[Texts: Isaiah 7:10-14, Psalm 40:5-10, Hebrews 10:4-10, Luke 1:26-38]
Have you ever been really surprised?
I’m not talking about the kind of surprise that would elicit a response like, “Hmm, that’s interesting,” or “Wow, that was unexpected”.
I mean the kind that leaves you speechless with your jaw on the floor, thinking, “But that’s impossible!”
Finding out you’re pregnant when didn’t think you could get pregnant—you were past a certain age, perhaps, or you’d been careful about trying to prevent pregnancy, or you had given up trying to conceive after a long struggle with infertility—would definitely be an example of the latter category.
But I’m pretty sure finding out you’re pregnant when you’re a virgin constitutes a whole different category of “surprise”.
That’s certainly what Mary seems to think, if you look at verse 34. “But how is that possible?” she asks Gabriel. “I’m a virgin.” And really, can you blame Mary for being shocked? She may have been young, but she wasn’t stupid. She knew where babies came from.
Then, come to find out, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth is pregnant too—she’s about six months along. We don’t know Elizabeth’s exact age, but the Bible says “in her old age”, which I take to mean she’s at least old enough to be past menopause. It also says she was “said to be barren,” meaning nobody thought she could have kids in the first place, even when she was the right age.
Now, we know that this isn’t the first time a woman in the Bible has conceived well past her childbearing years, and/or conceived in spite of having been considered barren. Remember Sarah? What about Hannah? But still, even though wasn’t unheard of, it’s still certainly not something one saw every day. (And a virgin birth actually was unheard of.)
Based on what she’d been taught, and what she’d observed for herself, Mary had acquired a reasonable set of expectations about the circumstances under which the creation of new life is and isn’t possible. Certain conditions need to exist in order for something new to be created, and in Mary’s case, those conditions hadn’t been met. Even for Elizabeth, who wasn’t a virgin, other conditions precluded her from becoming pregnant.
So, surely, it was impossible.
You’d think so.
But Gabriel tells her—and us—that “with God, nothing is impossible.”
“With God, nothing is impossible.” What does that mean?
While there is no support in scripture for the idea of a God who is literally omnipotent—that notion would have been totally foreign to a Jew in Jesus’ day—we as Christians do proclaim God to be almighty—that is, we believe God is the most powerful Being in the universe, and capable of more than we could possibly get our finite human minds around. In other words, God is not actually all-powerful, but God is far more powerful than anything we can imagine.
We see God’s awesome power in the stories we generally label as “creation narratives”, whether we’re talking about scientific theories or religious mythology that deals with the beginning of the world. (I use the word “myth” here not to mean “something that is untrue”, but rather in its original use, which might be defined as a story we tell to give meaning to observable reality.) Looking at both the scientific creation narrative, which helps us understand the mechanics of how the world came to be, and the mythology and poetry of the religious narratives presented in Genesis, which give meaning to creation, we see a God whose sense of order and creativity are nearly boundless. We see a God who delights in the whole created order—who called each part “good” as it was being created, then stepped back to look at his masterpiece and declared it all to be “very good”.
But really, creation narratives aren’t limited to just stories about beginnings. Creation is an ongoing story. Both our religious and scientific narratives speak of creation not as a one-time event but as a process has never ceased. Science tells us how creation is constantly being perfected and re-created through the process of evolution. Faith also speaks of God as one who is constantly doing something new, whose hand is always at work in the world, working through all that he has created to bring about a world that looks more like his divine dream.
We are in the midst of an ongoing creation narrative—all of us, right now. We are actors in the drama of creation, directed by an incredibly creative, powerful, and even playful God.
Because of who God is, if we want to serve God, we must always be willing to be surprised. We must always be willing to open our minds beyond what we expect to be possible, and recognize the hand of God at work in surprising places, doing surprising things in surprising ways.
If there’s one thing humans love doing, it’s putting God in a box. A God who fits in a box is small enough and manageable enough that he doesn’t surprise us or inconvenience us or interfere with our own plans. But when we do that, when we put God in a box of our own making, we are no longer worshipping God. We are worshipping a box.
But when we, like Mary, are willing to offer ourselves up as human vessels for the work that a wild and untamable God intends to do in the world through us, nothing is impossible.