Fourth Sunday of Advent – Year B
December 20, 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
2 Samuel 7:1-5;8B-12;14A;16 | Psalm 89:2-5;27;29
Romans 16:25-27 | Luke 1:26-38
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Have you ever wanted something that was impossible? The dictionary defines impossible as “incapable of being done, attained, or fulfilled: insuperably difficult.” We all encounter what appears to be impossible from time to time. The question is, how do we handle it?
So, what’s your “insuperably difficult” circumstance? Perhaps a family member has strayed in the wrong direction? Maybe you are in a marriage in which you and your spouse hardly speak to each other? Or you have a physical ailment declared untreatable by a doctor, like terminal cancer?
The categories of “impossibilities” go on and on. Whatever the obstacle, it seems impossible; whatever the situation, it seems intolerable. No counselor, friend, pastor, or family member seems to be able to bring the needed change. Other people often told us to accept “what is” in a particular situation, and specifically, to give up trying to change the situation or even to hope that change will occur in the future. We are told that at a certain point, we should “give up” because we’re never going to get what we want.
If I’ve described your situation, I have great news. Nothing is impossible with God. Some way, somehow, God gets done what God wants to get done. No person, place, or thing is more powerful than God. God existed before recorded time and will remain present eternally in the future.
God always makes all things happen that are destined to happen. But more often than not, God’s ultimate plans are invisible to us. That is to be expected, because who God is, and why God does what God does, and everything else about God, are mysteries, that is, things that happen for reasons beyond human understanding. Yet God always acts with a purpose in mind. If something you want doesn’t happen or doesn’t happen the way you want it or on your schedule, more often than not, God did not intend that all events conform to your expectations.
We, as humans, do not always understand the mystery that is God. But rather than wallow in the throes of disappointment, a better way to perceive the world is that we are all faced with a series of great opportunities, brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.
This past week, Deacon Sharon and I have been celebrating Hanukkah. We have a Menorah in our living room. We light successive numbers of candles each night. We’ve read the story of Hanukkah from the Books of Maccabees and from the Talmud. And we exchanged gifts every night for eight nights. I’ve given Deacon Sharon a bottle of white wine for each of the eight nights, and she has given me a variety of gifts. I’ve chosen to give her wine because wine symbolizes happiness and celebration. That fits what Hanukkah celebrates, which is the victory of the Jewish Maccabees over the pagan Syrians in about one-sixty-five B-C.
That victory itself was a statement that nothing is impossible with God. The Maccabean army was small in number and had few weapons, yet the Maccabees, captained by Judas Maccabeus defeated a larger and more powerfully equipped Syrian army led by Antiochus the fourth.
Prior to that victory, however, the pagan Syrians had taken over the Jerusalem Temple and desecrated it with pagan idols. They profaned its Altar by offering a pig on the Temple altar to the fake pagan “god” Zeus. How despicable and disgusting that is!
After the Maccabees drove out the Syrians, purification of the Temple was very necessary to make it worthy once again for the worship of the one true God. But they faced a pressing problem; they needed consecrated oil to rekindle the sacred candelabra. They found only enough consecrated oil for one day—and it would take a full eight days to procure enough oil for Temple use. The thought of lighting this great candelabra only to see it go out again was heart-wrenching. Yet the zeal to rededicate the Temple was so strong that, despite the dilemma, they decided to light the candelabra.
A traditional saying arose from this Hanukkah story: “a great miracle happened there.” The great miracle was that the oil, enough for only one day, continued to burn for eight whole days, enough time to make and sanctify new oil. According to this legend, this is why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights and why the Menorah is lit for eight nights as well.
You might ask, why, being Christian clergy, do we celebrate a Jewish holiday? Being Christians, we identify with Jesus. He was devoutly Jewish. More likely than not, celebrated Jewish holidays, and, according to the Gospel of John, that included Hanukkah. Deacon Sharon and I celebrate Hanukkah to share in the life experiences of Jesus. However, its themes tie in very well to the statement by the angel to Mary in today’s Gospel that “nothing will be impossible for God.” The victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians was seemed impossible, but the Maccabees won. They thought it impossible that one days’ worth of oil would burn for eight days, but the lamp burned for eight days anyways. Again, as Mary tells us, nothing is impossible with God, including a parthenogenic birth.
