Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In scripture we read, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Unfortunately, people can still grow impatient and try to take matters into their own hands. I am reminded of the little boy who wanted a bike for Christmas so badly that he decided to write a letter to Jesus. “Dear Jesus, if I get a bike for Christmas, I’ll be good for a whole week.” The boy thought about it for a bit, crossed out what he wrote, and said to himself, “I can’t be good for a whole week, I’ll be good for five days.” He then crossed that out too and wrote “I’ll be good for four days.” He thought about this again and again, and he finally said, “I can’t do that. I can’t even be good for a day.” In frustration, he went outside and saw in his neighbor’s yard a statue of the Virgin Mary. Then he got an awful idea. The boy got a wonderful, awful idea. He went into the house and found a blanket. He then wrapped the Virgin Mary in the blanket and took her way, hiding the statue in his bedroom closet. He returned to his letter and scribbled, “Dear Jesus, if I don’t get a bike for Christmas, you’ll never see your mother again!” Oh, if the boy had only believed that “Nothing will be impossible with God.”
The story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to the virgin Mary actually begins with an earlier, impossible visit. Six months earlier to be more precise. In the city of Jerusalem, an old priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, had been faithfully praying for the improbable, if not impossible birth of a child. Months had turned into years, which had turned into decades. Each year that passed was more of the same. The possible and potential pregnancy had become the impossible. Elizabeth was disgraced among her own people. Zechariah and Elizabeth had become two people growing old together.
Then one day, the angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah in the Temple while he was serving at the altar of incense. The old priest was troubled and fearful when he saw him. But the angel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.” It was wonderful, impossible news. Perhaps, not so surprisingly, Zechariah questioned, “How will I know this is so? I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel then responded, “Because you did not believe my words, you will become mute, unable to speak until the day these things occur.” Then the angel Gabriel was gone, and Zechariah could not speak.” Oh, if Zechariah could have only believed that “Nothing will be impossible with God.”
By contrast, six months later in a town in Galilee called Nazareth, the angel Gabriel appeared to a virgin named Mary engaged to man whose name was Joseph. But unlike her older cousin Elizabeth in Jerusalem Mary had not prayed for a baby. She wasn’t even married. Yet the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”
Both Zechariah and Mary were startled by the angel. Both heard the impossible news that a son was to be born. And both were troubled at the announcement, but their reactions to the word of the angel were not the same. Mary believed that nothing will be impossible for God. But she wondered how God could accomplish this amazing feat given that she was still a virgin. She knew how children were conceived. Hers was a question rooted in faith. Zechariah wondered and questioned as well, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” His question was rooted in disappointment and doubt.
My friends, perhaps that is how you are feeling this Advent season. You want desperately to believe like Mary that nothing will be impossible for God, but your experience has shadows like those of Zechariah who has known disappointment in his long wait. How different his journey would have been, if he just believed. How different life would be if we could all say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” and simply waited for God’s story to unfold.
The contrast between Mary and Zechariah is true for every one of us. We all face circumstances that look impossible, improbable and unsolvable. A broken marriage after years of trying to make it work. A lost child that you’ve prayed for without ceasing. A final word from a parent or a sibling on their death bed which is never spoken. In this pandemic year, you may be facing a rising mountain of bills and a shrinking or empty bank account. Or perhaps you’re watching a child or grandchildren getting further and further behind in their distance learning. All the physical evidence may suggest that no possible solution is coming. Life seems impossible. The hurts are too deep, the losses too great, the debt too high and the personal toll too heavy. You’re convinced that time and God’s grace has passed you by.
In those moments of doubt, we often find ourselves feeling much more like the old priest Zechariah than the young virgin Mary. Perhaps you wonder why someone so young and unprepared is overflowing with God’s wonder while you who have been patient and following all of the Governor’s executive orders are struggling. Yes, of course, you believe the angel Gabriel’s word that nothing will be impossible with God- except for the matters that are heavy on your heart.
Faithful Christians are not shielded from life’s sorrows and disappointments. Several years ago I attended a class on pastoral care by a Presbyterian lecturer, and future President of Princeton Theological Seminary, Craig Barnes. In a sermon he titled, “The Hopes and Fears of All the Years,” Barnes told his own personal story of impossibility.
“My father” left us when I was sixteen, and once he left, he never stopped running. Every time we tried to find him, he would only leave and disappear again. He died alone in a raggedy trailer park somewhere in the middle of Florida. A neighboring pastor, who did not know him, spent two days trying to find his family even though he did not know our names.
My Dad missed all of the important events in his sons’ lives: graduations, weddings, birth of children, our two ordinations, and both of our Ph.D. ceremonies. He missed all of it. I prayed and prayed that he would return to us. I used to yearn for the day that he would show up in a congregation where I was preaching. My longing was for him to come through the line at the end of worship, take my hand and say, “Good job, son.” But he never came.
At his funeral, I stared at the casket and wondered what happened to all of those prayers for him. Were they just lying around on the floor of heaven?
When the service was over, my brother and I went to his little trailer in hopes of piecing together something about his life. That was when we received the great Christmas gift. Sitting on his kitchen table was a devotional journal in which he had written his prayers and thoughts about various Bible passages. I was relieved to discover that he did not also abandon his faith. But then I came across a dog-eared, tattered page with the title “Daily Prayer List” at the top. The first two items on that list were my brother’s name and my name.
I will never understand the lonely madness that drove my father away from everyone who loved him. But I am so thankful to know that to his dying day, he never forgot us. He talked to God about us, even though for some reason he could not talk to us. There was enough grace in that to get me through.
The grace was not that I received what I wanted. I did not find my father in time. The grace was that Jesus never lost him. And for me, the grace was that I then realized, through all of those years of praying for my dad, I was speaking with my Heavenly Father, who will never leave me or forsake me.”
My friends, I wish that we could walk with Mary’s confidence and all speak with her faith, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” But if you cannot, do not be ashamed if at your best, you can only speak like Zechariah and question, How will I know that this is so? Yes, do not be afraid- even if God’s timing is not your timing. Simply remember, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Your words of thankfulness and praise will come one day. When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s infant son John was born, Zechariah’s mouth was suddenly opened so that he could praise God confidently saying, “Blessed be the God of Israel.” That will be your good news as well. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.