For nothing will be impossible with God. (Luke 1:37)
I’ll bet you’ve heard the saying, “Life is what you make it.” It appears to mean a couple of things.
For some people it’s a motivational saying. Work hard. Seize every opportunity. The quality of your life results from how effectively you use your wits, the initiative you take, and how hard you work. So get busy!
By contrast, some people use it for encouragement in hard times. In the midst of adversity or uncertainty or setbacks, we can decide what attitude to take. We can be optimistic or anxious, confident or fearful. We can feel deprived of what we do not have or content with what we do have. So adjust your attitude!
|Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Annunciation”|
Getting busy and adjusting our attitude have their place. But they only go so far. That is because these are purely human approaches to life. Life is only what we make of it, according to this point of view.
However, God never intended for our life to be only what we could make of it. He created us to make something of us and to make something of this world of his through us.
God intends to do humanly impossible things through mere human beings like you and me. And that is just what the story of the Virgin Birth teaches us. We’re going to get to that story in just a moment. But first I want to talk to you about why this is crucial for a happy life right here on planet earth.
Everybody wants to be happy. Philosophers have said that happiness is our highest good. It is the thing that we strive for above all else. The question is what makes us happy.
We might think that we want something earthly like wealth or fame or a spouse or career success above all else. But that is an illusion. It’s an illusion because these things give us a sense of accomplishment or well-being or elation or significance that will endure for only a moment. Then they pass away and take that feeling away with them.
God created us in his image. In part that means that we have infinite longings. We yearn for a sense of significance that never passes away, a feeling of elation that never fades, and an eternally secure freedom from want, suffering and loneliness. Earthly things offer us only finite satisfactions.
|Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party”|
The thing that we want most in life is not a thing at all. It is a person. It is God. Our chief delight is God himself. That’s what we mean by “heaven.” God’s perfect, perpetual, joy-inducing presence.
When we say, “Life is what you make it,” we break our own hearts in one of two ways.
On the one hand, we can work tirelessly to make heaven on earth only to be disappointed with the very earthy earth we’re left with.
The house we’ve worked so long to buy turns out to be just another building.
The career we pursued so tirelessly turns out to be just another mixed blessing.
The spouse we dreamed would make us happy turns out to be the same imperfect gift we are.
The kids we sacrificed so much for fight with each other or roll their eyes at us or get their hearts broken or make all the same mistakes we did in spite of all we do to make their lives carefree.
So much for heaven on earth.
On the other hand, we can go about our days with heart-numbing resignation, refusing to get our hopes too high because we just don’t believe in that kind of joy any more.
We settle for lukewarm relationships or a heart-numbing job. We get by.
There is only earth. Heaven is a pipe dream. Don’t get your hopes up.
In other words, when we say that life is what you make it, we end up either looking for heaven on earth or rejecting the idea of heaven all together.
God has something else in mind for us. Heaven bends down to change the earth. Life is more than what we can make of it with our merely earthly powers.
And this brings us back to the Virgin Birth.
The angel Gabriel has famously shocking news for young Mary. God has chosen her to give birth to his son.
|Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Annunciation”|
She will conceive as a virgin. The text is very clear. Mary asks how this can be since she has never had relations with a man. (This is especially clear by contrast with her relative Elizabeth, who conceived naturally with divine grace after a long period of infertility. Luke draws the contrast intentionally to highlight the Virgin Birth.)
Library shelves are filled with books and articles about how we shouldn’t take this literally. After all, we understand the reproductive process. Virgins don’t conceive. It’s scientifically impossible.
It’s humanly impossible. And that is precisely the point. Only God can do such a thing.
For secular minds, life is what you make it. Life is only what is humanly possible.
Scripture’s message is that God has never intended for life to be only what we can make it on our own. He designed us for him to be an integral part of our lives.
Human life is supposed to be more than what we can make it. We see this with remarkable clarity in the Virgin Birth. God miraculously causes Mary to conceive his only Son.
Mary says yes to God and what God can do through her for this broken and suffering world. God bridges the gulf between earth and heaven.
Contrast for just a moment this story with another story about bridging the gulf between earth and heaven.
You may remember the story of the Tower of Babel. Humans grew very confident in their own abilities. So much so that they tried to build a tower that reached heaven. They sought to secure their own perfect happiness without God’s help.
The results are famously depressing. Their greatest efforts led to chaos and conflict and previously unknown levels of alienation. Seeking to make heaven on earth is a disastrous project.
Every human attempt to perfect the earth through legislation and economic engineering and ideologically skewed education ends up in the same dreary place.
You cannot make heaven on earth.
And yet, Mary teaches us to be willing to receive heaven on earth. Don’t get me wrong! None of us can be the mother of the only Son of God. God has given only Mary that honor.
But each of us can provide a footing on earth for the bridge that God is building in our direction.
For example, not a single one of us will end poverty as we know it. And yet heaven can enter this earth and transform it through our generosity towards and unflagging commitment to the poor, the homeless, and the hungry.
You will never make someone else believe in the saving power of Jesus Christ. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. And yet your witness in word and deed can become the foothold that the Spirit uses to turn an unbelieving heart to Christ.
We want more than this life can offer. God designed us that way.
We dwell on earth and we yearn for heaven. And through his Son Jesus Christ, God makes heaven bend low to touch the earth even now.
We saw him do it with radiant clarity in the Virgin Birth. She had to say, “Yes.” Yes to the conception. Then yes to carrying a child with whispers behind her back. Then yes to raising this child and to watching him die on the Cross for all our sins.
Mary’s life was filled with saying yes to heaven’s advance upon her earthly dwelling. It was not easy or safe. But it was good. Infinitely good. Eternally good. And it all led to the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
We yearn for our life to be what God can make of it. Our role is to say, “Yes.” To say yes at work, at school, at home, in the marketplace, and in the voting booth.
It is not always easy. But when we say yes, life becomes what only God can make it.
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Cathedral Shreveport on Sunday, December 18, 2011.