The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s095g14   Advent 4  21/12/2014

‘nothing will be impossible with God’   Luke 1:37

This Advent I have been reading the story of the birth of John the Baptist and the religious qualifications of his parents: ‘Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah.   His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.   Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.’ (1)

I had the privilege of meeting and being of some small assistance to refugees from Southern Sudan in Adelaide ten years ago.   I remember that they thought me so educated, but most of them had an everyday command of Dinka, Swahili, Arabic and English whereas I am quite definitely mono-lingual!   One of the issues was that young teenage women expected to marry and bear children rather than remain in the education system.   This is what their hormones were telling them, yet this was at odds with modern western culture where women are encouraged to be educated and have careers of their own.   And I think of Mary much like those lovely teenage Sudanese women with their velvety black skin.   Their focus is all about finding a suitable husband and bearing children, not being educated or ‘religious’.

The last thing orthodoxy would expect is that an angel of God would appear to an ordinary teenage girl.   It is not unusual for mothers to believe their offspring to be called.  So the mother of the longest serving Labor Prime Minister of Australia, Bob Hawke: ‘Ellie .. had an almost messianic belief in her son's destiny’. (2)  She was married to a Congregational minister.

Mary and Joseph are quite the opposite - Mary the young peasant girl with raging hormones had no such aspirations for her offspring; Joseph the τέκτονος, the tradesman.   One cannot but hear the ever so thinly veiled derision of this occupation, derision commonly found in congregations of good church people - they don’t even dignify Joseph by using his name as they are obviously able to do with the other members of Jesus’ family. (3)  Perhaps he was similar to a friend from long ago who described himself as a ‘wheelbarrow Methodist’ - he only went when pushed :-)   They say; ‘Are not all his sisters with us?’ (4) perhaps implying that Joseph didn’t attend even when his son was preaching.   Echoes of the elder son of the prodigal father, referring to his younger brother as ‘this son of yours’.  (5)

So for me the text invites us to see the impossible for God, the divine at work amongst the teenager and the blue-collar worker rather than the devout and orthodox church-goer.   Christmass dignifies the hormone-driven teenager and the one who gets his or her hands dirty for a living, rather than in those whose belief that their devotion will earn them a privileged place in the kingdom.

Mary and Joseph are signs to us of the dignity of all humanity, the dignity of intimacy and procreation, of the primal dignity of ordinary occupations.   Indeed if this is true Christmass is the sign that the kingdom is related to people’s incarnation into society not their separation from it.

So what are the impossible things we expect of God?   For the anglo-catholic, I guess the impossible thing that is the most vital to believe is that the bread and wine of the Holy Communion become the very body and blood of Christ.   For the evangelical the impossible thing that is the most vital to believe is that the Cross confers personal forgiveness.   For the charismatic the impossible thing most vital to believe is that speaking in tongues is the specially authentic prayer.   For the biblical literalist the impossible thing that is most vital to believe in is the miracles of both the old and new testament and that the cosmos was created in six days.   But my reading of scripture is that nowhere is gullibility commended.   Believing the unbelievable doesn’t actually do anything useful for anyone else - all these things are essentially self-centred.   They focus faith and the activity on an essentially narrow sphere - which actually diminishes God rather than magnifying the divine.

Believing the unbelievable is trumped by the command to love. and the command to love is hardly remarkable amongst only like-minded individuals.   As Jesus said: ‘If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?   Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?   And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?   Do not even the Gentiles do the same?   Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’   (6)   I had the privilege of talking with a Roman Catholic this past week and he commented how wonderful it would be if the Anglicans and Catholics could share a new Cathedral in the rebuilt Christchurch.   Now there’s an impossible dream if ever there was one!   Yet it raises the question why you and I as individuals are expected to do the impossible, yet the churches as institutions just challenge from the sidelines?   I am so glad that the appropriateness of the impossible demands made on Catholic clergy are finally being questioned. (7)

Of course I do see impossible things happen each and every day I visit people in the hospital.   I see the lame being enable to walk as they have hip and knee replacements, the blind being able to see as cataracts are removed and the deaf being made to hear as they have cochlear ear implants.   I ‘see’ babies being born and people with a cancer diagnosis being ‘raised from the dead’.  (8)   There are no lepers in hospital, all are treated with respect; all are given good news if only that they are not alone.

These impossible things are achieved because the primary imperative of working with others has trumped the primary temptation to think that the details of one’s religion is determinative.  

And this statement causes me to remember that most difficult of petitions in the Lord’s Prayer to translate: ‘Lead us not into temptation’. (9)  The primary temptation is the temptation of religious power, prestige, and entitlement.  The temptation is to resurrect ‘the eternal propensity of self-professed religious people to oppress others’. (10)

It would, of course, seem impossible for those who look to the Cross and resurrection of Jesus as the path to follow to marginalise, alienate, condemn others in the name of the god of Jesus, but as you and I know only too well, it continues to happen all the time, individuals quoting ‘No one comes to the Father but by’ my version of truth.  (11)

1.  Luke 1:5-6
3.  Matthew 13:55
4.  Matthew 13:56
5.  Luke 15:30
6.  Matthew 5:46-48
8.  Matthew 11.5
9.   Matthew 6.13 KJV
11.  John 14.6