Sermon by Rev. Deborah Sunoo
As you may have noticed, our OT lesson has remained the same throughout Advent this year, but each week we’ve paired it with a different reading from the gospels. So far we’ve heard it with the urgency of Mark and with the edginess of Matthew.
This morning we hear it alongside that pregnant-with-possibility, heaven-meets-earth moment shared between Mary and the angel in Luke 1. The twist this time around? Nothing is impossible with God. Mountains moved? No big deal. Virgin birth? Not a problem. And while we’re at it, let’s throw in weapons hammered into farming tools, and justice poured like glass after glass of clear, fresh water into a world so thirsty for it its lips are chapped, its mouth parched, its skin taut and dry.
Implausible? Sure. Hard to imagine? Absolutely. Impossible? No.
Also, for better or for worse, not immediate. And the waiting can be tough.
Mary’s wait was less than a year, between promise and fulfillment, between (according to Luke) “Fear not, you will conceive” (1:30-31) and “she laid her firstborn son in a manger.” (2:7) Not that long, right? Ask any pregnant woman – nine months can seem like an eternity. The frenzy of preparations, the rush to get the nursery furnished, the diapers stocked, the names selected. . . and then days and weeks begin to drag on, and the little one still hasn’t arrived.
“Hurry up and wait” is an expression our family uses for this kind of waiting. Dashing out the door to work in the morning, only to sit in traffic. Rushing to the airport, only to find your flight’s been delayed. Hurry up and wait.
Welcome now to the world of biblical promise and fulfillment. Where the call to prepare is an urgent one, and the waiting isn’t measured in hours or days or weeks, but in years – sometimes hundreds of them.
Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the desert a highway for our God! The King of Kings is on his way.
Hurry up! Fill those lamps! The bridegroom is coming!
Wake up! Stay alert! Keep your eyes peeled! Because before you know it the desert will suddenly blossom. You’ll spot predators and their prey napping together in the sun. And all God’s children, every last one of them, will lay down their guns.
We’re told it could happen any minute! And yet here we sit. Hurry up? Yea, right - hurry up and wait…
Waiting’s a funny thing, isn’t it? “A girl who stands on a street corner waiting for the bus to arrive will experience one kind of waiting... The same girl on the same street corner hearing the sound of a parade that is just out of sight will also wait, but it will be a … waiting full of expectation, a waiting on tiptoe, an active waiting.”
Or as another preacher reminds us: “When you are waiting for something in particular, your brain has a way of phasing everything else out… If you are waiting for a certain car to pull into your driveway—it is two in the morning, say, and your seventeen-year-old is not home yet—you are not going to pay a whole lot of attention to the sound of an airplane overhead or the hum of the refrigerator cutting on. Your ears, your entire being, are tuned to one frequency alone, namely, the clatter of his [old Ford], which has needed a tune-up for months. If someone tries to talk to you while you are waiting for that sound, you may pretend to listen, but only until—shhh!—you hear a car come down the road.
“Scientists have devised a game that proves how hard it is for us to notice something when we are expecting something else. Here is how it goes. They sit you down at a table in front of an ordinary deck of cards and they flash six of them at you, asking you to identify them as fast as you can—nine of diamonds, three of hearts, jack of clubs—whoops! What was that one? Then they repeat the exercise, slowing it down a little so you can get the ones you missed the first time.
“The third time is so slow that you think you must be an idiot because there is one card you simply cannot identify. You think you know what it is, but you are not sure, and it is not until the cards are all laid face up on the table in front of you that you can see what the problem is. The mystery card is a six of spades, only it is red, not black. The deck has been fixed. Someone has changed the rules, rules that prevented you from seeing what was there. You could not see a red spade because spades are supposed to be black.
“Our expectations, however faithful, may prevent us from seeing what is there. I have often thought that the second coming would be wasted on me,” [says Barbara Brown Taylor] because I have such a set notion about how it is supposed to be: the Son of Man, riding a white horse with wings right out of the clouds, touching down on the White House lawn, maybe, or the skating rink at Rockefeller Center. Only what if he comes as … a Tibetan exile on a yak? What if he comes out of the housing projects…on a broken-down bicycle with dreadlocks down his back?”
