Is anything too wonderful for God?

December 18, 2011

Sunday, December 18
Fourth Sunday of Advent

Focus Theme
God With Us

Weekly Prayer
Ever-faithful God, through prophets and angels you promised to raise up a holy child who would establish a household of peace and justice. Open our hearts to receive your Son, that we may open our doors to welcome all people as sisters and brothers, and establish your household in our time. Amen.

Focus Reading
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 for ever, 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.

All Readings For This Sunday
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:47-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

Reflection and Focus Questions
by Kate Huey

Focus Questions

1. What is God doing today, here in our midst, too wonderful for our imaginations or our words?

2. What is the deep hope of your congregation on this last Sunday in Advent?

3. What extraordinary and grace-filled things have happened in your life?

4. How do you define or describe true peace?

5. What is our role in the midst of what God is doing?

Like those before her who have been informed of a most unlikely impending birth (Sarah and Abraham, Hannah and Elkanah, Elizabeth and Zechariah), Mary is astounded by the amazing power of God. Luke the storyteller weaves his way through the announcement of John the Baptist's conception (and Elizabeth's recognition of what God has done for her), through the annunciation of a virgin birth, and on to Mary's interpretation of what is happening to her, in the Magnificat. There are, of course, striking contrasts between the two stories. From the settings to the characters to the way the story goes, each account takes its own path to a similar ending, with everyone together, and Mary singing that beautiful song of jubilant faith. Whether in Temple or dusty little village, with elderly parents-to-be surprised by joy or a young maiden facing an unexpected and dangerous pregnancy, the story speaks of trust in God at work in their lives in very surprising ways. (Zechariah, of course, took a little longer to get there, to a place of trust.)

While Luke describes Zechariah and Elizabeth in glowing terms ("righteous...living blamelessly"), Mary is simply "a virgin." Mary, greeted by an angel of God as "full of grace," as "favored one," is not described as extraordinarily holy but could be an ordinary person like each of us. She's a small-town girl, with her life moving along the quiet, ordinary path of an arranged marriage. God, however, works wonders in every place, at the centers of power and in distant corners, on the margins, we might say. Ashley Cook Cleere writes: "The tendency to think that leading unassuming lives in out-of-the-way places isolates us from the extraordinary is debunked by Mary's surprise visitor, just as it is dismantled by television broadcasts of school shootings and forest fires, or small towns that take pride in the accomplishments of members of their communities. Neither notoriety nor acclaim is confined to major metropolitan areas."

Not that being an "ordinary" girl in a small village makes Mary without spirit or strength! William Brosend sketches a somewhat different picture of the traditional Mary, meek and mild: "Mary's responses throughout are more fearless and less humble than is sometimes appreciated. Perplexity at the appearance of an angel seems entirely appropriate, even more so when the angel begins the conversation with a proclamation of divine presence and an assumption of human fear. Give the girl a chance, Gabriel! Her question is not an expression of doubt but an effort to understand the extraordinary words of the angel." We read this account only once every three years in the lectionary, but it's a familiar and beloved story, even though it perplexes us, too. The dialogue is spare, and we never really know for sure what Mary is thinking or feeling, at least until she sings her song of joy at Elizabeth's house. 

A strange blessing

We might wrestle a bit with the question of Mary's acceptance, or is it surrender? And what is she accepting, an invitation, a request, or simply information about what's going to happen to her, and is it a good thing that's about to happen? In her lovely sermon on the text, "Mothers of God," Barbara Brown Taylor observes, "The angel did not ask her how that sounded to her and whether she would like to try out for the role; he told her." Gabriel twice recognizes Mary as "favored," but then offers what Alan Culpepper calls "a strange blessing." We thank God for our blessings and believe, Culpepper says, "that those whom God favors will enjoy the things we equate with a good life: social standing, wealth, and good health. Yet Mary, God's favored one, was blessed with having a child out of wedlock who would later be executed as a criminal. Acceptability, prosperity, and comfort have never been the essence of God's blessing." Culpepper's claim directly contradicts prosperity theology, but then, so does Mary's life, rich in "strange" blessings.

In both of these stories of conception and promise, however, it's really all about God and what God is doing. John the Baptist won't preach his own message but, like all good prophets, will call the people to repentance in order to ready themselves for what God is about to do, and to prepare the way for the One who is to come. And Jesus, Gabriel says, will be not just a great man but the Son of the Most High God. While many people, when hearing these words, turn to the Old Testament text of "a virgin shall conceive and bear a son" (Isaiah 7), William Brosend believes that we really ought to be looking instead to the promise to Sarah and Abraham in Genesis 18: "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" That sounds very much like Gabriel's own parting words, "For nothing will be impossible with God" (v. 37).

