Sermon: "This Story is Impossible," December 10, 2017

Second Sunday in Advent
Ingrid Brown

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the 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 said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
— Luke 1:26-38 (New Revised Standard Version)

We know this story.  We’ve acted it out on the chancel steps, we’ve watched it play out on some made for TV movie, we’ve sung along in the mall, “offspring of a virgins womb.”

We know this story.  Gabriel shows up, let’s Mary in on God’s big plan, and she is like, well alright then!  You don’t ever have had to have entered into a church in your life and you know something about this.

We know this story.  And, like these ones that we hear over and over and over again, it risks losing what is amazing, what is miraculous, what is precious, in its familiarity.

Let’s dare to look at this with fresh eyes – would you pray with me?

Holy and loving God, you who both comforts and challenges us, let us hear this story again for the first time.  Give us ears to hear and mouths to speak that we might once again be moved by your awe-someness, recognizing what is beautiful.  Open our hearts, open our minds to you, oh loving God.  Amen.

Ok, we don’t know this story.

Because, this story of Gabriel's announcement to Mary is impossible, and it is surrounded by the impossible. 

ELIZABETH

Right before this, at the start of Luke, we have this elderly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth – faithful to God and one another, but unable to conceive, to have any children.  Zechariah is a priest at the temple, and when he is inside tending to his priestly duties, the angel Gabriel appears to him and says that his wife Elizabeth will bear a child in her old age, and that this child, who is to be named John, will be filled with the Holy Spirit and will prepare the way for the long-awaited messiah.  Zechariah doesn’t believe him, and Gabriel is like, well fine, you can’t talk now until the baby is born, and Zechariah is struck silent.  Sure enough, Elizabeth, with her grey hair and lined face, gets pregnant.  Impossible.

This story might remind you of something – if you were here back in September, you might remember us learning together about Abraham and Sarah advanced in age, certainly beyond having children, and Abraham receives this vision from God of his many descendants – this time it was Sarah who doesn’t believe – laughs actually – but sure enough, God comes through, and Isaac is born.  Impossible.

Abraham and Sarah, with their son Isaac, are the story of how the whole people called Israel began.  Since then, all Fall, every Sunday, we have been learning about their descendants, Isaac Rebekah, Jacob, Esau, Ruth Naomi, David, Solomon…all the way down, the story of Israel, that gets us to this point.  We hear in todays story that Joseph, who Mary is to marry, is descended from the house of David.  We are carrying on this story.

Now Luke’s Gospel is pointing us to a parallel – God started something big with an elderly and childless couple, Abraham and Sarah.  Elizabeth and Zechariah’s impossible story suggests God is about to do something this big again.

MARY

So then we come to our reading today, Mary: a young girl in a society that values men and maturity.  This teenager, from a little Galilean town called Nazareth, also known as nowheresville.  We have some idea of Nazareth being great because of its place in the heart of this story, but it was just a little town, north of Jerusalem in the hills of an out of the way region.  Mary is no one from no where.

And an angel shows up in her bedroom.  This story is impossible.

Gabriel shows up and says, “greetings favoured one, The Lord is with you!”

It is no small thing to be regarded, to be favored, especially when you are exceedingly aware that you should not be.  Mary knows her place. She knows who she is. And she knows that this should not be happening. She's a she, she is a teenager, and she is from the wrong side of the tracks. 

So, Gabriel says, “God is with you!” and she looks at him like he is nuts.  The translation we heard today says she is much perplexed… the Greek word means to throw into great confusion, to confound utterly – this encounter makes ZERO sense to her.  And he hasn’t even hardly said anything! 

Now lately, there has been a lot of media coverage of the multitude of women coming out of the secrecy around their sexual assaults.  It has brought forward a global conversation about sexual misconduct, about appropriate and inappropriate workplace behaviour, about consent and entitlement.  Women are starting to be believed.  Which means forever before this, it hasn’t been the case.  I will venture a guess and bet that every single woman in this room has had some encounter, big or small in which she didn’t or couldn’t say anything because she knew it wouldn’t be taken seriously, it would be dismissed, or that she would be labelled as overreacting or crazy.

And this is modern history.  This is progressive and polite Canada! When an angel shows up 2000 years ago and calls this girl favoured, she cannot even understand it.

