Sunday, December 18, 2011

Nothing is Impossible for God -- An Advent Sermon

Luke 1:26-38

Do you feel the tug of Christmas, both it’s sacred and it’s secular elements, pulling at you?  Do you feel like Advent has gone on long enough, and you’re ready to move on and celebrate Christmas?  After all, the presents have been purchased and wrapped.  The Christmas dinner menu is planned  – though I should remind you that we will be meeting for worship on Christmas morning at 11:00 A.M., so plan accordingly!  If you’re traveling, all the necessary arrangements have been made, except maybe filling up the gas tank one more time.   Perhaps you’re like that child who has been poking at the presents under the tree, maybe even picking them up, trying to figure out what’s inside.  There comes a point when you just want to pick it up and rip open the wrapping paper and see what’s inside.   Yes, the excitement of the season, which has been building for some time now, has a tendency to overwhelm all this Advent talk of preparation and waiting that we’ve been hearing these past four weeks.  Are you ready to get on with it?   Well, before you answer, could you hold that thought, because I have another question: Once those presents are opened and the dinner is over, do you feel like you need something more?   The tree is still there, but the presents are gone and the anticipation of Christmas dinner has given way to a week’s worth of leftovers.  So, what’s next?  College Bowl games?  The Super Bowl?   At least from personal experience, I have to wonder if our Christmas celebrations are a bit like a sugar high.  The crash comes quickly!

Of course, we’ve not yet arrived at Christmas Eve, so you can take this all with a grain of salt (or sugar).    In the mean time, maybe it’s worth contemplating the part of Christmas that lasts well beyond the opening of the presents and the eating of Christmas dinner.  

In our gospel reading Luke takes us back to the beginning of the Christmas story, to the moment at which the angel Gabriel visits a young girl named Miriam.  Miriam, which is the Hebrew name for the person we know as Mary, was probably  twelve or thirteen – about the age of a seventh grader – when this Angel  informs Mary that God had chosen to favor her with a special calling.  She will, the angel informs her, bear a child, who  will be called the “Son of the Most High,” and who will sit on David’s throne and rule over Jacob’s house forever.  In other words, she is going to bear the Messiah of God, the one who would deliver God’s people.  

If this were you, how would you respond to the angel’s announcement?  If you were a girl about thirteen, and an angel told you that God had chosen you to be the mother of the messiah?  Would you say – wow – what a great honor?  Or, would you say, thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll pass?  

This story reminds us that God acts in unexpected ways.  It’s not that God is capricious or undependable.  It’s just that God doesn’t operate according to conventional wisdom.  Does it make sense for God to choose a young peasant girl living in a  backwater village in Galilee to be the mother of God’s messiah, the one who will sit on David’s throne and rule over Israel forever?    Furthermore, what should we make of the circumstances surrounding this birth?   Now, Luke doesn’t say much about Joseph’s feelings or concerns about the birth, but it’s likely that Joseph was at least a decade older than Mary, and in making the marriage arrangements, it’s likely that Mary’s parents would have promised Joseph that his young bride was a virgin.   So, an unplanned pregnancy would not have been welcome news either to Joseph or to Mary.  So, it’s no wonder that she asks the Angel – how is this going to work?  

Gabriel’s answer doesn’t go into the details.  Scripture is rather shy about revealing such things, but Gabriel does tell her that the Holy Spirit will come over you, and the child you bear will be holy and he will be called “God’s son.”  Whatever else is said here – Jesus is declared to be holy.  No matter what they were saying in the parking lot when Mary or Jesus walks by – this child and his birth are holy.

And if Mary needs any further proof, all she needs to do is look to her cousin Elizabeth, who had been unable to conceive a child, but is now six months’ pregnant.  Surely Elizabeth is proof that  “Nothing is impossible with God.”

As you can probably tell from the sermon title, I was attracted to this statement. Don’t you find it a rather bold statement?  Do you wonder – what does Luke want us to hear in this statement by the angel?

If you spent last Sunday afternoon attending the theology conversation with Ron Allen, which by the way, Ron really enjoyed, you would likely have wrestled with this question.  Before I had to leave, Ron pointed out that there are two poles of thought about the nature of God’s power.  On one hand there are those who believe that God is “omnipotent.”   That is, God can do whatever God wants to do.  Now this doctrine has a very long history and it’s very attractive, because it holds out the promise that if God so desires, God can do anything – from stopping a storm to healing a loved one.  It gives us confidence in our prayers.  The only problem is, God doesn’t always seem to come through.  Earthquakes and tornadoes hit, killing hundreds if not thousands.  No matter how hard you pray, our loved ones die.  And so people who believe that God is both loving and all powerful often experience a crisis of faith.  They may wonder about where God is in all of this.  And as I’ve witnessed on countless occasions, people praying for the healing of a loved, begin to wonder about their own faith.  They begin wonder – what’s wrong with my faith?

On the other hand there are those who say that God is loving and just, but God might not be all powerful.  There may be limits to what God can do.  That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have power, it’s just that God’s power is different from what we have understood power to be.  According to Process theologians, for instance, instead of using the power of coercion, God uses the power of persuasion to draw us toward that which is good and loving.  As a result, we can be active participants in the work of God.

And so as I think about this word from Gabriel that nothing is impossible with God, these words of our friend Bruce Epperly come to mind.   He writes of Mary and Elizabeth that “ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they are open to God’s revealing in their lives, and then say ‘yes’ to God’s vision for their lives.”

“Ordinary people,” like Mary, “can do extraordinary things,” when they respond to God’s call, as Mary did when she answered God’s invitation to participate in the work of God in the world with the words: “I am the Lord’s Servant.  Let it be with me just as you have said.”   Mary answers God’s call in the same way that the prophets of old had responded.  In her receptiveness and in her faithfulness Mary becomes for us a model disciple of Jesus.

As we continue our Advent journey toward that moment when with the angels of God we can sing Gloria in Excelsis Deo, may we remember Mary’s example of faithfulness to the call of God, who often chooses what appear to be ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan 
4th Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2011



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