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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

How? Now!

When Mary is confronted by the astonishing news that she will be a mother, she is filled with disbelief. Now that is not such a strange reaction to such news - many women have been filled with disbelief at the first sign of their pregnancy. A woman who wishes not to have a child responds to the news with disbelief conditioned by dismay, while one who wants desperately to have a child but has feared she'll never bear one may well try to shield herself from yet another round of disappointment by disbelieving the news she will be a mother.

Luke tells us that Mary's disbelief is rooted even deeper - how can she possibly be with child when she is still a virgin? The angel responds that nothing is impossible with God. Nothing! No matter how impossible our situation, nothing is beyond the reach of the one who reached from heaven to earth to give us a Savior. No matter how great or how little our faith, nothing in our world lies beyond God's transforming love and power. 

The "how" of Jesus' conception is not explained in the Bible, and it appears to have been of little concern to the first Christians, as we see no direct reference to it in the New Testament beyond Jesus' birth narratives. The resurrection of Jesus, on the other hand, is a critical part of the story of Jesus that they tell. The only time the Bible mentions the question of "how" Jesus was conceived is during Mary's own response to the angel's news that she would bear the Savior. In subsequent centuries the church's wrestling with the "how" question becomes one of its biggest stories, but it's not the biological question over which it is concerned. It's the larger theological question: How could one person be both fully human and fully divine?

While the science question and the theology question are very different, they both have just one answer: "Nothing is impossible for God." The angel's answer to Mary is not just for her; it is God's word to us all. "Nothing is impossible for God!" Years later, Jesus uses the same language to account for something that he says is humanly impossible, namely, for the wealthy to be saved. But through the power of God, even they can be saved! (Mark 10:25-27)

Mary's first response to the angel is "How?" Her second response is, essentially, "Now!" It is her immediate self-offering in response to God's word. "I am yours; do with me what you want!" Again, Mary's story is the story of us all - God is seeking the same from all of us, namely to give ourselves fully and immediately to the Lord.

I am graphically reminded of that daily as I look at the ring on my right hand. Tammy had it made for me by a custom jeweler as a surprise fiftieth birthday present. It is a beautiful rendering in solid gold of John Calvin's personal seal, a burning heart being offered up in an open hand. Calvin had a personal slogan that accompanied his seal: Cor meum tibi offero, Domine, prompte et sincere. Tammy had that etched in its original Latin on the inside of my ring. It means, "I offer up my heart to you, Lord, sincerely and without delay."

Jesus says just one other time in the Gospels that nothing is impossible with God. It is in Gethsemane just before his arrest, where he wrestles against his destiny with death. (Mark 14:36) He pleads with his Father, "Nothing is impossible with you. Surely you can save me from this destiny!" Then he follows that immediately with, "Nevertheless, may what you want be done, not what I want." Mary's word from his moment of conception lives on in her son. "Do what you want with me, O Lord. Do it now." May it live also in us this Christmastide and beyond.

May you have a truly blessed Christmas!

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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