Our part in God's story

And that brings us to how God is doing such wonderful and seemingly impossible things here in this story about Mary and an angel's astonishing announcement. We note that it isn't called "The Request," or "The Invitation," but "The Annunciation." And we suppose that God could have chosen to save the world, to fulfill God's promises of old all on God's own; after all, nothing is impossible with God. However, this humble but earth-shaking conversation tells us that God wants humanity to be part of the effort, even if it makes things much more complicated and even difficult (which it definitely does): "God," Brian K. Peterson writes, "intends to draw Mary and all of us into what God is doing, and God apparently is not willing to do this behind our backs or without our own participation." And this is what, in some mysterious way, makes Mary's story our own, or at least it makes her story something we can understand a little better.

Scholars help us to make this connection, to shine the light of this gospel text on our own lives, on the mysterious ways that God works. Ashley Cook Cleere finds intersection between Mary's story and ours: "Although the details are rarely readily apparent, God takes part in the unfolding of human existence from before the moment of conception." This is a staggering thought, that we were in God's thoughts before we ever came to be. "The awareness," Cleere writes, "that we are not fully in charge of our destiny ebbs and is revived repeatedly throughout our lives." Our care for one another is enriched by this insight, that "Mary's puzzlement grants permission to take time to adjust to astonishing news, to question whether or not trials and tragedies, or God's magnificent promises, are for real, and to contemplate potential repercussions. The query 'How can this be?' is a reverberating refrain that shapes our faith by reminding us...how much is hidden from us. The exclamation of these four words may well signify the nearness of God." In hospital waiting rooms, at the bedside of the dying, or in hearing a good report from the doctor, in a hundred different settings of human life where we are especially aware of "the nearness of God," these words express our conviction that God is involved in our lives in ways that are mysterious indeed, just as God's ways were mysterious to Mary that day and every day that followed.

Barbara Brown Taylor, not surprisingly, addresses with great insight the question of Mary's "choice," her freedom to respond in this most unusual situation, and our freedom as well. Yes, Taylor has said that the angel announced the impending birth and didn't ask Mary for her assent, but there is a choice for Mary, "whether to say yes to it or no, whether to take hold of the unknown life the angel held out to her or whether to defend herself against it however she could." We have a similar choice in our own lives, Taylor says: "Like Mary, our choices often boil down to yes or no: yes, I will live this life that is being held out to me or no, I will not; yes, I will explore this unexpected turn of events, or no, I will not." You can say no to your life, Taylor says, "but you can rest assured that no angels will trouble you ever again." And then she takes a bold turn that calls for courage on our part, if we say yes to our lives: "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." How are you bearing God in this world?

Trusting that all things are possible with God requires a leap of faith, not only for Mary but for us today. And, like Mary, we will still have questions. William Brosend, for example, wonders, "If nothing will be impossible with God, why does so much in the lives of the parishioners seem such a mess?" He responds, "That nothing is impossible with God does not mean that God will do anything and everything. On this Sunday it means that God will do this thing. Which makes everything else possible." Fred Craddock describes Mary's words, "For nothing will be impossible for God" as "the creed behind all other creeds. The church should recite it often, not only at the manger, not only at the empty tomb, but on any occasion for reflecting on its own life joy, and hope."

Joy, hope, trust

Joy and hope, and trust: the virtues of Advent, it seems. In this Advent season in particular, we're caught, suspended between fear and hope, on the edge of a new day but facing formidable challenges: war, poverty, economic crises, harm to the earth...so many problems, and many of them mirrored in our own personal lives in broken relationships, ill health, money worries, troubled consciences. "It is tempting," Kimberly Bracken Long writes, "to imagine that the human predicament whether we define that as the state of our warring world or the state of our broken lives, can never be healed or overturned. Yet Luke tells us that not only is redemption possible, it has already happened. Because of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the holy continues to break into our lives, to bring us closer to the completion of creation and the already-and-not-yet reign of God."

Perhaps Dianne Bergant's reflection brings us most elegantly to the closing edge of Advent, longing toward Christmas and its own promises: "According to ancient Christian writers, God waits for Mary's yes; creation waits; Adam and Eve wait, the dead in the underworld wait; the angels wait; and so do we. With Mary's yes, hope is enlivened and history is changed. There is an unimaginable future for all people, a future that comes from God. All nations assemble in justice, compassion and gratitude. Salvation is created among us, and the fate of history is altered by a godly presence. This salvation resides in the hearts of those who believe in the gift and who stay awake eagerly to know it is coming. With David we await it, with the nations we long for it, and with Mary we behold it." So, let it be with us, according to God's will.

For Further Reflection

Meister Eckhart, 14th century
We are all meant to be mothers of God. 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? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? Then, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.

Anne Lamott, 21st century
Joy is the best makeup.

Jerry Van Amerongen, 21st century
I feel like a tiny bird with a big song!

Taylor Caldwell, 20th century
I am not alone at all, I thought. I was never alone at all. And that, of course, is the message of Christmas. We are never alone. Not when the night is darkest, the wind coldest, the world seemingly most indifferent. For this is still the time God chooses.



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hueyk@ucc.org