Advent Candles - Hope, Peace
L: We relight the candle of hope because we long to realize the birth of hope in our day. (Light Candle 1) Yet on some days our patience for that new day runs thin. We look at our world and our lives and we are perplexed.
P: Yet God is present with us.
L: Events fill us with fear. Fear of evil, or even fear of what God may do.
P: Yet God has favored us.
L: Circumstances surrounding us confuse us. We are not always sure how to react and feel powerless to respond.
P: Yet if we remain committed to God, he may surprise us with an inner comfort and confidence. (Light Candle 2)
L: We light the candle of peace for his Son, the Prince of Peace has come. Let’s sing Emmanuel, Emmanuel.
with Emmanuel, Emmanuel
Bible Reading Luke 1:39-50
- Reader 1 39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in Judea’s hill country. 40 There she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby inside her jumped. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she called out,
- Reader 2 “God has blessed you more than other women. And blessed is the child you will have! 43 But why is God so kind to me? Why has the mother of my Lord come to me? 44 As soon as I heard the sound of your voice, the baby inside me jumped for joy. 45 You are a woman God has blessed. You have believed that the Lord would keep his promises to you!”
- Reader 1 46 Mary said, “My soul gives glory to the Lord. 47 My spirit delights in God my Savior. 48 He has taken note of me even though I am not considered important. From now on all people will call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me. His name is holy. He always gives mercy to those who worship him. (NIRV Luke 1:39-50)
As a child riding in the back seat of the car, we passed some houses with big front yards. It is all commercial property now because of its ideal location near the intersection of two major roads. A child ran full blast toward the street causing my mom to hit the brakes and swerve a little on this very busy street on the west side of Lansing. He jerked to a stop like a running dog gets surprised as he reaches the end of the chain. Of course, there was no chain, but his head was cocked in the air with a wide-open smile. Apparently, it was a game to surprise and scare drivers.
Our personalities vary as to how much we like to be surprised. Some like to go to the movies and vicariously experience the rush of the serial killer leaping out in the dark. Others so much don’t like surprises that they plan their own “surprise” birthday parties so that they won’t be caught off guard. Some people want to be surprised with their Christmas gifts, others make a list so they are sure their “surprise” will be a good one.
Today’s sermon title is an oxymoron, how can you be prepared to be surprised? The one who plans their own surprise party is not labeling their party correctly, for the preparation eliminates the surprise. On the other hand, no matter how prepared you are, it is impossible to go through life without being surprised; even if it is the simple surprise of your toe discovering the corner of the bed leg that you were sure was at least another six inches away, and sometimes it is unexpected company at the Christmas dinner. And depending upon the relationships you have, like unknown gifts, they can be great or sometimes you have to remember it was (hopefully) the thoughtful intent of the guests or giver that counts.
And yet there is a way to be prepared, and yet surprised at the same time. I’ve heard one reason some families make way too much food for holiday feasts is that they never know who is going to show up. So they are always ready whether someone comes or not.
And as we enter today’s text, we find Mary shocked by what she experienced, yet her faithful spiritual discipline and willingness to routinely listen and do what God wanted had prepared her for this moment. The text begins:
- 26 In the sixth month after Elizabeth had become pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee. 27 He was sent to a virgin. The girl was engaged to a man named Joseph. He came from the family line of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel greeted her and said, “The Lord has blessed you in a special way. He is with you.” 29 Mary was very [perplexed] because of his words. She wondered what kind of greeting this could be. (Luke 1:26-29 (NIRV[NRSV]))
Luke begins with some basic back-ground needed for this announcement. A relative is pregnant, an angel is sent, and young virgin Mary is engaged to a young man who, if traced back far enough. came from a royal blood, but he himself is, or would become, a part of the construction trade in what was considered an insignificant town.
By human standards -- then and now, natural logic would lead to expectations that the Creator of the Universe would speak in majestic, public, peals of powerful thunder (like he did when he gave the law at Sinai) rather than in a still, small, private voice (which he exhibited when he called Moses to lead his people). When a rabbi was asked why God spoke to Moses from the thorn bush, he answered, "To teach you that there is no place on earth where God's glory is not, not even in a humble thorn bush."
Likewise when the time was ripe for the Messiah to come and usher in God’s kingdom, the current expectation then would have been that if he sent his anointed king, he would be born in Rome to a noble power broker, (after all, even Moses was raised as a son in the Egyptian palace). Then in his adulthood, Christ’s influence would have an immediate impact, backed by all the power of Rome. Or at the very least, or perhaps, even more likely, he would be born in Jerusalem, the religious and political center of his people.
Even though Mary didn’t know what it was all about yet, it is no surprise that an angel greeting her, Mary, who is self-described as “not great”, “lowly”, “humble”, “poor degree”, “low estate”, or as today’s reading translated it: -- “I am not considered important.” It is no surprise that Mary would be shocked (very perplexed) that God had taken note of her.
Perhaps that is why the greeting began with one of the best comforts that can be given to a faithful person -- to be reminded that God’s presence is with them. It reminds us that even in perplexing times, God is with us too -- and also that he often acts through less than ordinary people in less than ordinary times and places to do his extraordinary work.
