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.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The familiar words, the familiar story. The girl Mary receives a visit from an angel and accepts the role of carrying and bearing the God-child. How often have we seen this in pageants and plays and songs and cards? It often looks so simple and neat. The angel comes down glowing and white with wings in our stories. This perfect picture of call and obedience is held up in our time as the idyllic Christmas image. The snowy manger, the gentle and quiet animals, the perfect face of Mary after having given birth after a long trip on a donkey in a stable. At what point did this story get so sanitized?
Mary is often displayed as the paragon of obedience, which she deserves of course, but she is not immediately there as the story so often goes. At first she is perplexed, probably questioning if she is dreaming or imagining something. Then the angel says she will bear the God-child. She will be God’s mother. For the rest of time people will remember her name and tell her story because God’s actions on earth were facilitated and carried and labored with Mary. She is of course shocked. She is a peasant, a girl, a child, not married, potentially pregnant out of wedlock. “How can this be since I am a virgin?” she wonders.
For much of my life I have struggled with self-doubt. As many of you know, my father is also a pastor, and because of this people always asked me if I was going to be a pastor. I was always quick to say no. I never believed I had what it took to be a pastor. Was I patient enough? How would I handle an emergency? How do pastors talk for so long? I had this image in my head of what the perfect pastor (and honestly the perfect person) was supposed to be, and I knew that I could not live up to that. I would never have what it took.
And like Mary, I did not really have questions about God, I had questions about myself. And even though I was continually saying yes to leadership roles like leading a youth group and mission trips and stepping up to help organizations through leading Bible studies and preparing leadership content, I did not see the connection between what I was doing and what God was calling me to. I think it was because I was afraid of failing. I think it was because I lacked the imagination of how my gifts could be used pastorally. I think I doubted myself and my abilities to be of use.
“How can this be?” Mary questions. I imagine many of us feel this way at different times in our lives. Especially with the state of the world as it is now. We see death and destruction all around us. We see violence and lies wherever we look. So when God says to us, “go and love your neighbor. Go and cure the sick. Go and end the injustices in our world.” I imagine we ask ourselves with self-doubt, “How can this be, since I am just…” I am just too old. I am just too young. I am just too tired. I am just one person. I am just a virgin. I am just… And fill in the blank. What are you just? What doubts do you have?
And it is at this point in our text when our self-doubts have spiked, that the angel offers us a vision, a vision of hope and encouragement. Gabriel shares about how even Elizabeth in her old age has conceived a child and then shares the most important thing for us to know. Gabriel says, “For nothing is impossible with God.” Nothing is impossible with God. It is these words that lead Mary to say yes to God. It is these words that lead Mary to sing perhaps the most famous and oldest of Christian hymns. It is these words that have spurred on revolutions throughout time and space, giving words of hope and life to people long oppressed.
Nothing is impossible with God. I traveled to India one summer for a two month mission trip. We were working in a school for kids with special needs, from deafness to mental challenges to being raised on the streets. We covered it all. It was hard and exhausting work. But all through that time I had a team working with me, praying with me, and celebrating with me. It was there literally on the other side of the world that God’s words finally sunk in. Nothing is impossible with God. The urging and leadings that I have felt for so long in my life toward a call to pastoral ministry could not be explained away or ignored anymore. God was asking me to participate in bringing God’s beloved community to earth. And in that moment, I finally said yes. I am not going to say that all my doubts have gone away because that would be disingenuous. And I do not think my position was ever as tenuous or risky as Mary’s, but I believe that the angel Gabriel’s words are for all of us. Nothing is impossible with God.
This is advent season. This is the Christmas season. The seasons where we remember that the impossible happened because with God all things are possible. We believe that our Creator, the God of the universe, decided to take on flesh and dwell among us. To live with God’s creations and invite them into a new vision of what our earthly relationships and structures could look like. The disciples could barely believe it. Jesus’ family struggled to understand. The Pharisees and religious experts would not accept it. The tax collectors and women involved in prostitution knew that something new was happening. For nothing is impossible with God.
What is God calling you to do today? What do you picture in your mind’s eye? Where is there injustice that needs to be righted? Where are there structures of violence that God is calling to end? Where is God calling you to engage today? Do not let impossibilities stop you. God has seen you just as you are and looks upon you with favor. God sees you exactly as you are and is calling you to express this expansive and inclusive vision of love and justice today. Go and make it so knowing that with the God of the universe, the God who became flesh to be with us, the God who continues to empower and push us, that nothing is impossible for our God. Can I get an amen?