Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Nothing Is Impossible

Rev. Kathy Donley

Advent Week 2 - 12/10/17

 

Scripture Lesson:  Luke 1:26-56

 

What was Mary doing when Gabriel appeared?  Had she just come home from the well?  Maybe it was a warm day and she needed a glass of water herself after a long walk.  Maybe she was kneading bread dough or making a shopping list for market day or patching a garment or picking tomatoes in her garden.  Whatever she was doing, whatever was on her to-do list for that day, a visit from an angel was the very last thing she would have expected.  I imagine that she would have been startled by Gabriel’s sudden appearance and perhaps that first reaction would have been building into terror as she realized this was not some human stranger intruding, but a different kind of being entirely.  And before she can recover from her initial shock, Gabriel tells her why he is there, what God wants from her.   That does nothing to calm her down.

Luke says that Mary is perplexed.  Her first question is “How can this be?”  One commentator says that these four words may well signify the nearness of God.[1] We ask the question in response to news that startles us, regardless of whether it is good or bad.  In waiting rooms, when we’ve answered the phone in the middle of the night, when the doctor says that the cancer is gone, at the report of another mass shooting.  If we ever find those words on our own lips, it might signal a time when courage is required.

The angel’s words may make us uncomfortable.  Especially perhaps as we read them in the wake of the #MeToo campaign and a wave of allegations and resignations related to sexual harassment and assault.  Could Mary really have said No to Gabriel, No to God?  I think she could have.  I think people say No to God a lot.  It’s part of why things are as they are.  

Mary is probably a poor, illiterate teenage girl.  She is from Galilee.  Many Jewish people viewed Galileans as second-class citizens.  She is no one special.  She probably thinks of herself that way as well. Until Gabriel.  But here’s something to notice.  Even living in the Iron Age in a patriarchal culture, where a woman’s obedience is simply assumed, Mary does not say yes right away.  She stops to ask questions. Despite her circumstances, she seems to know that her body belongs to her. She doesn’t ask what Joseph will say, what her father will think, or about the shame this news might bring on her and her family.  Instead she speaks about her own body under her control.[2]  This says something about the kind of person Mary is.  She is someone who takes action on her own terms, someone who is deliberate and responsible and has integrity – which sounds like a good Mom for Jesus, I think. 

Gabriel responds to her incredulous “How can this be?” with the statement that nothing is impossible for God.    Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann says the fundamental question every human being must answer is “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”  Brueggemann goes on, “If the answer is ‘Yes, some things are too hard, impossible for God’ then God is not God. We have not conceded radical freedom to God. We have determined to live in a closed universe where things are stable, reliable, hopeless. If, on the other hand, the answer is ‘No, nothing is impossible for God,’ this is an answer that accepts God’s freedom, and [trusts the world to God].” [3]

This is not an easy question.  Just because we want God to do something, even something very good, doesn’t mean that God will do it.  But the fact that God has not already done something, should not be understood to mean that God cannot or that God will not.   On the other hand, we are realists.  We don’t expect an angel to visit us.  We don’t anticipate that God will fix the big brokenness around us tomorrow morning and maybe we are right in that.  But I appreciate Brueggemann’s question “Is anything impossible for God?”

What is impossible for God in your life?  A broken relationship, chronic physical or emotional pain, an unrealized dream.  Is everything settled, tied down in predictable patterns?  Are you resigned to the status quo?  Or could you still be surprised, startled by love and goodness and grace?  The story of Mary, the story of Jesus is a reminder that God is always coming into the world to shatter our acceptance of the way things are.

What seems impossible for God in our world?  Healing the devastation humans have wrecked on the world?  Countering the effects of climate change?  Ending the suffering of disease or grinding poverty? Or what about lasting peace – can God accomplish the task of resolving the international conflicts so that we can live on a peaceful planet?  I have to admit that those seem like impossible tasks.   

As we wrestle with what is possible, we have to take into consideration how God works.  Scripture suggests, over and over, that God works through individuals who say yes. 

Gabriel shows up, out of the blue, on an otherwise ordinary day to an otherwise ordinary girl.  And Mary’s life is never the same.  For the incarnation to happen, for God to dwell on earth among us, Mary has to say Yes.  She has to get past her own fear and do what God asks. 

