Sunday, December 21, 2008

Good News: The Impossible is Possible

(Today I celebrated the Eucharist and preached at Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Grass Valley, CA.  The message, seen below, is timely, especially for me and my family,  as we grapple with the news received on Friday that my son, Andrew, has had a recurrence of Bickerstaff's brainstem encephalitis, the same illness which levelled him eight years ago.)

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He’d just finished a long teaching session in the synagogue. She’d been sitting quietly toward the back of the room, taking in all he’d said. She waited until most of the others had left, then, approaching him, smiling, she took his face in her hands and said, “Jeshua, blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you!” His warm hand reached up and grasped her hand cradling his cheek as he smiled and observed, “Ah, but rather blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”

At that moment his mind began to wander back to when he was a young boy, to that day when he’d talked with his mother, Miriam, as she worked in the kitchen. The kind of quiet spontaneous conversation a boy enjoys with his mom. He’d asked all sorts of questions: the kind that young boys often ask when important issues and things that don’t make sense come to their minds, in no particular order.

His mother had paused as he somewhat delicately asked how he’d come to be: how he’d been born, and why Joseph was his “stepfather”. With a far-away look in her eyes, Miriam spoke softly of the day, many years ago, when she was a young woman, not much older than he was now. She and Joseph had just been betrothed, which for a Jewish couple such as they, meant that she was married to him, for all practical purposes. True, she hadn’t gone to his house to stay as yet, but that was the next step.

This particular day she’d been on her way to the well to draw water, when suddenly she felt what could only be described as a Presence: something like a dream and yet as though it was really happening. She heard words spoken to her, though not verbally, that sounded as though they were intended for someone else. There must’ve been a mistake! “Hail, O favored one. The Lord is with you.” She knew that she was a good Jewish girl: Anna and Jehoiakim had raised her such. But this was language for someone “special”, someone very close to the Holy One: not for someone as ordinary as she!

Trying very hard not to seem afraid, she nevertheless could feel herself trembling. But the Presence continued, gently but persistently, with the astounding announcement that she would soon become pregnant, immediately, in fact, and that it would be a boy, a son, and that his name would be Jeshua.

“How nice,” she remembered thinking momentarily. “Jeshua: ‘he saves’”. A name familiar to her from among her relatives. But then, in an instant, the impact of this registered with her. “This can’t be right,” she thought, “my betrothal hasn’t yet been consummated!” All these images of a great son, and thrones, and never-ending kingdoms suddenly terrified her. “How can this be, since I have no husband,” she whispered. “I’ll be stoned if they find me pregnant before Joseph and I are together.”

As she related the story to Jeshua, she’d paused briefly, sitting very quietly, then continued. The unseen Visitor had spoken about the Spirit and about the Most High’s power overshadowing her. Even as she heard this in her heart she could feel in her body that it had already been done. Something was different. Something was new.

“The child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” The Visitor went on to tell her of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy, all of which she had verified when she’d visited Elizabeth shortly thereafter. Then came words which continued to ring in her ears all through the days of her pregnancy and beyond: “For with God nothing will be impossible.”

She’d then told Jeshua how, in that strange and sudden moment as she continued on her way to the well that day, she began to make some sense of it despite her confusion. From somewhere deep inside she’d summoned up the courage to articulate what she was now feeling: “I am the Lord’s handmaid; let it be to me according to your word.” She’d heard and kept the word.

Jeshua’s mind came back from his reverie, back to the present, back to the synagogue, back to the smiling face of the older woman in front of him. From the expression on her face, as she looked him straight in the eyes, he knew that she understood what he’d just said: “Blessed, rather, are the ones who hear God’s word and keep it.”
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We draw this season of Advent, of expectation, of the Coming, to a close just as we began it. As a community of hurt, we take a hard and honest look at all the suffering, discontent, frustration, pain, disappointment, and uncertainty which characterize our lives and the lives of those around us. We acknowledge their persistent reality, knowing that they will continue as long as we await Christ’s coming.

But we wait as a community of hope and of faith also. We hope and believe because God’s word, through “the revelation of the mystery” and “through the prophetic writings”, assures us that “God... is able to strengthen you” and, as with David, assures us: “I have been with you wherever you went...” During these four weeks of Advent the Holy One has spoken to our hearts: of comfort and rejoicing, of the power of the Spirit of God. The Good News, the gospel, is intrusive speech which changes us from within if we but allow it do so.

The Good News which has come to us proclaims that what we thought impossible, God has made possible. We no longer have to remain a community of hurt. We can be in the world in a new way.

Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann, says that “...the life of faith is bracketed between the invitation to impossibility which begins things and the summons to praise which closes things...” “Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.”

If you and I are to live as persons who glorify God, then we must be ready to embrace deep displacement in our lives. We must be able to face and live with impossibility. We must have the “obedience of faith”, to which Paul refers in the Epistle to the Romans, even as Mary did, in order to trust that God will make possible, even in us, what you and I thought and think at times to be impossible.

That necessitates our being open enough to reorganize our lives together around that powerful word of God which nullifies all our old assumptions and presuppositions and securities. It calls for not only hearing the Word, but keeping it, day after day, even in the face of contradiction.

Advent’s question is: “How can this be...?”

And the answer is Christmas: God as Word become flesh; Good News that in Jesus (the One who saves) all our impossibilities are now possible.

All that is left is for us to generously respond: “Let it be done...according to your word!”

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