[Or you may remember the challenge issued by our guest speaker from World Relief last month: What if Jesus returns to earth in the form of an illegal immigrant or a Syrian refugee?]
“Stranger things have happened, after all. ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?’ Red spades have always been hard to see.”
“There are all kinds of ways to wait, apparently. There is the tense, dread-filled waiting of those whose hope is gone. There is the resigned waiting of those for whom a spade is always a spade. There is even a kind of compulsive waiting, in which one collects signs of the end like souvenir spoons. Get the whole set and—poof!—the rapture comes.
“The problem will all of these . . . is that they assume God operates by the same rules we do and will never slip a wild card into the deck. Only what if God’s hand is all wild cards, including some greens and some blues?” 
What are we waiting for? For all those impossibilities we’ve been promised! Especially for the fulfillment of that word from God that comes to us as we scan the news or hear of yet another tragedy in our family or our neighborhood. That word that says: “Fear not. It gets better, so much better than this...”
“How can this be?” we ask with Mary. The world is so phenomenally screwed up! Children all over this planet, your children, God, for reasons surpassing our understanding, seem to know more of anger and animosity, violence and despair than they know of friendship and love. Peace, real peace, endless peace? “How can it be?”
It may not be immediate, God answers, but neither is it impossible.
Tim Dearborn tells a story about his daughter, who loved to read at bedtime.
When [he] insisted she go to sleep [one night], Alison replied, ‘I’m in the middle of an exciting part. If I stop reading, I won’t be able to sleep, I’ll be crabby in the morning, I will probably fall asleep in school, and it’ll be all your fault ‘cause you made me stop reading!’ Not persuaded, [Tim] assured her that she was a clever girl who needed to solve this problem and turn out her lights in five minutes. In the morning, she cheerfully bounced down the stairs. ‘You obviously had a good night’s sleep,’ [he] said. ‘How did you solve your problem with the book?’ ‘It was easy, Daddy,’ said Alison. ‘All I did was read the last chapter. After that, knowing how it ended, I slept great. I thought it would spoil the book, but instead, I can’t wait to read the rest tonight to find out how the author gets the characters out of the mess they were in, into such a great ending.’
God’s prophets are closer at hand than we might think.
It’s true, “the short-term is laden with the unknown—most likely filled with great joys and deep sorrows. But … [at least] the last chapter is known.”
“Fear not.” It’s a line God’s messengers use a lot in the Bible, isn’t it? Old Testament prophets. New Testament angels. “Fear not.” And why not? Why shouldn’t we be terrified? Because nothing is impossible with God, no matter how bleak, or confusing, or frightening it may look for a time.
Fear not. “Because I know the end of the story, Mary,” says Gabriel. “It ends with a babe in a manger.”
Fear not. “Because I know the end of the story, Peter, Thomas, James, John,” says Jesus. “It ends with an empty grave.”
Fear not. “Because we know the end of the story,” say God’s prophets, throughout the ages. “It ends with light shining on those who’ve dwelt in the deepest darkness (Isaiah 9:2).” “It ends with the lowly lifted up, and the hungry filled with good things (Luke 1:52-53).” “It ends with swords turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4).” “It ends with a countless multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages standing together before the throne of God.” (Revelation 7:9) It ends with endless peace (Isaiah 9:7).
“How can this be?” we ask with Mary. Incarnation? Resurrection? Endless peace?
And the angel’s answer echoes through the ages: “With God, nothing is impossible.”
Of course, we have no way of knowing when God will throw another red spade, another absolutely-does-not-compute impossibility into the deck. But if the past is any indication, they tend to be worth the wait.
 Willimon, “Relating the Text” commentary on Lectionary readings for Dec 1, 2002 in Pulpit Resource, Vol 30 No. 4, p. 41.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Apocalyptic Figs,” in Bread of Angels, p. 156-157.
 Tim Dearborn, “Surprised by Suffering,” in World Vision Today (spring, 2002), p. 13.