2. The Impossible Possibility
With God, all things may be possible. We could easily miss the scriptural connections in this phrase. It takes us back to Genesis 18 and the story of Sarah and Abraham. The couple is visited by three men as they are camp under the oaks of Mamre. During the conversation it becomes clear that the visitors are, somehow, God.
They bring the promise that Sarah will bear a child even though “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” Sarah perhaps finds the whole idea a bit ridiculous and laughs out loud. The men respond, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” This question is rendered in the Septuagint as, “Is any promise impossible for God?” Some manuscripts of Luke pick up the echoes of this verse in a small addition to the Greek text. That scribal enthusiasm makes it clear that readers had the Old Testament story in mind as they read the Annunciation account.
Sarah, understandably, laughs at the ludicrous suggestion. Mary trusts in the promise she has heard. Nothing is too wonderful for the Lord.
Nothing, Mary hears, is impossible for God. That does not mean, however, that all things may be easy. I think we do a disservice to Mary, to our listeners, and to the Gospel when we make this a simple “trust and obey” story. The stakes for Mary here are literally life and death. She responds not only with obedience but with courage and determination.
“Mary, in the annunciation, becomes the patroness, of all who are called by God to do impossible things,” Rick Morley writes. “Of those who become embarrassments to their family and communities on behalf of God. She reminds us that the godly thing isn’t always the prim-and-proper thing. Sometimes when we answer God’s call, we become a laughingstock. Or, even worse,” he concludes. “persecuted.”
David Lose looks at how Mary’s life was utterly derailed and disrupted by this announcement and the events that followed. “Do we think God is done interrupting people’s lives to use them for the health of the world,” Lose asks, “or might we imagine that God is still doing things just like this? Further, might we look around at the people in our congregation and see them as those persons who are also favored by God and through whom God plans to do marvelous things?”
I wonder if Mary ever wished that things could “go back to normal”? Did she ever wish that she could go back to being a teenager in a no-name village in a Galilean backwater? We live in a time when people are nearly overwhelmed with the desire to “go back to normal.” We wonder that out loud at almost every turn. When will things get back to some semblance of normality?
“Back to normal” was not an option for Mary. There was no putting the toothpaste back in the tube on this one. Gabriel’s announcement to Mary has all the classic marks of gospel. It is news that will irrevocably change the world, both present and future. It has yet to be accomplished, but there’s not doubt it will happen. And the news turns the status quo upside down and inside out. Is it any wonder that Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid”?
In what ways is the Holy Spirit coming upon us and disrupting our lives with the good news of Jesus? We cannot and will not “go back to normal” after the pandemic, even as we get excited about vaccine reports. We have been through too much, seen too much, lost too much. Can we look forward to what we have gained, what we have learned, what we want to keep from this Covid-time? Have we been used by the Spirit during this time in ways that are both disruptive and delightful? These are questions worth asking now.
“What I want is to invite our people to take a moment to contemplate that God is at work in them and through them,” Lose continues. “Further, I want to help them imagine one concrete place they can make a difference — where God may be at work in them — between now and Christmas. And once they’ve had a chance to contemplate all this, I want to invite them into the joy of faithful response.” This perspective can take us again, for example, to thoughts about the “obedience of faith” that Paul mentions in the second reading.
It may take some time to answer such questions – perhaps more than an hour, or a day, or a week. Along with Mary, we may need to ponder what sort of greeting this might be for us. “Mary models the kind of reaction we should have to divinity’s disturbance in our lives,” Karoline Lewis writes. “She wonders and ponders. She questions and considers. She answers in awe. And Mary’s reply to God’s call understands that fear is characteristic of our response to God when God disrupts our lives.”
How true indeed. But we see that fear is not the final response from Mary. It is worth remembering the old English proverb here. “Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered. No one was there.” Let it be to us according to the Word.
If you use the Magnificat as the psalmody for the day (or choose to read the Annunciation and Magnificat as a whole piece), the disruption moves beyond Mary’s personal situation. Her obedience of faith has social and economic dimensions. Here is a prophecy of the coming Jubilee year. Remember that Jesus declares in chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel that he is bringing that Jubilee in his proclamation and ministry. Here all the inequities of established life are upended. And (with a preview of the first lesson) all this happens because God is faithful to God’s promises “to Abraham and his children forever.”
Liturgically, this is an opportunity to sing the Annunciation and Magnificat using the setting from Holden Evening Prayer. I never miss an opportunity to do that. More to the point, what happens to Mary will happen to all of us, to all the world, to all of Creation. Nothing is impossible for God. Thus, even in this time of restriction and retreat, we can and must look for the impossible possibilities the Holy Spirit is bringing about.
References and Resources
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Lewis, Karoline, https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/marys-response.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Metger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1975.
Powell, Mark Allan. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-luke-126-38-3. Sigmon, Casey Thornburgh. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-2-samuel-71-11-16-5