This song of belief in the impossible rests at the core of Christian faith and of the Christian community: “The Mighty One has done great things ... He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud ... He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel ... according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants for ever.” Notice one thing. Mary’s song does not proclaim that the Mighty One will do great things. She does not hope that he will show strength with his arm or will scatter the proud or will bring down the powerful or will lift up the lowly or will fill the hungry or will send the rich away. She says that the Mighty One has already done all of this. She has only just become pregnant. The impossible work of God amounts to two pregnant women - Elizabeth and Mary. No babies have yet been born. No one else knows what God is up to in these two wombs. But Mary knows that everything is already accomplished. She knows in her heart and in her mind and in her soul that the Mighty One has kept the promise made to Abraham. Remember that ancient blessing: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing ... and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:2-3). Mary is the bearer of that long promised blessing. And she knows that nothing will be impossible for the Mighty One who keeps the blessed promise.
Mary knows what we know. She knows that the proud still revel in their pride. She sees that the powerful still play games with their power in the bedroom and in the board room, at the cabinet table and on the street and among the nations. She is one of the lowly who are pressed down the military and the economy and the structures and the powers. She sees the hungry starving and the rich playing. She is no fool. The ancient blessed promise to Abraham looks like one more broken promise, never to be kept. We are confronted every day with the impossibility of this blessed story. We live in a world of impossibilities and know our fair share of people and families and issues and nations that seem utterly beyond saving and redeeming and making new. The trouble is too deep, too ingrained, too complex, too chronic for any real cure, any real healing, any real hope. No wonder that suicide continues to rise to unprecedented levels in Western cultures. Here, in the midst of all of the comforts that modern technology provides, growing numbers of us come to believe that the trouble overwhelms all possibility of good news of great joy. Now, instead of proclaiming that “nothing will be impossible with God” we find more and more who believe with their heart and mind and soul that “nothing is possible with God”.
This is what brings us here, to this story and to this stable and to this child again this year. We come here in a world in which God’s power to act and to make new no longer seems possible. Even the church - the very people called to believe in God’s power to do the impossible - even the church finds miracle and mystery hard to believe. We are modern children of the possible. Yet, at the baptismal font, we are in the midst of becoming odd offspring of the impossible. Here we drown to our expectations of what is possible with God. Here we are reborn into a world in which God has power to save and to make new, to bring down and to lift up, to welcome and to send away. This is the crux of the matter. This is the heart of our Christmas joy. In Mary’s boy child we meet the one in whom the Mighty One has already triumphed over the impossible. His impossible birth and his impossible Easter morning re-birth are the first-fruits of the impossible birthing and re-birthing that the Mighty One is up to in the world. In Christ we discover that “nothing will be impossible with God.” In Christ we meet a God whose love and justice cannot be denied by even the darkest of griefs or the most monstrous of oppressors. In Christ we meet a God who has already overcome so that we will not be overcome. This is the source of our life and of our vigour and of our determination to live in the impossible possibility of God’s kingdom come and God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. This is the reason that we do not believe in the world’s definitions of what is possible for God ... or for us when we live within the purposes of God. The power of the Mighty One to work wonders and to do miracles and to make new beyond all possible explanations is the good news of great joy that we sing and celebrate at the birth of Mary’s infant Jesus. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, the world is sorely in need of wonders and miracles and making new. There is too much terror and trouble at every turn. We long for news of a turn around. But we have long since taught ourselves to believe that a turn around is not possible. Here and now we listen to Mary magnify the Lord and we witness Mary’s daring faith and we practice the ancient ways of trusting in God’s impossible power to make us - and the world we inhabit - new. For nothing will be impossible with God. Here we are, the servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to God’s word.