I wonder if you heard this week about the young dad at the Kmart layaway counter in Indianapolis. With three kids in tow, he asked to pay something in his bill because he knew he wouldn’t be able to afford it all before Christmas. Then, a woman stepped up and said, ‘No, I’m paying for it.’ He looked at the assistant manager behind the counter, then back at the woman. Is this a joke, he asked. They both shook their heads, No. And he just burst into tears. A similar thing happened at a handful of Kmarts across the country, with anonymous donors paying off strangers’ layaway accounts, buying things other families couldn’t afford, especially toys and children’s clothes set aside by poorer parents. Before she left the store Tuesday evening, the Indianapolis woman had paid the layaway orders for as many as 50 people. On the way out, she handed out $50 bills and paid for two carts of toys for a woman in line at the cash register. "She was doing it in the memory of her husband who had just died, and she said she wasn’t going to be able to spend it and wanted to make people happy with it," an assistant manager who spoke with her said. The woman did not identify herself and only asked people to "remember Ben," an apparent reference to her husband. An Omaha nurse received a call at work telling her her balance had been paid. Dozens of others received similar calls in Nebraska, Michigan, Iowa, Indiana and Montana. One mom whose son was a patient at Seattle Children’s Hospital, got a call on her cell saying that her bill had been paid.1 In these complicated economic times, when life is so hard for many, and our anxiety leads us to hold things – especially money – close to ourselves. In these times, in these days, some people chose to be generous.
"For nothing will be impossible with God."
A few months ago on a Thursday afternoon I made my way downtown to Durham Bulls Park. The season had been over a few weeks, but the stadium was playing host to Project Homeless Connect. This event, planned by the leadership of Durham’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, is a ridiculously simply concept – take as many providers of services for our homeless brothers and sisters and put them all together in one place. Folks come in, register, and then head up to the concourse where they can get a good meal, receive access to medical and dental care – a numbers of doctors and students from the Duke School of Nursing were there. They can meet with folks from the VA, Social Services, register for unemployment or sign up for classes to help them find a job. Childcare, housing, transportation. You name it, you can probably find it. I got there as the event was winding down and was talking to colleagues, staff from many of our wonderful partner organizations. A few minutes into a conversation, a loud bell rang. Everyone cheered, then resumed whatever they were doing. After a second time about 15 minutes later, I asked someone what was happening. They told me that anytime that bell rang, someone had found a job or a place to live. Someone without work had found it. Someone who did not have a place to stay that morning had one by evening.
"For nothing will be impossible with God."
Try and glimpse how ordinary this scene begins. In the sixth month Gabriel is sent by God to Galilee, to a town there called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to this guy named Joseph, of the family of David. By the way, Luke tells us, her name was Mary. You can see how abrupt it feels as Mary, doing whatever she was doing around the house, receives this holy interruption. "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." I bet she dropped whatever she had in her hands, rubbed her eyes, stepping back. She was much perplexed, Luke says, which feels like quite an understatement…
But the angel continues, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God." And I wonder if, for an instant, she sensed her place in the line of faithful to whom God had spoken those essential words…do not be afraid, from Abram and Sarai to Hagar in the wilderness, from Moses to Ruth to Elijah. That, in Matthew’s gospel, Gabriel speaks also to Joseph and shepherds on the hillside, that Jesus himself spoke to disciples and lepers and little children, that an angel also said to a handful of women who stumbled upon an empty tomb 33 years later.2 Do not be afraid. And she was invited to take her place in God’s remarkable story with humanity by bearing this child. His name is to be Jesus, Gabriel says, "He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
I would imagine it sounded a bit ridiculous, at the very least completely overwhelming. She started with the first excuse she could think of, the mechanics of this conception. The WHY was too big, so she started with the HOW. The angel takes care of that one rather quickly: God. The answer is God. The Spirit will come upon you, and God’s power will do this thing. In case you need an example, your relative Elizabeth who was once barren, even at her age has conceived a son. And then, with a twinkle in his eye, the angel smiled and said, "For nothing will be impossible with God."
I don’t know what was going on in Mary’s head in the moments after the angel spoke those words. My guess is that some time passed. Maybe she thought about those forbearers in the faith, matriarchs and patriarchs and out of the way people in out of the way places, friends and grandparents and Sunday School teachers that inspired her. That taught her how to practice faith. I doubt that she had any idea the absurdity of what was to occur. I mean, think of it. That God has chosen to be born and live and breathe and walk among us, to cry and be hungry and in pain among us. That God has throw in God’s lot with us here. That if this text is to be believed, and I believe it is, that roughly 2,015 years, 9 months, and 7 days ago a messenger of God who had a name, Gabriel, appeared in a vision to a peasant girl who also had a name, Mary, and told her something very much like what the gospel writers say: that, though she was young, and not wealthy or powerful, and not yet married to her husband-to-be, that she was chosen of God to be the theotokos, the bearer of the God-man, into the world of human history and time.3
And if all that is to be believed, and I believe it is, then all of history hung in the balance for that moment, when Gabriel stood in Mary’s room and shared with her this good yet terrifying news, reminding her of the truth to which we MUST cling this season – that nothing will be impossible with God. And if this, too, is to be believed, and I believe it is, then possibilities exist that did not before. That you, that we, might join together this season in being a part of Christ coming again. In a world filled with pain, from exhausted loved ones in the ICU at Duke Hospital to the worst parts of Port-au-Prince, from bloated bellies in sub-Saharan Africa to the neighbors whose family is falling apart. That incarnation means, that Christmas means, that God has moved on in with us. And when things get too hard and full, and we are pressed to the point of being so overwhelmed, we can remember the angel as he stood there in front of Mary. And how we might receive the faith to give an extravagant gift, or check in on someone who is lonely. That we might feed someone without food, clothe someone without clothes, be a part of healing a wound or stepping forward in faith to change things in this sad and broken world. That we might walk with Mary, empowered by her faithfulness, and say, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." And that we might mean it, as people we love get sick, as the world seems too much sometimes, that we might KNOW that NOTHING, nothing, will be impossible for God.
All praise be to God. Amen.
2. You can look up the rest, but the last one comes from Matthew 28:5.
3. This idea comes from my friend the Rev. Dan Lewis, pastor of First Presbyterian in Statesboro, Georgia, in his paper on this text for the 2011 gathering of The Well in Austin, Texas.