When the angels say, “Do not be afraid” it means that whatever they say next is going to require courage. There are certain tasks that individual people have to do, certain tasks that are theirs alone, and they won’t be done if fear has its ways.  Let’s bring that a step closer and say that there are certain tasks which are mine to do and also ones which belong to each of you.  If some of these tasks are fearful, then we need to listen for the internal voice which reminds us “Do not be afraid.” 

Mary will become the mother of Jesus. That is her job and hers alone.  What an incredible responsibility! From the beginning there was so much to wonder about and to be afraid.  A colleague recently said that Mary must have found a way to settle her heart, to deal with her fear, or otherwise Jesus would have been a very agitated baby. 

One of the ways Mary finds courage is in going to see her relative, Elizabeth.  Luke has described Elizabeth as faithful and blameless before God. She is a righteous, religious, older woman.  We might expect such a good church lady to be outraged at Mary’s situation, to chastise her or at least cluck her tongue before giving her a hug, but Elizabeth welcomes her with total joy and acceptance.   Sometimes God’s goal of peace is often delayed by Christians who have become judgmental critics of others. But that is not the case here. 

Mary and Elizabeth find sanctuary in each other’s presence.  In the midst of their own wonders and worrying, they strengthen each other.  This seems to be how God accomplishes the impossible – through brave individuals who support and encourage one another. 

I imagine there is a deep peace for each of them in Elizabeth’s household, but it is a temporary sanctuary.   After three months, they return to their new lives again.  Elizabeth gives birth and begins to raise John the Baptist.  Mary returns to Nazareth, to face the scorn and rejection the community who did not know she was pregnant when she left.  She will go on to deliver her baby far from home and then to flee as a refugee to Egypt when the very idea of Jesus threatens King Herod.  Her life opened up to that kind of hardship from the day that she said “let it be so” to Gabriel.

What I am taking from this story is a suggestion of balance. God calls us as individuals and there are things we must do alone, but that is balanced with a community of others also called by God.  And also, there is a balance between times of sanctuary when we draw strength from each other and times of engagement with the wider world, including our enemies. 

Other faithful followers have known that balance.  Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England, in the twelfth century.  He was threatened by King Henry II.  He fled to France for a time, but then returned to England to take a stand for religious liberty.  When the soldiers came for him, he was at the cathedral. The other priests locked the doors against them, but Thomas ordered them to be opened.  He said that the sanctuary should not be a fortress and that the church must be open, even to enemies.    It was more important to him that the church maintain its mission as a sanctuary for all people, even its enemies, than to preserve his life.[4] He had reached the point where he trusted that even if he were killed, which he was, that God’s purposes would be served.

Most of us are not called to tasks so dangerous, but what if we could live our lives and pursue our callings with such courage?  How much more might God do through us? 

Daniel Bell teaches Christian Ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.  On the subject of war and discipleship, he writes this, “the call to risk ourselves for others challenges us to confront the pervasive sense of fear and inordinate concern for security that threatens to envelop us at the outset of the twenty-first century.  This criterion reminds us of the importance of proclaiming the gospel – that Christ has defeated sin and death, that we need not be consumed by fear, that there are worse things than dying, that we are free to live in holy insecurity, free even to die in service to our neighbor.  . . . The opportunity is to recover the courage of faith. . . Then we will be able to take up the cross, serving our neighbors (including our enemies) fearlessly in pursuit of a just peace.”[5]

Is anything impossible for God?  It seems that part of the answer to that question depends on us.  For reasons known only to God, God chooses to work through human beings.  God works outside our normal parameters of reason, logic and wisdom.  God works beyond our ideas of morality and common sense.  God works in and through ordinary people who are not afraid, or ordinary people who are afraid, but who get over their fears in order to do what God asks.  God works through communities like this one, where people accept each other, support each other, encourage each other. 

“How can this be?”  Mary asks.

“How can this be?”  we might ask.

To her and to us, comes the angel’s reply, “Nothing will be impossible for the Lord. 

Do not be afraid.”    Amen.

 


[1] Ashley Cook Cleere, in Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 1, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), p. 96. 

[2] http://www.wilgafney.com/2017/11/26/did-mary-say-me-too/

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1982), p. 159 

[4] As told by Scott Bader-Saye in his book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2007), pp. 123-24.

[5] Quoted by Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, p. 127

 

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