Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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The Impossible

Luke 1:26-38

When I read this story, I think to myself that there are two great challenges that Mary is facing in God’s message. The first is believing that God can do the impossible. And the second is being willing to take part in what God is doing. And neither of those things is easy, but both are necessary to be obedient in the life of faith. And the same scenario is played out in our lives, as well. What do we believe God is able to do? And are we willing to become a part of what he is doing? And the answers might not be easy ones. They certainly were not for Mary.

Luke begins his Gospel not with Mary or Joseph but with Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, and her husband, Zechariah. These are John the Baptist’s parents. Luke, being a careful historian wants to track down and tell the whole story. And it appears that he is writing with Mary as a resource, because he writes about things that only she would have known.

Zechariah and Elizabeth had never been able to conceive, and now they are too old for having children. But of course, nothing is impossible for God. The birth of John is reminiscent of the birth of Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, who were also unable to conceive and too old to have children. When Zechariah hears the message of what God will do, he finds it difficult to accept.

By comparison, Mary is “too young” to have a child, especially too young in the sense that she is not married. But she is betrothed, promised to Joseph, and that creates a certain set of difficulties.

In first century Jewish culture, there were three steps toward a marriage. First, there was an arrangement. When they were still children, marriages were arranged by the parents. Once they reached a marriageable age, which was about 15 for young women and about 19 for young men, the couple would meet. Depending on circumstances, this might be the first time they have seen each other since the marriage was arranged. But they did have to give their consent to the wedding. And if they agreed, then they entered into a year-long “betrothal” or “engagement.”

During this year, they were legally considered to be “husband and wife.” A betrothal could only be broken by a divorce. You couldn’t just “change your mind” and “give back the ring.” They were husband and wife in every way except that they were not allowed to be together. They still lived with their parents. The purpose of this betrothal was to demonstrate their purity. So if a young woman was found to be pregnant during this time, that was a problem, especially if her husband was not the father.

Technically, in that situation, he could have her stoned to death. That rarely happened, but it was actually the prescribed punishment for infidelity. Normally though, he was expected to divorcer her and subject her to public ridicule. And this would be a source of great shame for her and her family. Certainly no one would want to marry her after this, and that was a harsh blow in a society where women really didn’t have much in the way of options without a husband.

Now, we know from Matthew’s Gospel that Joseph was a just and compassionate man who, when he found out about this, wanted to spare her from ridicule. And when God told him what to do, he did it. But Mary didn’t know that. At this point Mary has no guarantee that saying yes to God will lead to anything other than shame and humiliation. She doesn’t have any assurance about how God’s plan will work out.

“You will have a son and name him Jesus. He will be called Son of the Most High. He will sit on the throne of his ancestor David.” Now we didn’t read it today, but one of the texts prescribed for this Sunday is 2 Samuel chapter 7. That’s the part of the story where David wants to build a temple, a “house,” for God. But instead, the prophet brings back to word to David that God will build a house, that is a dynasty, for him. And a descendant of David will reign forever. We understand that prophecy to be about Jesus, the descendant of David, who reigns forever.

Mary’s question is, “How can this be since I am not yet married?” And the answer is “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” In other words, it’s going to be a miracle. “For nothing is impossible with God.”

As I said, there are two challenges for Mary here. First, does she believe that God can do the impossible? Can God do such a thing, a thing that defies everything we know? But second, will she take her part in it? Will she say yes to God’s plan knowing the risks? What if saying yes to God’s plan means shame, the resentment of her family, the end of her dreams, a lifetime full of hardship? Will she risk it?

“I am the Lord’s servant. I am willing to accept whatever he wants.”

Do you believe that God can do the impossible? The Bible is full of stories of God going the impossible. Do we believe them? Do we believe he can stop the sun in the sky? Do we believe he can heal eyes that have never seen? Do we believe he can give a child to a barren old woman or to a young virgin? Do we believe he can raise the dead? Part the sea? Feed a crowd of thousands with just a few loaves and fishes?

There are some people not just out there in the world but in the Church who do not believe God does these things. They explain them away or say they are just misunderstood phenomena or even just a religious fairy tale.

But I think the really hard part is not that we accept things that are impossible in the Bible but things that are impossible in our own lives. Do we believe God can do the impossible in our lives? What is impossible for you? I can’t answer that question; only you can. But maybe moving beyond a limitation, physical, mental, or emotional, is impossible for you. Maybe healing a broken relationship is impossible for you. Maybe having a real peace that lasts in your life is impossible for you.

Can God do something about those impossibilities? Do you believe that he can? I think that’s often a greater challenge of faith than believing that he can raise the dead or stop the sun in the sky.

And second, will you take your part in what God is doing? One of things we see over and over in Scripture is that God often will not do his work without us joining in and taking part in what he is doing. The blind man wasn’t healed until he had the faith to go to the Pool of Siloam. Jesus wasn’t born until Mary had the faith to say yes to God’s plan. The Jordan River didn’t stop flowing until the priests had the faith to put their feet in the water. And it just may be that what is impossible in our lives won’t happen until we believe God can do the impossible and we seek out his will for us, and then take that first step of faith.

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