“Do not be afraid Mary,” he says, “you have found favour with God.”

Everything in the culture all around her has been telling Mary her whole life, for women generations before her, that she is worthless.  And here is this messenger from God telling her that she is favoured, chosen, preferred, honoured, cherished.

And that through her, God will bind himself to humanity forever.

A barren, elderly woman is pregnant, and a young teenage girl from a nothing town is favored. 

This story is impossible.

Now Mary herself acknowledges the impossible possibility of this whole thing with God: her first response to Gabriel is “How can this be?” She gives voice to all of our doubts.

Mary articulates what we all come to realise in our lives: that we are incapable, in and of ourselves, of carrying out God’s will, carrying out God’s dream of peace and reconciliation.  We are all virgins, in this sense.  We can’t do this on our own.  It is impossible.  However, Gabriel reminds Mary, reminds us, that this is not the end of the story.  Gabriel says that nothing is impossible with God.

This piece of Luke invites us to think about who we are in relation to God and God’s work in the world, and challenges us to be re-oriented by what the incarnation, by what God showing up in this little baby, means about God. 

Theologians, Bible scholars, people whose job it is to think about these things, write about what is called the “scandal of particularity” that this passage brings up.  Gabriel arrives at a certain time, “in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy” in a specific place, “A town called Nazareth” to a particular woman, “the woman’s name was Mary.”  This particularity offends our ordering of things.  The omnipotent, omniscient Creator of the Universe, powerful and beyond our understanding, came into a distinct time and place, choosing a poor teenager to enter the world.  The vulnerability of a tiny embryo, of a newborn baby, seems inconsistent with the overarching big-ness of divine power.  It is in this moment where we recognize that the same spirit, the same breath that brought light and life to the whole universe out of darkness in Genesis chapter 1, is going to generate life in this ordinary girl.  And we are awakened to the truth that it is not God here (close up) or God there (far away), it is both.  This seeming contradiction teaches us about who God is: omnipotent and particular.  And Mary, extraordinary in her ordinary-ness, embodies for us that we are all integrally included in the work of God.

Now, We don’t all respond like Mary did to the angels who show up and challenge us, the angels who flip our expectations and change the trajectories of our lives, if you are anything like me, you kick and fight and scream and argue before you come to what Mary came to, if you do at all.  Mary said yes.  Yes, tell God I am a willing participant in this beautiful disruption to the world.

She goes through this radical transformation in only three short verses, from peasant girl to prophet, from Mary to God-bearer, from to denial to disciple: for most of us, this is the work of a lifetime squished into three short verses.

This story is impossible.  Except, nothing is impossible with God.

It is tempting to think that the human predicament, war, brokenness can never be healed or overturned.  We might look at this same piece of land today – Nazareth is just over an hour drive from Jerusalem – we might look at this world and think nope, this is never changing.

Yet Luke tells us that not only is redemption possible; it has already happened…because of the life, death, and resurrection of this Christ. 

It is the good news that we can hardly bear to hear let alone conjure up on our own.  Dare we proclaim that God breaks in, to restore, to reveal, to redeem the mess we have made in the world?

This is why we prepare for Christmas.  These weeks of Advent when we light these candles, these candles of hope, of peace, of joy, of love.  This is the preparation.  Not the baking, not the decorating, the wrapping the shopping.  Every year we come face to face with God born into this desperate and hurting world.  Every year the holy breaks into our lives in love.  And, like Mary, we are perplexed, confused, confounded, because who are we?  Who are we to be filled love like this?  Who are we?  We are just a nobody from where.  This is why we prepare for the coming of Christmas.  Because we wouldn’t be able to stand it f that love embodied, that love in the flesh just showed up.  We need some time to wrap our minds and our hearts around the IMPOSSIBLE notion that God sees us, God sees us and calls us precious, favoured, cherished, chosen. 

Jesus, our promised Emmanuel, our God-with-us barges in and meddles with not only our affairs but our very persons.  God’s call violates the selves we imagine ourselves to be.   In our doubts and insecurities, God fills us with the Holy Spirit, making us bearers of a love that really sees, and really loves, transforming us from virgins to disciples, from nobodies to God-bearers, giving birth to a love that is beyond our own human capacity and that the world so desperately needs.

This is impossible.  But, nothing is impossible with God.