It's not Just Impossible
In 1970 Perry Como sang "It's Impossible." It was just impossible for the sun to leave the sky, to ask a baby not to cry, and to keep the ocean from the shore. Although Gabriel tells Mary, "Nothing is impossible with God." It's not just impossible.
The Greek word translated impossible is a-du-na-te-o. From this word comes the name for a figure of speech of ancient poetry: "Adynaton". Adynaton is defined today as a form of extreme hyperbole so that what is stated is impossible. You're familiar with this. "It's raining cats and dogs." "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse." "When pigs fly." Adynaton in ancient poetry is where an impossible or very unlikely situation is used for emphasis. Here's an example. "'Luxuriant Erymanthus [a mountain] will feed dolphins, And the sea's gray wave swift deer'" (Homosexuality in Greece and Rome,297).
Let me give you one more example not from ancient times but from the 16th century to bring us back to the point at hand. It's from Shakespeare. After Macbeth has murdered King Duncan, he is overcome with guilt so much so that he sees his hands as bloody. He says, "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?" He concludes that's impossible and then illustrates this by saying his bloody hands will rather turn "the multitudinous seas" from green to red.
Is the green and red what bring us back to Christmas? No, being confronted with sin and guilt that nothing in creation can take away does. Gabriel is on hand to announce the solution to this impossibility. The Holy Spirit will come upon the virgin Mary, that is, the power of the Most High God will overshadow her, so that something not from this world, God of God, can be born into it. And we know this is about the sin and guilt of mankind because Gabriel tells Mary to name the Person God will produce through her womb Jesus.' Later an angel will tell Jesus' step-father Joseph why: "Because He will save His people from their sins."
When Gabriel says to Mary "For nothing is impossible with God," he says, "for nothing is a-du-na-te-o with God." This is an explicit reference to what the Lord said to old Abraham and Sara. What the Lord says to them in Genesis 18 in the ancient Greek translation of the Bible is almost quoted here. However, it's usually translated "Is anything too hard for the Lord".
The words are similar, but there are differences. In Genesis 18 the Lord uses Greek not as strong as Gabriel does. In Genesis the Lord says nothing is impossible to God. Gabriel says nothing is impossible of God. Gabriel emphasizes that God by placing His Son in her womb, is doing an impossible thing. He's giving of His very self. In Genesis, the emphasis in on nothing being impossible to God. That's true by definition. God is omnipotent, all powerful. He can do anything He wills to do.
Gabriel also expands on the promise. He adds the word "every" which English doesn't translate. Every Word God has spoken is not impossible. If God speaks that pigs fly, cows jump over the moon, people guilty as sin are forgiven,and red sins be white as snow, these things must happen.
Both the Lord and His angel have rha-ma in the emphatic end position. It's variously translated as "nothing" "anything" or "everything", but this Greek word really emphasizes that something is spoken. It's translated "word" emphasizing that what God Almighty speaks has tangible impact on this world. What God speaks is reality; not impossibility. God speaks, and the eternal Word of God becomes flesh and blood. God spoke the universe into existence taking the ridiculously long time of 6 days. God speaks in water and recreates sinners by baptizing them into the Triune God. God speaks, and Bread is the Body of His Son and Wine is the Blood of His Son. No rha-ma from God is impossible.
You know what the real thing to puzzle over here is? Why would Gabriel think a Word of God spoken 1,800 years before would have so great an impact on Mary? I said that wrong. The real thing that puzzles me is why this Word of God caused this young virgin to declare herself the slave of the Lord and say with all her body and soul "may it happen to me according to the rha-ma of you?" I still didn't say that right. The real issue is why did this rha-ma blow Mary away and not me?
I'll tell you why: because Mary knew this is the upside down, and what God is doing is not just the impossible. The upside down' is a concept popularized by the Netflix series Stanger Things. The series is set in the 80's amidst middle schoolers who play the fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons. The show puts into the game the idea of another world out of phase with this one. That world is a place of monsters. For us, it's more important that "'It is right next to you and you don't even see it.'" Mary saw the upside down' and was humbled, awed, and overjoyed. I'm still not seeing it.
