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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Giving Up or Giving In

Luke 1:26-38
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Sunday, December 18, 2005
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church PCUSA

Have you ever thought about how unlikely the Christmas story is? And, “unlikely” is putting it mildly. “Unbelievable,” might be a better description. If the concept of Christianity were totally new to you – and I know that’s pretty unlikely or even unbelievable living in the South – but if the first thing you ever heard about Christ, or about Christianity, were the verses we just read, you’d probably think, “These people have been hitting the egg nog a little heavy.”

First, Mary is “betrothed.” She’s not “engaged,” like the modern translations say. Being betrothed was pretty much like being married in Mary’s culture. And if you turned up “with child” with someone other than the betrothee, the punishment was death by stoning. From the very beginning of the beginning of Christmas, God’s breaking God’s own laws.

And then, the angel Gabriel tells Mary, the child will come from the house and lineage of David (that is, the betrothee’s – Joseph’s – family line). But Joseph doesn’t have anything to do with this child-to-be. Another confusing thing.

And then, there’s the whole notion of the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary. I’m not even going to try to explain that one. All I know is that’s not the way they teach it in Biology class.

Any reasonable adult, hearing this story for the first time, would be scrunching their eyebrows. The Christmas story is unlikely, unbelievable. You could even say it sounds simply impossible. Some people say, “Well, you simply have to suspend your disbelief and have faith that this is the way it happened.” The flipside of that is, though, that if you can’t believe these unbelievable things, your faith is a little defective.

But listen closely to what the angel Gabriel tells Mary. He doesn’t say, “Just believe, Mary, and it’ll come true.” And the angel certainly doesn’t sit Mary down to have the supernatural facts of life talk. The angel pretty much tells Mary straight out, “This is what’s going to happen.” Gabriel explains nothing; he’s just giving a little advance warning. And, when you’re Mary, advance warning is a good thing. The angel tells Mary, “Don’t be afraid.” And then he tells her one, crucial piece of information. One critical piece of information that in a sense tells her the entire gospel story, the story of what’s to come in her life, and the story of her baby’s whole life. He says, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Nothing will be impossible with God.

Which says to us – whether we’re trying to make sense of Christmas, or whether we’re just trying to make sense of the craziness in any given day – at the precise point when we hit the brick wall and throw up our hands and think life is just impossible… at that precise point God’s just getting started.

Faith is NOT believing unbelievable things. Faith is knowing when you’re overshadowed by the impossible. Faith is knowing you’re overshadowed by the impossible, and saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. I don’t have any idea what’s going on or how to explain it. But let it be with me according to your word. And I’ll do my best not to be afraid.”

Christmas begins with the impossible, and Christmas ends with faith.


If the impossible casts a shadow, there has to be a light behind it.

What do you do when the impossible overshadows you? Do you give up? Or do you give in? Mary’s reaction to angel Gabriel doesn’t sound to me like giving up. It sounds to me like giving in. It’s a fine distinction, but the difference is miles wide.

What if Mary had given up? What if, instead of the response we read in the Bible, Mary had said something like this: “Oh Lord, my life is just over. Joseph’s going to hate me. He might even drag me before the synagogue and make me repeat everything you’ve just told me. That’ll be entertaining. Sorry, Lord, I’m off to my country cousin Elizabeth’s. And good luck finding me or this baby after I’m gone. Lord, if this is what it means to be your servant, I’m giving up. See you later.”

Oddly enough, giving up sounds a lot like fighting against. Giving up on God, running away from God, is just another way of fighting against God, defying God and God’s choice.

I think there’s little doubt in churches that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was an extraordinary person. And maybe she was extraordinary because she was so faithful. Or maybe she was extraordinary because she had just enough faith to give in to God’s will, instead of giving up in the face of the impossible. Somehow, for some reason, Mary could see the light behind the shadow.

So what about you? What do you do when the dark angels of the impossible sneak into your head? Do you give up?

This whole sequence with Mary and the angel sounds a lot like a dream. It could have been. Mary’s betrother, Joseph, had dreams. Joseph was a dreamer and in his dreams, the angels told him pretty much the same thing as they told Mary.

What about your dreams? Do you give up on your dreams because they’re impossible? Or do you give in to your dreams because they’re too powerful to resist?

Mary didn’t give up, but she did give in. Mary gave in to the irresistible power of a God who wasn’t afraid to do the impossible. God still isn’t afraid to do the impossible. Honestly, I don’t think God would ask any of us to do what’s impossible. God knows we’re only human. But God would ask, and God does ask, that we have just enough faith to give in to the idea that God can do, God does do unlikely, unbelievable, even impossible things. And here’s the best part, God does these things with unlikely, unbelievable, even impossible people – like you and me.


“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

That’s probably putting it mildly. Is the appearance of God’s foremost angel, when you’re standing there in your pajamas – is this good news? or bad news? Well, yes. In this case, it’s a little of both. Mary’s been chosen. She has found favor with God. But finding favor with God doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to find favor with people. People like, say, your trothee, or your parents, or the neighbors who keep wondering why you’re putting on weight. What sort of greeting might the messengers of God bring? A good greeting? Or a bad greeting?

Here at Christmas time, we talk about “good news” and “great joy.” “Glad tidings,” are what we sing. Of course, Christmas is good news.

But good news, especially the good news of God, comes at a price. The good news of God always costs us something. If we give in to the power of God, we have to give up the power of the impossible. We have to give up the power the impossible drapes over us. If we give in to God’s power, we have to give up the power of resistance. We have to give up the power of doing things our way, in our time. As much as Mary might have wanted to rush that baby, that wish was not within her power. As much as we might want to rush God along, God’s going to get here when God gets here – nine months, nine years, nine seconds. We don’t know. And if that’s not bad news, it’s at least hard news. Good tidings of great joy can be a perplexing kind of greeting.

One of the Psalms (#137) asks, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” That’s a good question, and it hasn’t gone away. In this strange land, we’re called by God to sing the song of “peace on earth, goodwill to all.” Especially we’re called to sing it at Christmas. But the good and tough news is, we’re called to sing it all the time. In all the impossible times of this world. Between tsunamis, and hurricanes, and broken levies, and earthquakes. And terrorist threats. And wars. You and I are called, just as Mary was called (although in a different way) to sing the Lord’s strange song in a land all too familiar, a land where God is thought impossible, a land where loves are divided and loyalties are broken. In this strange land, you and I are called to sing about the unlikely, impossible power of an irresistible dream. You and I are called to give in to the spirit and the truth of the Christmas that won’t stop coming back – again, and again, and again. You and I are favored by God, just enough, to be overshadowed by the impossible but not overwhelmed by it. “The Lord is with you,” the angel told Mary. The Lord is with you. And you. And you. The Lord is with you and nothing, not the strength of this world, not the strength of any resistance, will take that power away.

So that leaves us with a choice. Pretty much the same choice as Mary. Do we give in to God’s power, do we give in to the power of Christmas? Or do we give up?