Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fourth Sunday of Advent
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm 89:1-5 [19-26]
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

Now to him that is able...

Now to Him who is able... nothing is impossible. These two phrases are found separately in today's lectionary; the first part is from Romans, the second from the Gospel. Yet, they seem to go together. Of course, Paul is telling the Romans that God is able to save them by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the angel is telling Mary that the impossible news she just heard was possible because it came from God. He is able to do the impossible.

There is so much about Christmas that is almost hard to believe, none more so than the Virgin birth. How is it that God would use this young girl as a vessel for the salvation of the world? How could God select her to bear the flesh of the Savior? God's ways are higher and greater than our ways; it is beyond our scope to fully understand His purpose and His plan. One of the most incredible things about Christmas is that it is a time of the miraculous, a time to believe in what cannot be. The Savior Immanuel, God with us, is born in Bethlehem. No wonder it is such a time of joy.

Yet, there are many that want to explain away the miraculous. They give science more credence than the Word of God. They diminish the impossible by making it possible through natural means. Take, for instance, the crossing of the Red Sea; some have suggested scientific explanations for the parting of the water such as an earthquake or the tides. They refuse to accept that it was God who made it happen, but also refuse to consider the fact that it happened at exactly the right moment, that the ground was dry enough for carts and that it ended at exactly the right moment.

Christmas is no different. What was that star that led the wise men? Was it a comet or some other astronomical body? Was Mary a virgin, or does the language indicate something very different. We don't like to have mysteries because we have so much more scientific knowledge. We have sent rockets into space to take pictures of the heavens; we can see the universe in ways that the people of Jesus' day could not even imagine. As for the birth of Jesus, we know a virgin birth is impossible. Even Mary knew that human reproduction required sex because she asked "How can this be?" She wanted to know how God would prevail over nature.

The angel Gabriel gave her an answer, "The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: wherefore also the holy thing which is begotten shall be called the Son of God." This is not an answer that a modern intellectual will accept; after all there is really no explanation in it. Mary didn't need a physical answer; she accepted the word of the angel and willingly submitted herself to God. It was enough for her to believe.

Is it enough for us today? Are we willing to accept the Word we've been given through the scriptures by those who lived the stories and heard the promises with their own ears? Even the scriptures have been doubted and explained away by those who try to make it say what they want it to say. Surely Mary could not have been a virgin, science tells us that, so some twist the language of the scriptures to say she was a young girl and reject the miraculous story of the virgin birth.

I don't reject science; think about all the incredible things we have been able to do because of the scientific advancements that humanity has achieved. I think we've gone too far with some things; we've tried to play God with some things that we should not have played with at all. However, don't we all enjoy the technological and medical advancements that have made life easier and longer for us? I also don't reject modern scholarship and the advance that have been made in biblical understanding. Language changes, new information is discovered, we learn to see the ancient world through a more powerful lens. In many cases, these new points of view have help clear what were once confusing and misunderstood biblical texts.

However, too many times we use new knowledge in both science and religion to take way the mystery that is God. We want rational answers to our questions, and quite frankly the whole idea of God is anything but rational when compared to the reality of the world in which we live. This is why it is so easy for non-believers to suggest that God is nothing but a myth, a crutch made up by weak people. If we can't prove it with physical or logical means, then it must not exist. It was ok for people two thousand years ago to believe in angels, they didn't have the knowledge we have, but they tell us that we should not continue to believe in fairy tales.

Our knowledge of the world has certainly changed over the last two thousand years, but God has not changed. While we can now understand Him in new and wonderful ways, He is the same God who sent an angel to Mary to announce that she was the favored one. Mary had enough knowledge to ask "How can this be?" but when she received her answer, she submitted willingly even though it seemed impossible.

He who is able can do the impossible.

Mary is so different than Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. We don't hear his story in today's texts, but I like to compare the two. Both were visited by Gabriel. Both heard the incredible news that there would be a baby in their future. Zechariah was old and his wife well beyond child bearing years. It was impossible. Mary was young and had not yet known a man. It was impossible. But with God everything is possible. When Zechariah heard the message, he didn't question the Gabriel the same way. Mary wanted to know how it would happen; Zechariah asked, "How can I be sure this will happen?" he asked. Mary asked in faith, the faith of a child; Zechariah wanted proof.