Let's go back to the word impossible, a-du-na-te-o, and the ancient Greek figure of speech that is still used in English, adynaton. A classics professor at UT says the ancient Greek figure of speech called adynaton can be translated not just impossible but "'world upside down.'" It's a complete reversal of the expected order of things (Ibid. fn. 74).
You should be hearing "Twilight Zone" music or that "Star Wars" music that introduces a strange world the movie hasn't been to before. What if what the Lord says to Abraham and Sara who are decades beyond childbearing years and what Gabriel says to Mary who cannot conceive a child right then and there because she has never known a man, what if each are being told nothing is upside down with God's World? In God's world virgins can conceive; God is Man and Man is God. In God's world Sin, Death, and Devil don't rule. In God's reality there is no past, present, or future, everything is now all at once. In God's world which is upside down to sinners, everything is as God's rha-ma declares it be.
You want to know the truth? The world of monsters is this one. Jesus Himself says Satan is the god and prince of this world. Adam forfeited it to him by obeying his word rather than God's. Once Adam did that, into this reality, into our world rushed demons, death, sin, and guilt. The nakedness that was no problem before became one and had to be covered. The God whom Adam walked with in the evening had to be hidden from. The perfect love that existed between husband and wife degenerated to the usurping and tyrannizing every married person knows.
In the TV show Stranger Things, the pride of man daring to do what he should not lets the upside down into their world, the world which they consider to be the right side up one. In reality, Adam's fall turned this world into the upside down, and Satan runs it because of God's Word. God's Word had promised that men who break His Law, even a tiny one, must die forever in damnation. God's holy promise gave Satan the right to stride boldly into heaven as you see him doing in Job 1 and 2 and Zechariah 3. "You have to fulfill, your promise," Satan can demand based on God's own Word. "Your own Law proves these wretched humans are guilty of this, this and this. You must damn them as your Law promises."
There is no help, no hope, no solution in the upside down. So, God from the right-side up world without end comes up with a solution. It's radical. He will send His only beloved Son into the upside down, but to do that He will have to take on flesh and blood. He could have popped into the upside down as toddler, a boy, a man. But in order to redeem humanity from it's very root, He humbled Himself and took on flesh and blood in the womb of a virgin. By becoming fully man God the Son placed Himself under all the Laws God had given humanity.
He can save His people from their sins because He can do what they can't. He as a man can keep all God's laws perfectly. That means as a toddler He never stamped His foot and said, "No!" As a young man He was confronted with all the temptations of youth, but didn't give into one of them. As an adult, the devil and the world came knocking on His flesh, but He didn't open the door.
In Stranger Things or any show where people from one reality go to another, they don't go there without experiencing bad side-effects. Except there is usually one person who can go back and forth relatively easily. Well, Jesus, because He is not only true Man but true God, lives in both places at once. He doesn't have side-effects, but that doesn't mean He isn't effected. He says in the depths of His law keeping and innocent suffering for sins, "How long must I bear with this perverted generation?" On the cross He asks God why He has forsaken Him in this upside down?
Unlike make-believe where the upside down is conquered by the right-side up by power, Jesus retakes the upside down by suffering, sighing, bleeding, dying and being stuck in a stone-cold tomb. God took His Son placed Him into the upside down where He lived a holy life. But for us men and our salvation, He made Jesus from the right-side up to be sin in the upside down. He took all guilt, shame, and sin and put them on Jesus who suffered, bled, and died to pay for it. But there's more. He put all of Jesus' holiness over the upside down. He did what Macbeth said was impossible, and it didn't take all the water in the oceans to do it. He made the blood-red hands of humanity white again by the blood of Jesus Christ.
What blows Mary away is that God comes into the world we've made upside down to rescue us. By so doing, He does not just the impossible but changes the upside down. It's possible in the reality God recreates though Jesus not only for babies not to cry but for God's voice to be heard in a Baby's cry. It's possible in the reality God speaks into being for not only the ocean not to rush to shore but for a Man to walk on water and for people to be saved by it. It's possible for the Son who created the sun in the sky to leave the skies, become a babe on earth, and yet remain in heaven as both God and Man. And it's possible for such a One to not just dream impossible dreams but to make them happen. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday in Advent (20171224); Luke 1: 26-38