And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. . .
I speak to you of what is still possible because of the One who became flesh and dwelled among us. Amen.
When Mary first learned that she, an unmarried girl, would conceive and bear the child whose birth we celebrate, she asked How can this be? The angel Gabriel explained to her what would happen, and how–a human impossibility. Then he said, For nothing will be impossible with God. It would have been impossible, if Mary had refused to do her part, but she didn’t. “Let it be with me,” she said, “according to your word.”
May we give thanks for all the Marys and Josephs of our day who say yes to God’s impossible possibilities. As Auden imagines what the same angel said to Joseph as he grappled with the prospect of raising the child Mary was carrying, “they do what is hard as if it were easy.”
For nothing is impossible with God. This rather audacious theme runs throughout the Bible, amid a vast collection of stories that tell of both our human foibles and more endearing qualities, wondrous events and great calamity, natural disasters and horrific evil inflicted on human beings by other human beings–stories that we recognize as an earlier version of the world we live in today. Yet like a solid bass line holding a complex musical piece together, there is this steady underlying message: For nothing will be impossible with God.
It’s often explicitly spoken, as it was to Mary, by an angel, or a prophet, or from God directly, when God calls upon ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
We first hear of God’s impossible possibilities in one of the earliest biblical stories about an old married couple, Abraham and Sarah, whom God told when they were 100 and 90 years old respectively, that they, like Mary thousands of years later, would have a baby–their first–who was to be the beginning of something new. Their response was to burst out laughing. Abraham fell on his face, he laughed so hard. Sarah chuckled to herself as she imagined, at her age with an even older husband, once again knowing pleasure. Like Mary in the far off biblical future, they didn’t refuse to go along; they, too, said yes to God’s impossible possibility. And when their child was born, they called him Isaac, a name which means “laughter.” After years of disappointment and grief, Sarah said, “God has brought laughter to me.” For Sarah, laughter was still possible, and the gift of a child. (Genesis 21:6)
For nothing will be impossible with God. Moses, you may recall, was summoned by God to go before Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, and demand freedom for the enslaved Hebrew people. He was terrified at the prospect, for good reason. You see, Moses stuttered. He had trouble getting words out of his mouth–how on earth would he convince the most powerful man in Egypt to change his mind? God, in essence, said to Moses, “Never mind your inadequacies. I’m about to do something big, and you have a part to play.” LIke Abraham and Sarah before him, and Mary and Joseph after him, Moses said yes to God’s impossible possibility. (Exodus 6:28)
For nothing will be impossible with God.
What might this mean for you and for me on this Christmas Eve?
Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean.
A young boy, coming out of his classroom after finishing a test was heard praying, “Oh God, please make Paris the capital of Turkey.” Some things are impossible for God.
Here’s a more heart-breaking example, one that comes to mind every year at Christmas, from a novel I read years ago entitled The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton. It tells the story of a girl who had more than her share of troubles. Truly, through no fault of her own, her life was filled with chaos and confusion. In an early chapter, when Ruth was quite young, one of her relatives takes her to church during the weeks leading up to Christmas. There Ruth hears, for the first time, about a baby about to be born who would bring peace and goodwill to the world. She is so relieved that help was coming at last, that somehow this baby would make things right in all the places where everything was so terribly wrong. As Christmas approaches, she gets more and more excited at the prospect of Jesus’ miraculous arrival and all that would happen as a result. But when she and her family go to church on Christmas Eve, she watches as children she knows from school re-enact the manger scene. Jesus is just the neighbor’s new baby wrapped in a towel.
Her story has stayed with me because I had a similar experience as a child as I struggled to make sense of all the promises associated with Jesus alongside the reality of my world. Truth be told, I still struggle, if nothing is, indeed, impossible with God, and our God is a God of love, why is life still so hard for so many.
We’re all acutely aware of human suffering across time and space. We’re all living through our own times of trial, suffering, and disappointment–some harsher than others. How does hope endure, and faith in God’s power in the face that all that would indicate otherwise?
For nothing will be impossible with God.
The words are never spoken in a vacuum, as if God were interested in impressing us with feats of cosmic magic or accolades from those who cannot see clearly the world as it is. No, they always occur within the context of human/divine relationship and in response to a particular circumstance when something brave is waiting to be done.
The Apostle Paul, writing 50 years or so after Jesus’ birth, put it this way in his letter to the Ephesians: “Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine.” And in his letter to the Christians in Philippi, which he wrote while in prison, he said, “I am confident of this, that the One who began a good work in you will see it through to completion.”
For nothing is impossible with God. In the very specific situations in your life and mine when God wants us to believe tonight, and to trust two things: first, that we are not alone, that God is with us, no matter who or where we are, no matter what we’ve done or failed to do.
Second, something you and I hold dear which may feel impossible for us is still possible. Not everything, mind you, but something–something real. “Christmas,” writes the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister, “is about finding life where we did not expect it to be.”1 “The world is the manger,” Frederick Buencher put it, “The miracle shows up here.”2 When God shows up, good things are still possible, even when–or especially when–they seem impossible to us.
No, Paris will never be the capital of Turkey. And you already know what Ruth and I had to learn at an early age–that the baby Jesus doesn’t swoop in and make our lives perfect. Tonight isn’t about wishful thinking, or magic, or perfection. It’s about a love that won’t let us go and assurance that something specific that you hope for is still possible.
Whatever that is for you may seem impossible for very good reason–and surely some of what we hope for will not come to pass. But listen tonight, should you hear those words or feel them resonating within your beating heart, ponder them, like Mary, and dare to believe that particular context of your life nothing will be impossible with God.
I realize that there are enormous issues that require us all to be brave and to learn from Jesus how to love as God loves. We all need to hold hands and take an enormous evolutionary leap if our species is to survive, for the best of who we can be to take the reins from our worst instincts. It isn’t a sure bet that this will happen. But Jesus’ birth is stunning, audacious affirmation that God has not given up on us. How, then, dare we? This is the night to cast our lot with hope.
I would be remiss if I left you tonight without reciting a few lines from the poem that helped bring this sermon into being. It was written by David Whyte during the depths of the pandemic we are still enduring, and is entitled Still Possible:
It’s still possible to be kind to yourself . . .
it’s not too late now, to bow to what beckons . . .
It’s still possible to leave every fearful former self
In the wake of newly heard words
Issuing from an astonished mouth.
Yes, It’s still possible to be a soul
on its way to a beautiful, beckoning,
and bountiful somewhere
Looking for the gift you will bring back . .
This time with the cleaner earned simplicity of knowing
What it has taken you so long to learn: to ask for forgiveness
By being forgiveness, to live more generously,
And then to dance more bravely,
To speak more suddenly, and with a free heart.
It’s still possible in the end
to realize why you are here
and why you have endured,
and why you have suffered
so much, so that in the end,
you could witness love, miraculously
arriving from nowhere, crossing
bravely as it does out of darkness
From that great and spacious stillness inside you.3
We witness love tonight, for Jesus comes to us, with a love that shows us what is still possible, for us and for our world. But remember that we are never passive bystander’s in love’s fulfillment. The One for whom the impossible is still possible asks us to do our part, as Mary and Joseph did theirs.
Say yes tonight to whatever it is that by the power of God working in you, and through the love of God revealed in Jesus, is still possible. Be among those who choose to do what is hard as if it were easy, knowing that you are part of the miracle of impossible possibilities.
3 Still Possible, by David Whyte (Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 2021), 95-98.