Aren't we more like Zechariah these days? Shouldn't we be more like Mary?

God can do the impossible, and it is ok that we don't always understand. Christmas is a magical time of year. I think, sometimes, that it is easier for us to believe in Santa Claus and flying reindeer than in the story that the King of glory was born to a virgin and laid in a lowly manger. We allow a little mystery in the arrival of our Christmas presents, but we refuse to allow any mystery in our faith. It is an upside down world, isn't it?

Sadly, sometimes even the magic of Christmas is lost because the burdens we bear are just too hard. We can't be joyful because we are hurt or angry or lonely. We can't be generous because we have nothing to give. We can't believe in anything because science and rational thought make faith impossible. There is no Santa Claus, there is no God, there is nothing to believe in. Bah Humbug. This is what happens to those who demand proof of the miraculous; it is impossible, so they refuse to believe.

Mary believed the word of the Lord given to her by Gabriel and she willingly accepted the work He called her to do. Whether we believe it or not, we are blessed because Mary believed. The word "bless" is interesting, especially in our day and age. We think of people who are financially well off as 'blessed', but that is not always true. I'm not even sure we can count on happiness being equated with blessedness, although it is much closer. Blessedness is much holier than we make it out to be in our common language. As a matter of fact, the Middle English origin actually means "to consecrate with blood."

Someone once told me that "to bless" means "to speak well of." It can also have something to do with the bestowal of divine favor and good things. God blesses us. This we know is true. Now, if we think of blessing in terms of worldly goods or happiness, then there need not be any shedding of blood or divine action. But the lasting blessing comes at great cost. The lasting blessing is God's favor upon us. It is God's eternal gift of life through His Son, the son He brought through Mary.

Our blessing comes through blood, not only the blood Jesus Christ shed on the cross, but also the blood shed at His birth. Mary was an ordinary woman, not even a woman. She was little more than a child when the angel spoke to her. She was given this most extraordinary purpose, to bring the Savior into the world. This was indeed a blessing. As a matter of fact, Elizabeth said the same. "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!" They were consecrated with blood, blessed by God's divine favor. And we are blessed forever through them. This is a most extraordinary thing.

This is not something that needs a rational explanation. It is something that we just believe.

Now, Mary really did not need to do anything. She was favored by God with a great purpose, but nothing to do. He would take care of the situation. The Holy Spirit would come upon her and God would overshadow her. She did not have any work to do to become the mother of Jesus. Oh, she'd have work to do; Jesus would need to be fed and cleaned and loved. But all that was needed for this to happen was faith.

We have a problem with this. Our natural inclination is to 'do something.' When someone is sick, we ask what we can do. When someone is going through a tough time, we want to do something to help them through. When we face a time of struggle, we want to do something to get out from under the struggle. Even when things are good, we have to find something to do. We are blessed to be a blessing, so when we are feeling blessed, we strive to find a way to be a blessing. The trouble is, we often decide to do something for the sake of doing it, instead of waiting to discover what God intends for us.

David was blessed. He was king over all of Israel. He had brought them to a good place, built a palace and a city. Meanwhile, the God he worshipped was stuck in a tent in the desert. He was blessed and rightly wanted to bless God. He wanted to build a temple where they could place the Arc of the Covenant and so that God could rest within their midst.

How could a temple be a bad thing? It would be a place where God's people could gather and give Him honor and glory. God obviously was not against a temple because He gave the responsibility to David's son Solomon to build it. David could even collect the materials that were necessary for building it. Yet, David was not given that responsibility. God asked, "Did I ever ask you for a house?" He didn't need four solid walls because He stayed among His people wherever they went. He led them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. The day would come when David's seed would build that house, but that's not where the promise really lies: the promise is that God will build the house and the kingdom. Out of David's seed would come a kingdom that will never end, a throne that will last forever.

The time came for a temple, but it was not up to David or even Solomon to decide when it would be built. God is our guide, our true King. He is the one to whom we should turn when trying to discover our mission and ministry in the world. I know this is impossible, especially since you can ask a hundred people in a congregation and you'll get a hundred different answers. But the reason we come up with so many answers is because we are asking the wrong question. We ask, "What should we do?" when we should ask, "What is God doing?"

