In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! God is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a child, whom you will name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Child of the Most High, and God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his realm there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Child of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Will you pray with me? Gracious God of good surprises, give us wisdom to see your gifts in all things, even when we don’t believe you could possibly be a part of our lives, when what has happened seems so far from what you would want or desire for our lives. Open our eyes and hearts to your grace, not only in the little happenings of our lives, but in your greatest gift to us, your Child, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Travelling! We’ve been on a journey the last few weeks, and now we are at our destination. We have arrived! But is what we were looking for? Is it what we thought we wanted?
We are going into a difficult time of year for me—winter. I’ve never been officially diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I think I might have a touch of it. Some of the most difficult experiences of my life have happened in the January – March timeframe, too, and so those months bring that pain and struggle back to mind. In February, especially, I find myself taking “cyber-vacations” to lush tropical islands by surfing all those hotel and B&B websites, fantasizing about being on those beaches, relaxing beside those pools, walking in those gorgeous gardens, enjoying the luscious meals they describe, experiencing the night life… But of course I have to wonder—is it really that good? Or are those descriptions like real-estate listings, where “cozy and intimate” means, “too small for more than one person?” Or “ideal for handyman” means “tear it down and start over?” Or “expansive lawns” means “get a goat and a couple of sheep to mow the grass?” I’ve read accounts of people who had that experience—the “full breakfast every day,” meant cold cereal and toast, lukewarm coffee and watery orange juice; where the rooms looked good in the pictures only because they were carefully prepped, and you couldn’t smell the musty odour from the closet. When I lived on the East Coast, we knew the code for beach hotels—“beach front” meant across the street from the beach, “beach views” meant that if you craned your neck around the balcony you could catch a glimpse of the beach,” only “on the beach” really meant that your windows looked out on the beach. But if you didn’t know the code, you could be sadly disappointed—you didn’t get what you expected.
On the other hand, there’s the other experience as well—when you go somewhere not expecting much and are surprised. A few years ago I was looking for a place to go on a retreat by myself. I didn’t want anything organised or planned—I had my own reading and praying and thinking to do, and I didn’t need guidance on it. I just wanted a quiet place in the country where I could stay, where I could feel God’s presence, where I could leave behind my responsibilities and simply be open to God’s moving in my life. I found several places but most of them were places where you had to meet with a spiritual director to plan even a solo retreat, or they were too close to a city or too expensive or too primitive or too far away…none were quite what I wanted. But then I found a location that I thought would do. Absolutely nothing was specifically organized for people staying there—yoga or art classes and prayer services were sometimes offered in the evenings, but each person was free to go or not as they wished. Everyone had their own cottage, and did their own cooking, so you never had to deal with another person if you didn’t want to. On the other hand…the cottages looked a little close together, and then I also wondered about how I would fill up all the time, and it was still three hours away, but it seemed the best choice. It was not what I expected. Simple cottages the size of a bachelor apartment, set in the woods around a field and arranged so that you didn’t see most of the other cottages, gardens and woods and pathways to walk and explore, a good library at the main building, quiet, and solitude that was respected. It was everything that I wanted and needed, but it was not what I expected.
Mary couldn’t have known what to expect. I mean, simply the fact of an angel showing up must have been confusing—to start with, how did she know it was an angel? We always think of angels as having wings and flowing hair, but certainly not all of them do—especially the ones we meet here on Earth. And then the news—you’re going to have a baby! I’m sure that Mary did expect to have children—it was just part of a woman’s life in those days, like going to school these days. But as she points out—she’s never been with a man. Notice she doesn’t say that she isn’t married—which was the human scandal, that she was having a baby out of wedlock, and her fiancé was not the father. She probably would have been forgiven if Joseph had been the father—a lapse but a forgivable and very common one. I’ve seen statistics that show that in the 1700s, perhaps 25% of women were pregnant at marriage, as shown by the fact that their first children were born less than eight months after they were married. So it was not really a big deal to simply be pregnant when she was married—but Joseph was not the father. That was the difficulty and potential scandal. But Mary’s more focused on the hows, though—how can she become pregnant?
And I think she must have been thinking—anyone would be—“how can this be good? God is asking me to do this, so it must be all right, but how in the world can this be a good thing?”
One of my favourite new Christmas songs—not a traditional carol—is Mary Did You Know? by Clay Aiken, most famously sung by Kathy Mattea. I think anyone who has parented—which is all of us—can identify with the lyrics—we hold a baby and wonder what she or he be like as an adult, how we can help to raise him or her to be a loving, kind human being. And we wonder if Mary knew what we know--this infant, this tiny child is God incarnate. The last line especially, can bring me to tears—“The sleeping Child you're holding is the Great, I Am.”
There’s been a lot of debate and discussion about whether Mary is degraded or lifted up in this—whether she is seen as a walking womb, so to speak, or as a person with a choice and influence in the situation. Some people will even say that Mary was, in effect, raped by God—that she had no choice because God is in a position of authority over her and she doesn’t have the ability to say no to God. I think that view is totally wrong for two reasons. One is that this is not about biology—if we try to see this as a physical, biological process, we are on the wrong road. Yes, it is literal in that a baby was born, but if we try to see this too literally and try to figure out ways and means, we lose the meaning. Quite without human means, God came to earth as a baby. How God did that is not something that be explained or even discussed in human terms, anymore than we can discuss how God created the earth in literal human terms. Secondly, Mary did have a choice. We don’t read it in the way the angel makes the announcement—Gabriel seems to assume a lot—but Mary is not afraid to challenge the angel. She is not prepared to assume that this can just happen—she accepts it. We always see this in the Bible—an angel tells someone what God wants them to do—Isaiah in the temple being told to speak truth to power, David called to be a ruler, Moses told to go set God’s people free—and they consent. