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Sunday, December 18, 2011

With God, All Things

Too often we feel that it is impossible for God to bring salvation, to change the world, our lives – but as Gabriel reminds, with God, nothing is impossible. Our lives are therefore Advent lives, waiting with hope for what we know God will do.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Fourth Sunday of Advent, year B; texts: Luke 1:26-38, Magnificat, Luke 1:47-55 (today’s psalm)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

“This is impossible,” she must have thought. “There is no way God can make this happen.”
Well, you can imagine the shock for this young woman, really, a girl. Fourteen years old, engaged to be married, with her whole life before her. Suddenly this shining, heavenly being is standing in her room, claiming to be the angel Gabriel. And he’s telling her that she’s found favor with God and will conceive a child, and her son will be born in nine months. He will be great, the Son of God, and will rule on King David’s throne forever.
Well, that’s a lot to take in at once, isn’t it? What’s interesting is that Luke doesn’t tell us that Mary’s troubled by the idea that she might be the mother of the Son of God, or all of the attributes of Jesus the angel claims. She says “how can this be?” – in effect, “this is impossible” – but what she means is that she can’t figure out how she would have a baby. She may not know much about divine rule, and Sons of God, but she knows that she’s a virgin. She might be a peasant girl, uneducated, but she at least knows it takes two to make a baby. It’s kind of touching to me that her only concern is over the basic human issue of how children are conceived. How can God make this happen?
And Gabriel said, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

“This is impossible,” he must have thought. “There is no way God can make this happen.”
Well, you can imagine the shock for this old man. He’d served God faithfully his whole life as a priest, he had a loving wife, but sadly, no children. Now, when he’s serving in the Temple, this shining, heavenly being is standing before him. An angel named Gabriel, he calls himself. And he’s telling Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth will become pregnant, and bear a son. This son will be a source of great joy and gladness. That he could believe. But the angel said he would not be an ordinary son. He would be like the prophet Elijah, going before Israel to turn them to the Lord, and prepare people for the Lord’s coming.
Well, that’s a lot to take in at once, isn’t it? Even if you’ve longed for a child for fifty years, how was this old man supposed to deal with this? And again, like Mary, he doesn’t focus on the challenge of the idea that his son would be a great prophet of God. Again, it’s biology. Even in his fear and shock, he recognized the chief problem with the angel’s announcement: he and his wife were very old. Only young people have children. “How can this be so?” How could God make this happen?
And Gabriel said to Mary, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

“This is impossible,” he must have thought. “There is no way God can make this happen.”
Well, you can imagine the shock for this man. From the shock of God speaking from a bush that burned but wasn’t consumed, to the terror of standing up to the Pharaoh of Egypt, whom he knew from his time growing up in the palace, to the wonder of their release from slavery, Moses had indeed seen a lot of amazing things from God. But now the people were trapped, facing water on one side, and the armies of Egypt on the other. There was no way out, no direction for them to go. The laws of physics were immutable, and if they couldn’t cross the water or defeat the armies – neither of which were possible – they would die.
Well, it was a lot to take in, a lot to grasp, wasn’t it? After so much, to be at an absolute impasse. And if Moses didn’t find the words to say, “This is impossible,” the people certainly did. “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt for us, so you wanted us to die in this wilderness?” And Moses felt the pain of that accusation. Yes, he thought God had led them this far. But surely there was nothing God could do now – how could God fix this?
And Gabriel said to Mary, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

“This is impossible,” she must have thought. “There is no way God can make this happen.”
Well, you can imagine the shock for this woman, really for all the disciples. Three years in the company of someone whom they believed to be God’s Son, blessed by his grace, his presence, his love, Mary of Magdala thought that she had found the source of life from God. And now this horrible week had come, and he had done nothing to prevent it. Many of the people she trusted among his followers had run away, and there were rumors that some had denied him, even betrayed him. Now he was dead, and all her hopes that God was coming to heal the world in this Savior were dashed. So Mary, with nothing else to do, comes to the place he was buried, a garden of sorts, on Sunday morning. And finds it worse than she thought it could be: the cave is open, the stone rolled away, and his body is gone.
Well, that’s a lot to take in at once, isn’t it? A week like that would shatter the best of us. Even had there been a body in the tomb, Mary knew the laws of the world. Dead people stay dead. Well, not always – Jesus had himself raised three people, she had witnessed that. But when the one who raises the dead is dead himself, well, who will raise him? What can God do to change this now?
And Gabriel said to Mary, the mother of our Lord, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

“This is impossible,” we think. “There is no way God can truly make this happen.”

Oh, it sounds pretty impressive, what Mary says God is doing in Jesus. It’s beautiful poetry, and we love to sing it. God has looked with favor on his lowly servant. God has shown strength, and will scatter the proud. God will bring down the powerful, and lift up the lowly. God will fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty.

The song resonates with our hopes for peace and justice in the world, our dreams that Jesus has actually come as our Savior and the Savior of the world. At this time of year more than any we hear again and again the promises that God is doing something, bringing about a new creation.

But those promises, on many days, seem impossible, as impossible as the promises seemed to Mary, and Zechariah, and Moses, and Mary Magdalene. Because we simply don’t ever get to a point where we see a world at peace, where even enemies are reconciled.

We read and hear the promise of wolves and lambs lying down together, of paths forged through the wilderness, of life in the midst of a world of death. But we know what is possible and what isn’t. We know the laws of physics, and the laws of human nature, and the laws of inertia. And we know – things just stay the same, and the mess continues.

And it isn’t just out there in the world that we fear God might not be able to keep these promises. In our lives, when we face difficulties and concerns, how often do we truly believe God can help?

We say, “I’m stuck in my sin, my habits. I can’t change. Impossible.” We say, “I’m unhappy with my life and who I am. There’s no way to make it better. Impossible.” We say, “I want to get along better with others, with my family, but it doesn’t ever seem to change. Impossible.” We say, “I’m afraid of the terrible things that could happen. I can’t hope or expect for better. Impossible.”

But Gabriel said to Mary, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

And don’t we know that to be true? Haven’t we heard, don’t we realize?

The Israelites went into the midst of the sea on dry land and were saved. An old man and an old woman had a son who grew up to proclaim and even baptize the Messiah. A virgin had a baby boy who grew up and was executed for preaching the Good News of God’s grace for the world, and in that garden on Sunday morning he called Mary Magdalene by name, and was alive, risen from the dead.

This is not a message of “possibility thinking.” If we just think good thoughts things will happen. No, this is about what God can do. Gabriel is clear: With God nothing is impossible.” God can and will and has done the impossible. And it is a marvel in our eyes.

But here is what Mary would learn: God’s way of doing the impossible isn’t necessarily our way. With marvelous grace and courage, Mary agreed to be a part of God’s salvation. And it was hard. She had no idea.

Not just the obvious hard things were ahead – telling her parents, her fiancé about this unexpected baby, which risked her being stoned to death. But also just what it would be to be the mother of the Son of God – to struggle with how he grew, to worry about him and even disagree with him about how he was doing his ministry. To have to be at the foot of the horror of a Roman cross and see her first-born die a brutal death.
Mary had no idea how God would save the world or her through her son, who was also God’s Son. Nor do we. But the clue might be in the presence of this angel Gabriel himself, who says that nothing is impossible with God.

Gabriel shows up to ask something of Mary. Of Zechariah. And interestingly, an angel spoke to Moses from the burning bush before God did, and an angel spoke to Mary in the garden. But the point is not that a heavenly messenger is needed – in those cases there was apparently extra need for God to speak clearly. The point is, in all those cases, and in every way God is saving the world through the risen Jesus, God needs our help.

The reason things seem to be healing slowly, the reason that peace seems to be coming in such fits and starts, the reason that our lives don’t instantly and miraculously improve and become perfect, much less the world itself, is that God, for better or for worse, prefers to bring about healing and life through us.

The people of Israel would come out of slavery with a leader, a person, Moses, who was asked to say “yes” to doing this. The parents – Mary and Elizabeth, and their husbands, Joseph and Zechariah – needed to be a part of these two boys, raising them, agreeing to be a part of God’s plan to bring Good News to the world through them. And Mary Magdalene didn’t get to see the risen Jesus just for her own joy – immediately he sent her to tell the others, and she became the first apostle.

That’s what Mary the mother of Jesus and the others have to say to us today: God can do the impossible, but be ready to be a part of that. Watch for what God needs you to do to bring God’s grace and healing to the world. Be ready for your chance to say “yes” to bearing Christ into the world, to holding out your arm and staff over whatever sea spreads before you, to telling the world that he is risen.

With God, nothing is impossible – but we’ll be a part of that possible, that healing.

And in the end, that means we learn that most of our lives are lived in Advent.

Most of our lives are lived waiting to see the fulfillment of all God’s promises, waiting to see where God will do the impossible. Until we are brought to the life prepared for us after this life, we live in Advent times, and it can be easy to be discouraged, to be afraid, to say, “This is impossible.”

But we live in Advent not as people lost in the wilderness, but as Mary after her yes. We live within God’s pregnant life in the world – because that’s what the coming of Jesus was. It was the beginning of the Good News, as Mark says. It was the beginning of God’s healing of the world. It was the beginning of the end of death. It was the beginning of the reign of the Prince of Peace. This life is all about that pregnancy, that life of God growing in the world which is not always seen, and often misunderstood. But the birth will come.
That we know. Because Gabriel told us, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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