And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,
 To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.  And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.
 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.  And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.  He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:  And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.  And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.  For with God nothing shall be impossible.
 And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.
– Luke 1:26-28 (KJV)
This is the story that’s come down to us of how the Virgin Mary came to conceive the Child Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Matthew, Mark and John are silent on this visit from the Angel, though in Matthew the Angel appears to Joseph in a dream after the conception of Jesus (Matthew 1:20-21). But a version very similar to Luke’s, accepted by Muslims the world over, is given in the Qur’an (3:42-51):
[Mary] said: “O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man hath touched me?”
He said: “Even so: God createth what He willeth: when He hath decreed a Plan, He but saith to it, ‘Be,’ and it is!” – Al-i-‘Imran, 47 (Yusuf ‘Ali, tr.)
Christians and Muslims disagree on some very fundamental things, but the great point in both the Christian story and the Muslim story is that with God nothing shall be impossible, to which I can only say, Hallelujah, and Amen. I pray that men, women and children everywhere might come to have trust in God’s power, particularly now, at this time when all life on earth seems threatened by man-made global warming and industrial pollution, when whole societies are threatened by the AIDS epidemic, when the United States Government has gotten itself into an unstoppable-seeming war in Iraq and might now even get us into another one with Iran, when you and I may be struggling with an unconquerable-seeming addiction, an intractable sorrow, an incurable disease, a mountain of debt – yet God loves us, and with God nothing shall be impossible. Let us pray for faith in God, and if we need more, let’s pray for more faith, as the disciples did (Luke 17:5). And God will answer our prayer in the way that’s best for us.
I want to take us from the situation of Mary to our situation. Consider Mary’s position as an unmarried pregnant teenager in a society that might stone (Deut. 22:21-24) or burn (Lev. 21:9) such girls to death, who in spite of that risk said to the angel, “let it be unto me according to thy word. ” Are we ready to take such a risk to have Christ born in our own heart? Because that’s what the celebration of Christmas is about, Christ in us, or else it’s about nothing, a crucified dead body that had no effect on us. Fortunately, the Lord is not asking us to take Mary’s risk; but He is standing at the door of our heart, and knocking (Rev. 3:20), asking us to let Him in.
What happens when we let Him in? What does it mean to invite the Holy Spirit to make us conceive, and become pregnant with Christ-in-us, and become, as the 18th-century Rhode Island Quaker Job Scott put it, the mothers of Christ? [see his Essays on Salvation by Christ, Quaker Heritage Press, 1993.]
It sounds weird, doesn’t it? But it’s no weirder, no harder than Jesus’ “hard saying” that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood (John 6: 32-60) if we want to dwell in Him and have Him dwell in us. This is the impossible thing that is possible with God: that we say “yes” and then let Christ grow in us, till our own proud, fearful, vengeful, desperate, envious, lust-driven, control-hungry animal becomes tame and cooperative with its rightful Master. Slowly, and with effort on our own part (though it is really God working in us, Philippians 2:12), we come to be born again (or, as the Greek may also be translated, “born from above,” John 3:3), so that even in this life we may become incapable of falling back into sin (1 John 3:9).
Then instead of making a fool of ourselves trying to show off our own cleverness and our own righteousness, we may open our mouths and speak forth Christ’s wisdom and Christ’s lovingkindness. Some people may still think we’ve made a fool of ourselves, of course, but someone who hears the words from our mouth will recognize them as the witness of God, for God does not waste effort (Isaiah 55:11: “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it”).
Or if we are timid and lack courage, we may be surprised to find the courage of Christ rise up in us when we need it, and allow us to do and say things we’d never have thought ourselves capable of. Or if we’re easily angered, we may find a great calm settling over us – the peace of Christ – just in the very situation where we’d be most likely to fly into a rage. Are we restless and distracted and unable to concentrate? Christ’s one-pointedness will be ours the moment it’s needed. Does it depress us that our good will, attractive qualities and natural abilities are going unrecognized by an unappreciative world? Christ recognizes them and knows how best to use them. And at the end, when all our gifts are stripped away and we lie helplessly dying, Christ our Life (John 1:4, 9, 12-13; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:3-4) will be understood to have become Christ our very Self, the Vine in whom we have been branches (John 15), in Whom, and only in Whom, we have eternal life in oneness with God (John 17:3, 20-24).
This is what Paul called “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). I pray that men, women and children of all faith traditions discover it and rejoice in it, whether or not they ever adopt Christian language to describe it in. But Christ Jesus, who wills that all people should be saved (1 Timothy 2:4) and takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11) knows how to reach everyone that does not let himself or herself be unreachable.
I have prayed that I might be given words to touch your hearts, that might convey the Gospel, not just the Gospel that is the story of Jesus, but the Gospel that is the power of God to salvation (Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 1:17-18). With this Gospel comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God (Isaiah 40:1).
Preached at Manhattan Meeting, New York City, 12/16/2007