Advent Gospel Lection II, 2008:
Luke 1:26-38: 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.
The sole issue raised at my interview with the Methodist committee examining me for ordination was: "Do you believe in the virgin birth?" Only it wasn't asked the way you might think; more like, " Do you really believe in the virgin birth?" said sardonically, as if no modern, rational, human being could ever believe something which clearly defies common experience. Traditionalists reading this message will be relieved with the report that I said without equivocation, "Yes, I believe in the virgin birth." Then I added, "But I wouldn't consider that belief of central importance to the Christian faith." My examiners were, as perhaps you are, confused by my statements. I'll try to clarify. First, I believe, as the angel Gabriel puts it, that with God "nothing will be impossible," including circumventing the usual process of impregnation. A congregant in Valley Stream settled it in his own mind with the thought that modern medicine has amazing procreative strategies; why not God? And second, the special quality of Jesus' birth is more an honorific adornment than (what it is usually taken for) proof of his divinity. The phrase in the Apostles' Creed, "born of the Virgin Mary," is included to emphasize Jesus' humanity, that he was, like all of us, born from a woman's womb.
The line in this lection that rises up and elicits a salute from me belongs to Gabriel. Not the virginity bit, it's the verse I've already cited: "nothing will be impossible with God."
Imagine, God is really God. Sometimes we forget. We get puffed up with our triumphs or deflated with our sorrows. Plenty of both day in and out. And the first casualty is the long view of things. If a focus on immediate profits is foolish for an investor, a preoccupation with the immediate events in which one is embroiled can be deadly for a life. The Easter service bulletin cover one year in Brooklyn had it right when it declared: Our Origin Is Our Destiny. God. But that's hard to keep in the front of our minds while contemplating the Dow or worrying about the gnawing discomfort in the intestines. To which my mother's favorite hymn, hummed as she sat beneath the awning on the back porch at 106 Ridge Park, in the last years of congestive heart failure, responds: "though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet."
As little as I have positive to say for the simple songs which are the current fad in many a Protestant worship service, I'll say this for them: they insist (boy do they insist!) on the sovereignty and praise-worthiness of the deity. I only wish they would borrow more variety of expression, say, from the Psalmist or the prophet Isaiah. Better yet, copy the voice of God in the Book of Job and number the vast creative deeds of the Lord, instead of telling him over and over how much you love him. Still, giving the devil his due (!), praise songs tell us in our singing that, as we repeat at supper each night, "God is great, God is good." The focus is off the creature and onto the Creator, a welcome and needed relief when the world is too much with us. And like the sore-oppressed Job, the contemplation of the voice out of the whirlwind makes our wins and woes pale into insignificance.
God is in his heaven and all is right with the world... even if it often doesn't seem so.
"Nothing will be impossible with God": Gabriel's declaration should not be narrowly focused on the means of Jesus' birth, but read as promise of the consequences of the life that grows from that birth.
As it impinges on ours. Yes, let us talk about miracles, our impossibilities that become heaven's possibilities. You can read about mine on this website (go to My Miracle) which occurred five years ago December 12th in Hartford at the intersection of Jefferson and Seymour Streets at the hands of St. Stephen (no, not the one stoned to death; this Stephen is very much alive and riding his motorcycle). I refer, of course, to the bi-lateral knee surgery which enables me to stride through life, whereas I would otherwise be limping or, worse, confined to a wheelchair. Go ahead, discount this miracle with a shrug as if to say, "Oh, that doesn't really count as a miracle, and how on earth can you connect it to Jesus?" My reasoning, which, admittedly, may seem circuitous, goes like this: the healing arts, especially the orthopedic ones, have been lifted up and encouraged through the millennia mainly, if not solely, by Western culture. That culture is deeply, integrally imbued with the values of the Bible, in which the healing imperative is explicit, nowhere more so than in the Gospels with their reports of the work of the Great Physician (i.e., Jesus). When I was summoned to "get up and walk" within hours of my knee surgery, I heard, as you might guess, an echo of certain red letter words spoken at Bethesda (John 5). What if it was a slightly less than two thousand years later: a miracle is a miracle. NB
Reconstructed knees and parthenogenesis (look that one up!), however, are the kind of human impossibilities which, when become possible, if by a combination of human ingenuity and divine inspiration, seem commonplace and no longer miraculous. History can be read as the ever widening advance of human technology extending the reach of the possible. The Seabees of the Second War borrowed their motto ascribed to the Greeks, that "the difficult we do immediately; the impossible will take a little longer." That is, impossibilities (i.e., another's miracles) are a matter of perception. A silly illustration of this human propensity can be read any day at the supermarket checkout counter where tabloids lurk, telling tales of the image of Christ in a misshapen doughnut or a bathroom window.
Some impossibilities, however, are ageless. In Roland Bainton's church history primer, The Church of Our Fathers, filled with wonderful anecdotes, he tells of the Danish evangelist, Ansgar, to whom were ascribed many miraculous deeds. Ansgar shrugged off this reputation as a wonder-worker, saying that the greatest miracle would be if God made him a good man. When saints confess such things, we credit them with humility and think they are exaggerating their naughtiness. After all if haloed heads think goodness is a tough proposition,what's the use for ordinary sinners like the rest of us? Ansgar, I'll bet my tithe on it, was being honest. It is a miracle, an impossible possibility, that any one of us might be good. Good, as in truly loving, without an ounce of selfishness, never weary in well-doing, yet without being a royal pain in you-know-where for all the righteousness. That kind of goodness, the kind that attracts and beguiles all sorts and conditions of humanity. I seem to remember, and hope you do too, that Someone shot back at the fellow who cavalierly called him "good teacher": "Good? No one is good but God alone." (See Mark 10:18-19) Far greater than the miracle of that Someone's virgin birth is the miracle of his goodness, a divine fire around which souls for two millennia have gathered to be warmed and enlightened and replenished for the living of this mortal life.
Nothing will be impossible with God, not even the redirection of your life and mine for goodness's sake. Which is what that baby born to Mary comes for. To infuse this race with new possibilitiesfor lives of generosity, courage, wisdom and every other dimension of the goodness the world desperately needs.
Make me good? Wow, that would be a miracle.
NB. The Gospel according to John has its own distinctive style and content, setting it obviously apart from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But the story of the healing of the paralytic at Bethesda has its parallels in the synoptic gospels with Jesus healing the fellow on a cot lowered through the chimney hole in the house by friends to get close to the Galilean miracle-worker. There too, as in John 5, the paralytic is summoned to (see, for instance, Matthew 9:1-8) "Rise and walk." As the nurse said to me, more or less! In that episode Jesus makes it plain that he thinks the forgiveness of God is a greater feat than making wasted legs whole again. Talk about miracles being in the eye of the beholder: in the eyes of God the greater impossibility made possible is God's love and acceptance of us anyway... any way.