Sunday, December 18, 2011

How Can This Be?

Sermon from December 18, 2011
(Advent 4 – Year B)
Luke 1: 26-38
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

How can this be?
How can this be - that an NFL quarterback with average statistics can end up winning football games?
How can this be - that a quarterback can generate conversations on ESPN about the Christian faith?
How can this be - that Tim Tebow squeaks out last minute wins for the Denver Broncos?

These are the questions that are being asked whenever I hear Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow being discussed.
The conversation makes me want to tune in to see if Tebow will accomplish another Sunday afternoon miracle and to see if he will bow his knee to his Savior in the endzone.
When I hear the buzz about Tim Tebow, the question soon follows:
How can this be?

And when I hear the buzz about the Virgin Mary, the same question soon follows:
How can this be?

In Luke’s Gospel, the very first words out of Mary’s mouth are the question:
“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
And the angel Gabriel responds to her:
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
And the power of the Most High will overshadow you;
Therefore the child to be born will be holy;
He will be called Son of God.”

This is the story of the Annunciation.
This is the story where the angel Gabriel is sent by God to a town called Nazareth to a virgin whose name was Mary.
We are not told if Mary is any different than any other Jewish teenaged girl.
All we are told is that an angel was sent by God with an incredible announcement.
The announcement is that she would become pregnant, pregnant without any intimate relations with a man.
And the very first words out of Mary’s mouth are:
“How can this be?”

This incredible story of the Annunciation is the opening story in our Christmas narrative.
This incredible story can be a stumbling block to some who recite the Nicene Creed on Sundays, to those who have difficulty believing the virgin birth of Jesus.
For others, the incredible story has become so commonplace that we don’t pay attention to the scandal of the gospel, the scandal that makes us ask:
How can this be?

In Auckland, New Zealand, an Anglican church has generated quite a scandal with their new billboard.
St. Matthew-in-the-City Anglican Church has put up a billboard that has the style and look of a very classical painting of the Virgin Mary, as if it was painted a hundred years ago.
In the painting, Mary is gently swathed in blue and green and red robes.
In the painting, Mary’s left hand is over her mouth, as if she is in shock.
And in Mary’s right hand is a stick, the stick of a home pregnancy test, indicating a positive result.

I am glad that an Anglican church, just like St. Alban’s, is focusing our attention on the incredible response of Mary to the good news of God.
Yet there has been some negative reaction to the billboard in New Zealand.
Some critics are saying that Mary shouldn’t look shocked because she assented to the will of God.
Some are saying that the depiction of Mary with a home pregnancy test stick is distasteful.

Yet the billboard of Mary with a look of shock on her face and the pregnancy test in her hand highlights that Mary’s very first response to God’s miracle was to ask:
“How can this be?”

Yet God’s miracles are not just for Christians.
Our Jewish sisters and brothers will be celebrating one of the many miracles of God beginning this Tuesday, celebrating the incredible story of Hanukkah.

About 165 years before the birth of Jesus, the Jews had recaptured their beloved Temple from Greek and Syrian forces.
In the process of cleaning up the Temple so they could worship the one true God again, the Jews re-lit the lights in the Temple.
However, the Jews only had enough oil to keep the candles lit for one day.
Yet night after night, for 8 nights, the candles stayed lit, until new oil arrived.
Night after night, the Jews witnessed a miracle of God.
Night after night, for 8 nights, the Jews responded:
How can this be?

The more I travel through this life, the more I see that there are two very different ways that we can approach life.
First, we can see our life as rational, ordered, predictable events, events that we can manage and control.
Yet the other way we can see our life is to be open to the irrational, the mysterious, the incredible, events that we can never manage or control.
We can approach life from a human point of view - only taking into consideration the possible.
Or we can approach life from God’s point of view - taking into consideration the impossible.
For we worship a God of mystery, a God of the incredible, a God of the impossible.

Last Wednesday, I received an email that Bishop Claude Payne had just had hip replacement surgery at Scott & White in Temple.
Now Claude Payne was the seventh Bishop of Texas, who retired in 2003.
At St. Alban’s, we were blessed to have Bishop Payne with us for confirmation last May.

Bishop Payne became the Bishop of Texas in 1995.
At that time, I was a busy CPA in Houston, with no reason to ever know a bishop.

Then, in 2000, my first face-to-face encounter with Bishop Payne was when Susan and I appeared in his office, seeking his approval to send me to seminary.
While waiting in the bishop’s office, I can remember feeling like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, with my knees shaking and my palms sweating.
Yet over the years, Claude Payne has become my friend.

And last Wednesday, I drove down to Temple to visit Bishop Payne in the hospital.
He was doing well after his surgery and I had a nice conversation with him and with Barbara.
Then I asked if I could pray for him.
I held his hand and he grabbed onto mine.
And I was humbled to say prayers of healing for the retired Bishop of Texas.

As I walked out of the bishop’s hospital room and reflected on my life, I asked myself the question:
How can this be?

How can this be that God has twisted and turned my life in such a way that I could have never asked for or imagined?
For when we view life as an impossible mystery, then the first words out of our mouth are:
How can this be?

No matter what religion people follow, life is incredible and mysterious.
Yet what is particular about Christianity is that we believe that God is with us in the flesh.
We believe that God is born in us.
We believe that the question “how can this be?” is fleshed out in the Son of God, born of a woman, a woman with one hand over her mouth in shock and with the other hand holding a home pregnancy test.
We believe in an impossible mystery.

How can this be - that Tim Tebow wins football games?
How can this be - that Hanukkah lights burn without any oil?
How can this be - that a virgin has a positive pregnancy test?
I don’t know.

Yet I do know that God is with us.
I do know that Jesus has been born in me.
I do know that the power of the Most High has overshadowed me.

And in response to God’s incredible mystery, the first words out of my mouth are:
How can this be?


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