I think of a human pyramid -- we sometimes see it in cheerleading. The one on the top gets all the attention as she climbs or is catapulted to the top and then takes a flying leap in the arms of those waiting below. But it is those who get so little attention on the rows below whose stable presence and strength that bears the weight - and the success - of those on top. Without them the whole thing collapses. In the same way, history is written by the victors, who name the ones on top, while the quiet, unnoticed workload is born by almost everyone else. Or if you want to put it to the players on the field, it is the players in the trenches -- on the lines; that make the stars shine. Without them, even the best quarterback can’t make a pass, or a runner move past the scrimmage line. God knows who usually gets the real work of a faith, of a society done. And it is through them, through the grass roots that he most often chooses to work. The angel now shares God’s work and purpose, but begins with reassuring the terrified Mary:
- 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary [,for you have found favor with God]. God is very pleased with you. 31 You will become pregnant and give birth to a son. You must call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High God. The Lord God will make him a king like his father David of long ago. 33 The Son of the Most High God will rule forever over his people. They are from the family line of Jacob. That kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:30-33 NIRV[NRSV]))
So not only is Mary noticed by God, and been blessed in a special way, she has found favor, been very pleasing to him. Luke doesn’t give us any back story of Mary prior to this, but these phrases make it clear the kind of young woman she was. Through an obvious life of devotion, she was, unbeknownst to her, becoming prepared, or better, God had been preparing her, all her life for this fear inducing Christmas surprise.
Likewise, we may not know exactly what God may be preparing for us, or what he may be preparing us for, by our current devotions and experiences. But as Chris Tomlin once wrote, he comes for us, we can’t run from his presence, from his arms. Jesus, he loves me, he is for me. And knowing that it creates a fire in our soul so that we will never be same, stepping out of the dark and into the light when he calls our name to fill his purpose in our lives… (Tomlin, in “Jesus, He Loves Me” – paraphrased)
It seems impossible to understand – (the news Mary got would throw any of us for a loop, even more so in our science-based world). So she asks”
- 34 “How can this happen?” Mary asked the angel. “I am a virgin.” 35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come to you. The power of the Most High God will [overshadow] you. So the holy one that is born will be called the Son of God. 36 Your relative Elizabeth will have a child even though she is old. People thought she could not have children. But she has been pregnant for six months now. 37 That’s because what God says will always come true [For nothing will be impossible with God] .” 38 “[Here am I] I serve the Lord,” Mary answered. “May it happen to me [according to your word.”] Then the angel left her. Luke 1:34-38 (NIRV [NRSV]))
Confused… but committed
The original language tells us that Mary’s “how” question is not a question of sarcasm, skepticism or disbelief. Nor does she demand a sign of proof. In the same sense as the hymn, “How Can it Be?” her question is primarily used in the sense of overwhelming amazement. Secondarily, there was a sense of science and next steps. (Would Joseph be involved? How will this be played out?”)
Gabriel doesn’t get into the specifics of the science, but simply says that God’s Spirit would work this miracle, and then, lest doubt does begin to spring into her head, he informs her that her relative Elizabeth was already pregnant. Mary and Elizabeth, one thought too pure to have a baby, and the other too old to have a baby -- yet God had already worked a miracle in Elizabeth, so there was no doubt God could work a miracle in her as well. For what God says happens - nothing is impossible. That is probably less specific than most of us would like, but it was enough for Mary.
Someone put it this way. Most children don’t understand the physics of rotational inertia and balance and all the rest that keeps a person upright as they learn how to ride a bike, but they can ride if they are willing to get on and turn the peddles and practice.
Mary did what we should strive to do when our present is perplexing, frightening, and confusing; and our future is unknown. She reached deep into our soul and found courage that came from a place beyond her own self, beyond her own knowledge and limitations. She reaches beyond her uncertain circumstances to the stability of God’s presence and power with her. And she restates her commitment to willingly serve God however he sees fit. Can we make such a commitment?
“Unimportant”… but encouraged
It isn’t clear in the English translation, but Gabriel’s words to Mary about Elizabeth contained an implication that she should visit her relative. So even though Mary didn’t ask for a sign of proof, God was more than willing to give her that encouragement. We’ve already heard in the pre-sermon reading Elizabeth’s loud proclamation confirming everything angel Gabriel said. Mary replied with a long song of which we only captured the first few verses in which she acknowledges her insignificant cultural status, but her heart felt joy that God noticed her and the great things he was going to do for her and how he always gives mercy to those who worship him.
If life feels fragile, unstable, if our situation is humbling and our schedule seems to busy, if our circuitry is hovering near overload and someone keeps stepping on our last nerve, be encouraged. Know, as many people have said, that courage is not an absence of feeling fear or frustration, but moving forward in spite of it. Be encouraged that God can come close to our life and in his time we may experience a “stable” time (a manger time) when Christ is born, or reborn in our hearts and God may choose to do great things in us.
Closing Prayer Let’s pray. Lord we long to be courageously obedient like Mary. In the most unusual of circumstances, Mary was willing to receive your Son physically into her womb. Grace us to be willing to receive Christ into our hearts again today. Like her, strengthen us to resist giving in to our fears. Prepare us for the surprises of life that lie before us -- and teach us again that the most critical part of that preparation comes through worshiping you in awe and obedient love -- because you first loved us. Amen.
Closing Music # 234 (vv 1,2,3,5) O Come, All Ye Faithful
Blessing Now as you go, May the Lord bless and protect you; may the Lord’s face radiate with joy because of you; may he be gracious to you, show you his favor, and give you his peace. (Numbers 6:24-26 TLB)