God’s impossible truth
The Christmas story isn’t a children’s fairy tale
How often during these days of holiday preparations do we hear people say, “This is what the season is all about!” Maybe we say it ourselves: Through a misting of tears, perhaps, as we look over our family gathered at the table. Or at the end of a well-sung Christmas concert.
I’ve heard it most often when someone is talking about children. Some folks even say, “Christmas is for children.” Do they mean that Christmas is no more than fairy-tale wonderment? For sure, December is chock-full of kid fun, from cartoon specials and candy treats to Santa and his sack.
Even when we say, “Let’s not lose the real meaning of Christmas,” that points us to the manger where we find — a child! But just because Christmas is about the coming of a child does not make it childish.
Before we even come to the climatic episode of Christ’s birth, we stub our toes on this little hidden rock of faith concealed in the story’s beginning.
It’s when the angel Gabriel tells Mary of God’s plan, which includes her participation. It’s out of sync with her plans and seems humanly impossible. We hear this text on the fourth Sunday in Advent, often the day congregations stage their children’s pageant. This incredible story could open these plays.
We’d all be reminded that Mary is a bit perplexed — and shocked — hearing that she is about to bear a child. Before the multitude of angels announced Jesus’ birth — the “reason for the season” — this one angel tells a lone young woman what all of this is going to do, to prove, to mean. Here’s the point of it all, Gabriel proclaims: Nothing will be impossible with God.
This statement of faith hasn’t found its way into the messages on our Christmas cards. But it is the explanation Mary received. It’s what the season reveals: Nothing will be impossible with God.
Growing up in faith
One of the reasons I loved my parents as a little child was that nothing seemed impossible for them. They seemed to know everything. And anything I needed or needed to know, they were able to provide.
Of course, a part of growing up is the slow realization that parents don’t have all the answers to the world’s problems — or to ours. Believing your parents can do anything is a fairy tale that fades.
Throughout the millennia the believer’s relationship with God has often been described as one of child and parent. “Our Father who art in heaven,” begins our most common prayer. Some also use the image of God as Mother or Grandfather, but the relationship is the same. We are like the 3-year-old walking through life with our parents, needing and trusting them to provide everything. Children have little problem believing that with God nothing is impossible because they live it in their little lives every day.
I’m afraid when I hear someone say, “Christmas is for children.”
I fear that we will miss Gabriel’s incredible statement to Mary: For nothing will be impossible with God. If Christmas is only for children, if we have grown beyond it, then what is Christmas for us?
The book of Daniel, a writing designed to boost the faith and courage of a people being oppressed and tortured by foreign powers, contains the well-known story of three young men who are threatened with death in the fiery furnace if they don’t worship foreign idols. They refuse to do so.
The mighty King Nebuchadnezzar, who believes he holds their lives in his hands, asks them what god will save them. They answer: It may be that our God will come and save us from your hand, but know this, even if it seems that God is going to let us be burned up, we will still believe!
These ancestors in the faith standing before the heat of the oven, and Mary kneeling in the coolness of the angel’s wings, accepted the grown-up truth about faith in God’s possibilities. Putting yourself in God’s hands means trusting in the promise that God will work all things for good in God’s way, in God’s time, in God’s economy. It does not mean we will always understand what is happening in us, through us, to us — or why.
Mary’s belief in God’s possibilities led her to be an embarrassment to her family, unwed and pregnant. Later she watched her son executed as a criminal. Some blessed life!
The three men before the furnace did not assume their faith would save them. But they acknowledged that even death could not kill the hope within them.
The Christmas story is nothing like the Disney fairy tales where all your self-centered dreams come true. No rags-to-riches. No happily-ever-after that the world would understand.
Taking the Christ Child into our hearts does not guarantee our cancer will be cured, our jobs will be secure or our children will all be above average. We aren’t wishing upon a star. We’re being led by one. And that makes all the difference in how we understand our lives.
I hear about a man in the last stages of cancer, and I ask his sister if he belongs to a church, if he has a pastor to care for him. She answers, with regret, that he left the church 30 years ago — after the loss of a second child. She didn’t need to explain further.
Most of our congregations have among their inactive members the names of our brothers and sisters who have been crushed with despair and disappointment.
The Christmas promise of God’s possibilities is challenging in the face of the tragedy, oppression and hopelessness the world can send our way.
But the message of this season is clear: Nothing is impossible with God. The Christmas angels tell us there are no God-forsaken people or places. Emmanuel is here — God with us, and with us all the time.
In this Christmastide as we hear the story again, we each must choose whether to receive it as fairy tale or truth. For nothing will be impossible with God, the angel said. We can only assume that includes turning our impossible hearts as well.