We would rather rational answers to our questions, physical proof for what we claim to believe. God's work in the world is too mysterious; sometimes we do not even realize He has been at work until long after He is finished. We look for rational answers when all we need is faith.

Of course, we are not very good at listening. How can we know for sure that what we are planning is, or is not, God's will? I'm not at all surprised that Zechariah asked for proof; I would probably ask, too. How can we be sure that the impossible message is actually coming from God? How do you have faith like Mary, to believe and submit to God's will without fear and uncertainty? It seems so much harder today than ever since we have science telling us how it probably happened and modern scholarship telling us we just didn't really understand what was being said. We can't always make decisions about how to live our faith by rational means; sometimes we just have to believe.

You have a hundred dollars to share. You sit down and make a list of all the charities that could use that hundred dollars and then consciously decide which one deserves it more. In the meantime, you discover your neighbor just lost his job and doesn't have enough to buy groceries for the week. Charities are certainly wonderful ways to share our blessings; helping those organizations is good stewardship of our money. But we have to ask ourselves, is this a call from God? Is He inviting us to join Him in creating a miracle for someone in need? We want to answer the questions rationally, but sometimes we have to respond in faith.

Mary certainly didn't ask for her blessing. Mary was an ordinary woman, not even a woman. She was little more than a child when the angel spoke to her. She was given the most extraordinary purpose: to bring the Savior into the world. This was indeed a blessing. As a matter of fact, Elizabeth said the same. "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!" Mary did not question God's power to do the miraculous, she wanted to understand what would happen and she believed. She did ask, "What shall I do?" She asked what God would do.

Yet, it is natural for us, in our faith, to feel like we need to do things for God. David was king. By God's hand, the obstacles to establishing a strong and independent kingdom were overcome under David's rule. With a city in which to live, a palace for the king and roots being planted by the people, Israel was finally settling down into a golden age of peace and security. David was greatly blessed, and since he was a man who sought after God's heart, it is natural for him to want to give God an offering of thanksgiving and praise. For David, whose life had been characterized by upheaval, the security of a place to live is the most logical gift. David finally had a home thanks to God, so he thought God deserved a home, too. We do the same thing in our own way; we work because we think we have to give back to God all that He has given to us.

Advent has always been a time of reflection as we wait the coming of the Christ. It was used as a time of penitence during the ancient days of the church, ending with baptism at Christmas. It is natural to wonder about our purpose as we think about how we have failed. What is God calling us to do? What does He want us to accomplish as we wait? We never expect it to be extraordinary, because we are ordinary people. It is God's work, not ours, that makes the miracles in this world. It takes faith to walk in this reality. We have to believe that He is able to do the impossible and allow Him to do miraculous things in, with and through our lives.

Gospel of Jesus Christ is a mystery. Paul knew that God was working miracles in people who were not of Israel. He saw Gentiles being moved by the Holy Spirit into faith, active faith. It wasn't just a confession of the mouth, but it was a movement of spirit and flesh that was changing the world. One person's testimony led to a community gathering together to praise God. That praise was testimony for others who joined along in the song. The scriptures tell us that hundreds, even thousands, came to believe just on the word of one or two witnesses. This seems impossible to us, especially when we think about the differences in culture between the apostles and the gentiles. Yet, God is able to do this thing.

We don't need to use the things of the world to convince the world that God exists. God simply asks us to believe and willingly accept whatever He is doing in our lives. We can trust that He will use us to His purpose. We won't bear the baby Jesus as Mary, but we can have the same child-like faith and be witnesses that take Him to the world in faith.

This is the last Sunday in Advent; Christmas is just around the corner. The children are getting excited about the Santa and families are anxious for reunions. The trees are decorated, the presents are wrapped, and the cookies are baked. The magic of Christmas is making even the humbugs smile. We might argue about the value of those secular Christmas traditions like Santa Claus, but in the stories we see a parallel to the faith of Mary. Children believe without proof. Children have the most passionate and precious faith, both in Santa and in Jesus. They are our model for living faith because they do not doubt, they simply believe. Mary was little more than a child when she was faced with the most impossible truths, but she believed. She believed that He who is able will do the impossible.

May we all believe in the Christmas story with such faith and praise God for His blessing.

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