The barren-woman Birth Narratives in scripture illustrate that God, indeed, sometimes does what we deem impossible. In the Book of Genesis, Sarah, Abraham’s first wife, became pregnant at a very old age, so that her child, Isaac, and grandchild, Jacob, would establish the People of Israel. You will recall that God promised Abraham and his lineage would become a great nation with a number of descendants equal to the number of grains of sand on a beach. At the beginning of First Samuel, God answered the prayers of Hanna, one of the two wives of Elkanah, with Samuel, who became the last judge over Israel. After God answered the prayers of the Jewish people for a monarchy, Samuel anointed Saul and then David, whose line was intended to reign eternally over God’s chosen people.
Each of these purportedly barren women, however, at the time God worked God’s purposes through them, did not grasp the importance of what God was doing. But in each of these barren-women-birth-narratives, God effectuated a plan and purpose that went beyond bearing a child. Those stories set the stage for the angelic message to Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus, the long-sought Messiah, and would acknowledge the significance of her role in God’s plan for salvation.
What is meant by the term, Messiah? In the Jewish tradition, a Messiah was a savior and liberator, a future Jewish king who is the lineal descendant of King David. Christians think that Jesus came to fulfill that role. But did Jesus himself, with his Jewish background, think he was the Messiah?
As can be expected, Jesus, being a devout Jew, saw the world through a Jewish perspective. A case can be made that Jesus saw himself as a fulfillment of the messianic prophecies when he proclaimed in his synagogue the following passage from the prophet Isaiah,
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; today, scripture has been fulfilled in your eyes.”
The congregation to which he was speaking probably found that a bit perplexing, as traditionally, what was expected by way of a Messiah was a royal ruler born with pomp and circumstance. But instead, Jesus was the child of an unwed teenage mother born in a manger. Mary was not only surprised that she would bear a child, but who that child was to be.
As today’s Gospel tells us, Mary was greatly troubled and did not understand what was happening. She must have taken great comfort in the words of the angel Gabriel to not be afraid, that Mary had found favor with God in choosing her to bear Jesus, whom the angel described as the great Son of God Most High, to become a ruler over the House of Jacob, that is, the House of Israel, over a kingdom without end.
When the angel concluded his message to Mary that “Nothing is impossible with God, Mary responded with an unqualified “Yes” with the phrase, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” That statement shows us how deeply Mary appreciated the mystery that was God and that she trusted God, so much so that she responded to the angel Only by accepting that nothing was impossible with God could she acquiesce to God’s purpose for her. She recognized that within her, what was seemingly impossible was going to be possible.
Mary’s acceptance of God’s will for her is a message for us to trust God rather than solely ourselves when faced with what appears to be an impossible situation. We find that theme reechoed throughout the life of Jesus. The Gospel of John records seven miracles that show Jesus’ astonishing power over things that appear, at first glance, to be impossible.
First, power over quality. At a wedding in Cana, when the wine ran out, Jesus told the servants to fill six stone pots with water and take a cupful to the headwaiter. Putting the cup to his lips, the waiter tasted that Jesus had not only turned the water into wine but the best wine
Second, Power over distance. A royal official came to Cana to ask Jesus to heal his dying son in Capernaum, about twenty miles away. Without moving, Jesus told him, “‘Go back home. Your son will live!’” He healed the boy from a distance.
Third is power over time. By the pool of Bethesda, Jesus saw a man who had been disabled for 38 years. The Lord commanded him, “‘Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!’” It didn’t matter that the man had been lame for almost four decades; when Jesus said “walk,” he walked!
Fourth, power over quantity. Jesus fed a crowd of over five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two small fish. How could so little feed so many? The math didn’t add up for the disciples, but lack of enough of anything ever limited Jesus’ ability to get something done.
Fifth is power over nature. When a strong wind stirred up the sea and the terrified disciples strained at the oars to make it to shore, Jesus walked on the water and calmed the storm.
