For nothing will be impossible with God. Luke 1:37
Years ago, when our Music Director, Tom Snyder, introduced a new carol to the Adult Choir – in fact the very one they are singing today – he said, “This is a lovely carol entitled, ‘And Mary Said Yes.’” Immediately a response was shouted out, probably one of the Basses, “And Joseph said, WHAT?!!!” Indeed, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ conception begins with Joseph’s fiancée, Mary turning up pregnant and he’s had absolutely nothing to do with it. A righteous man, he plans to dismiss her quietly so she’s not disgraced. It takes a scripture quoting angel to convince him otherwise.
Mary says, “Yes.” Joseph says, “What?” And I suspect many of you when hearing of Mary’s annunciation – that she will give birth to the Christ child, while not saying it out loud, certainly thought, “How?” Knowing what we do about the way babies are made, we’re skeptical about a virgin giving birth. At both our Bible Studies this past week when asked, “So what caught your attention in this text?” the first response was “How can this be? Virgins don’t have babies.” One woman even confessed, “I can believe everything else, that God created the world, that Jesus rose from the dead, but not the virgin birth.” She went on, “When we say the creed, I just skip that part.”
“How?” is a question that’s been asked through the ages. At the Phoenixville Area Clergy Association Holiday Lunch a few weeks ago, Rabbi Jeff Sultar of B’nai Jacob reminded the Christian clergy that the text from Isaiah 7, which the Angel used to convince Joseph that Mary was really bearing God’s son, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” has been routinely mistranslated. The original Hebrew was not virgin, but young woman.
For almost 2000 years, scholars have done exegetical gymnastics over the “How?” question. One I read this week carefully explained Mary and Joseph are married, but are in the time between betrothal and “home-taking.” We might think of it as between engagement and the wedding. She wrote, “Nothing is to prevent the interpretation that the pregnancy will occur in due order, after the home-taking, with Joseph as the promised child’s father.” How this connects to Matthew’s version of the story is not explored. So while the scholar explains away the virgin birth issue, she falls short of what is really happening.
Maybe Mary can help. She too asks, “How?” If for no other reason, but the slow the Angel Gabriel down. He arrives, offers greetings, calls her “favored one” and blesses her with God’s grace. Then Gabriel tells her not to be afraid for she has found favor with God, will conceived, bear a son and name him Jesus. Then almost as if he’s too nervous that she’ll ask a question, he charges on talking about greatness, the throne of David and a kingdom that will have no end. It all had to be overwhelming both to say and to hear. To use a St. John’s word, the Angel Gabriel had just “volun-told” Mary that she would be the mother of God. He did not ask her to try out for the role nor did he present job description of the position and invite her to apply, he just told her, “The Lord is with you. Don’t be afraid.” When he finally takes a breath, Mary asks, “How can this be?”
Mary needs to know whose idea this was and how it would happen. She wants to make sense out of what made no sense – that God had decided to surrender to flesh and blood, that God needed her help – a teenager from the backwater town of Nazareth – that God was waiting for her answer. Mary asks, “How?” That’s it. She didn’t ask if Joseph would stick around, if her parents would still love her, if her friends will stand by her. She didn’t ask about labor or the birth or what will happen to her child. “How?” she wants to know. Gabriel responds by telling her about the Holy Spirit, her Holy Child and her relative Elizabeth’s unexpected and long-awaited pregnancy. Finally, the angel declares: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary’s free to accept or refuse, while God, along with the angels and arch-angels and all the company of heaven and earth wait. Wait. Wait.
Mary says “Yes.” The choir will sing of all the ways she says “yes” – to conceiving, to new life kicking within her, to the labor, the hurting, the birth – yes to the holy. And through her God says yes to the world and in that yes, nothing is impossible. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters call her the Theotokos, “the God-bearer.”
Poet Denise Levertov in her wonderful poem The Annunciation asks, “Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another in most lives?” Times when there’s an announcement of possibilities we did not expect, when God volun-tells us to care, to love, to get involved, to do that hard stuff, to give and forgive and to not be afraid. It makes me wonder if our questions about what is possible, about the virgin birth and whatever else seems impossible to believe, are a way of hedging our bets, of wanting God on our terms when it’s convenient and doesn’t interfere with our lifestyles or politics, when it fits our plans and busy schedules, when we can be sure and certain and do not need to step out in faith? Like Mary, we are free to accept or refuse the annunciations. Know though that God, the whole company of heaven and the beautiful, broken world waits on you and me, on us.
Saying no is simple. Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “you simply drop your eyes and refuse to look up until you know the angel has left the room and you are alone again. Then you smooth your hair and go back to your spinning or your reading or whatever it is that is most familiar to you and pretend that nothing has happened…. Or you can set your book down and listen to a strange creature’s strange idea. You can decide to take part in a plan you did not choose, doing things you do not know how to do for reasons you do not entirely understand. You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body.” You can say yes.
Saying yes does not mean you are not afraid, just that you are not willing to let fear stop you. With Mary you declare, “Here I am, let it be with me according to your word.” You become one of Mary’s people, one more Theotokos who is willing to bear God into the world. Today our children will show us the way. In the Christmas Pageant they become the angels, shepherds, animals, wise men, Mary and Joseph all together bearing the Christ child into the world. Playing at it they learn the story by heart and will never forget it – now and forevermore it will be Christmas for them. And what of us? Will we say yes?
Meister Eckhart, a medieval mystic and theologian asked, “What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? And what good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him inn my time and place?’ Then he concludes, “This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.”
Listen to the angel, “Greetings, favored ones! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid. For nothing will be impossible with God.” It is the fullness of time. Amen.
Sharon H. Ringe, Luke, Louisville, Kentuck: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995, 30-32.
Denise Levertov, The Annunciation, http://www.davidlose.net/2012/12/the-annunciation/, accessed 12/16/2017.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Mothers of God,” in Gospel Medicine, Cambridge: Cowley, 1995, 150-153.
Meister Eckhart, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/seasonsofthechurch/2014/12/we-are-all-meant-to-be-mothers-of-god/
For nothing will be impossible with God. Luke 1:37