Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Virgin Birth and Other Impossibilities

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, favored 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 favor 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 forever, 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  

 And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord,  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,  for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." Luke 1:46-55   

Both of these passages can be summed up in the words of the Angel Gabriel – nothing is impossible for God. Of course, these passages are all about impossibility aren’t they?

First, the impossible feat of Mary becoming pregnant before she has ever even been with a man. That somehow in her through the Holy Spirit she might conceive a child. This is one of the great mysteries of our faith. A mystery that I have no intention to explain to you this morning. Certainly it is one that many people of faith have struggled to understand, to rationalize, to pick apart. Some may ask if there is any great significance to this miracle. What if it didn’t happen? Would that change who God is?

Then the impossible future that Mary sings of in the Magnificat – that the powerful, the oppressors, will finally be defeated, that those who have been kept down, kept out, stepped on and forgotten, that they will be lifted up and the hungry will be filled. This too is a hard future to hope in, as we struggle with all of the ways that the world is imperfect - to think that some day the sin of the world will be no more.

Methodist pastor and writer William Willimon tells the story of a college student talking to him about how the virgin birth was just too incredible to believe. Willimon responded, "You think that's incredible, come back next week. Then we will tell you that 'God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.' We'll talk about the hungry having enough to eat and the rich being sent away empty. The virgin birth? If you think you have trouble with the Christian faith now, just wait. The virgin birth is just a little miracle; the really incredible stuff is coming next week."

 The question that I have is which really is harder to believe – a miracle that happened 2,000 years ago or a miracle that we have not yet seen?

Which is harder to believe – that God can work a miracle in the small minutiae of what we know goes into conception, or a miracle so great that the entire structure of society will be changed?

 Which is harder to believe – that a woman might have an inexplicable pregnancy, or that the 925 million people in the world who are malnourished would be fed?

Which is harder to believe – that God could create a child through a woman and the Holy Spirit, or that the millions of children and adults killed by war and genocide would be spared?

Which is harder to believe – that a great King would be born of such unusual circumstances, or that all of the totalitarian and oppressive governments of the world would be brought down all at once?

Which is harder to believe – that Jesus would be born into such a lowly state, or that the 40% of the people in the world who live on less than a dollar a day would gain access to the resources they need to care for themselves and their families?

Which is harder to believe – that Mary would be so willing to take on the role of giving birth to and caring for God incarnate, or that she would trust in the hope of the prophets before her, looking to a future where all would be cared for?

Advent is about preparing ourselves for the impossible - as impossible as that task may seem. Advent is about suspending our disbelief in order to enter into a season when our deepest beliefs are renewed. Advent is about the necessity of believing in the improbable because our reality is so out of line with God’s hope for the world.

These reflections are taken from a sermon I wrote in 2006.

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