Sixth, power over misfortune. In Jerusalem, Jesus noticed a man blind since birth. Without hype or hoopla, the Light of the World brought light to the man’s eyes.
Finally, power over death. When Lazarus died, his sisters’ hopes died with him. However, Jesus transformed their impossibility into the perfect opportunity to glorify God by bringing Lazarus back to life.
Humanly speaking, each of these problems seemed as impossible as calculus to a preschooler. But to Jesus, the solution was obvious. He understood that what is impossible for us as humans is always possible with God.”
Jesus could do this because he lived by Jeremiah’s prayer:
“O Sovereign LORD! You made the heavens and earth by your strong hand and powerful arm. Nothing is too hard for you!”
Miracles are surprising, unexplainable, and as rare as a flawless pearl. But they do occur! We can’t predict when God will sovereignly say, “Now,” and transform our impossibilities into opportunities. What we can do is believe in God’s power and rest in His sovereignty. Sometimes humanity does that without explicitly involving or even mentioning God. Here’s a real example from the secular world:
One of the oldest chemical and polymer companies wanted to invent new ways to make the production of polyethylene even more cost-effective. The traditional way to create polyethylene was to operate two reactors in a series of processes that led to the final product, which most of us use every day in the form of white grocery shopping bags. The Company wanted a process that would allow two catalysts to work in the same reactor at the same time under the same conditions – a seemingly impossible task. The company brought together scientists and engineers with varied backgrounds for two days of invention and idea development. The project was a huge success, with a commercial-scale demonstration of the new technology in less than two years. The test results exceeded all expectations. At the end of the day, for this invention, the Net Present Value, a formula used in analyzing the profitability of an investment or project, was approximately $50 million.
Now, you might say, God was nowhere to be found in that project. But God was there. God gave brains to the scientists who discovered what those properties were and how to best use them for their company’s advantage. God’s involvement as the designer of the physical laws that governed the process removed the impossibilities that the company originally perceived. God gave the people involved the power to deal with that impossibility.
Whether you explicitly acknowledge the existence of God does not matter. God is always involved in making things happen. When you show faith in God, that is, when the unconditional love God gives us enables you to trust that God is on your side, God can, and will, help you do great things.
The angelic message in today’s Gospel invites us to put aside the negative thoughts of impossibility. Here are some ways to do that.
–See the world as open instead of closed; as positive instead of negative. When you look at the world through a negative lens, you amplify what’s truly bad and you minimize what’s truly good. Instead, think about the possibilities rather than impossibilities. Always think about what’s positive, that which magnifies what’s good and minimizes what’s bad.
–Move beyond dead ends. Many people think they are stuck, that there’s nowhere left to go in life. A better plan is to consider that there are more solutions, options, and avenues available to you than you’ve allowed yourself to see. Be creative. Investigate. Consider possibilities that you’ve never imagined.
–Avoid shame. Researcher and author Brené Brown defines shame as,
“The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
–Don’t take a negative view of who you are. God created you out of God’s love. God created you as good. Dwelling on impossibilities devalues your circumstances, your abilities, and ultimately, yourself. But embracing possibilities instead of impossibilities adds value to everything, thereby restoring hope to where we find ourselves, what we can do, and who we are as people.
–Stop interpreting the events of your life in derogatory ways, based on illogical and negative assumptions. Instead, learn to think clearly and constructively. If bad things happened to you in the past, think about how you yourself and others can do something to avoid those events in the future. For example, if you were abused as a child, as I was, donate money to organizations that fight child abuse, as I do.
When you trust God, nothing is impossible with God. Putting your trust in God will enable you to see life as more than a struggle to survive, but instead, an exciting array of challenges and opportunities. That is how Mary saw her role. By surrendering to God, Mary acted with the conviction that, by becoming the Mother of Jesus, she could make a difference in the world by bearing the Son of God. She did not allow negative thinking and lack of courage to pull her down.
When we adopt Mary’s mindset of thinking of what’s possible instead of what’s impossible, we will allow God to radiate God’s love into your personality. You will open yourself to more opportunities and challenges that will bring you the happiness that God always intended for you. AMEN.