Richard Maxwell

Christmas Day 2013[1]
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

On our refrigerator at home, we have a magnet with a quotation from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.  It goes like this:

“There is no use trying,” said Alice; “one can’t believe impossible things.”  “I dare say you haven’t had much practice, “said the Queen.  “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day.  Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

We’re an awful lot like Alice, aren’t we?

We know better than to believe impossible things, don’t we?  Oh, we like our entertainments and we willingly suspend belief for all sorts of amusements, but when it comes to SERIOUS matters, to life and death issues, we like scientific proof.  We don’t want fantasy or make-believe, we want cold hard facts.  “There is no use trying, we simply cannot believe impossible things.”

And that puts us in something of a bind with things religious, doesn’t it?  Our religion asks us to believe all sorts of impossible things . . . to have faith.  And this is especially true at this time of year, isn’t it?  When we think of the Christmas story we know so well, the story of the birth of Jesus, I suspect that many of us move into a kind of twilight zone, in which childhood dreams and adult aspirations get all mixed together with our practical education and mature experience.  I suspect that we enter a place in which we willfully try neither to accept the story fully nor to reject it completely.  A place in which we are suspended somewhere between belief and unbelief . . . a very difficult place to remain for a very long time.

I sometimes wonder if all of the nonsense that has accumulated around Christmas is really our attempt to help us stay in this suspended state, distracted from the question of belief.  Well, if we find it very difficult to believe fully in the Christmas story, with its virgin birth and angels, its miracle star and wise men from the east, we’re certainly not the first.  Think of Mary.  Think of Joseph.

Mary, a young woman – practically a girl – visited by an angel.  What might that have been like?  Really?  I’ve known people who’ve had mystical experiences – I’ve had one or two myself – and I know that they can be difficult to believe in.  They are so OTHER worldly . . . so difficult to categorize or explain . . . so . . . IMPOSSIBLE.  Do you really think that the angel’s message made a bit of sense to Mary . . . this news that she will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit?  Would it make a bit of sense to YOU?  And if it were to come true, this unimaginable, miraculous pregnancy, what then?  She and Joseph are engaged, but not married.  He very well might reject her.  Her family might reject her, as well.  This pregnancy could result in her complete ruin.  And what about Joseph?  He’s no better off; he too is facing disaster . . . his fiancée pregnant (and not by him), his reputation ruined, the future he’d planned taken from him.

If you really consider Mary and Joseph, you’ll see that at the beginning of the Christmas story their lives are wrecked – this unwed, pregnant teenager and this jilted fiancé in danger of becoming a laughing stock – and yet – AND YET – they choose to do something utterly remarkable:  they choose to believe impossible things.  They survey the mess of their lives that surrounds them and they choose to believe that God is in the middle of it all.

God is in the middle of the mess!  And out of the mess, God will bring forth salvation!

That’s a mighty important message for us.  Like Mary and Joseph, are not we often presented by events beyond our understanding or control?  Are not some of us living lives that we never would have chosen for ourselves.  And, at times, are not we tempted to try to divorce ourselves from it all.  But, if we have ears to hear, it is just at this moment that an angel whispers to us:  “Do not fear.  God is here . . . right here in the middle of the mess.  It may not be the life you planned or dreamt of, but God will be born here, too, if you allow it.”

IF you allow it.  Ah, that’s a real shocker, isn’t it?  One of the things that the Christmas story teaches us is that God’s yes to us depends upon our yes to God.  God’s birth requires human partners – a Mary, a Joseph, a you, a me – willing to believe the impossible.  Willing to claim the messiness of our lives and the wreck of our world – and embrace them – knowing that God is in the midst of it all.

That’s the Christmas message I want to share with you this year . . . a message that’s so difficult to believe, and yet needs to be proclaimed over and over again to everyone who will hear:  God is with us, God is still being born in the middle of the mess, within and among those who still believe what angels tell them.

Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel; which, being interpreted, is, God with us. 

Then Joseph, being raised from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him” Matthew 1:23-24a.

And the angel Gabriel said to Mary:  “For with God NOTHING shall be impossible.”  And Mary said to the angel, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word” Luke1:37-38a.

May we, too, say YES to whatever it is that God is bringing to birth in the middle of our mess.  May we have the strength to let go of the terrible burden of old hurts and resentments; may we have the courage to let go of the blinding allure of our dreams and desires; and may we have the will to make room for whatever impossible thing it is that God is bringing to life in our midst.

Alleluia, alleluia, a savior is born to us!


[1] The springboard for this sermon, parts of which are direct quotations, is “Believing the Impossible” by Barbara Brown Taylor in her collection Gospel Medicine, published by Cowley Publications, pp. 154-157.

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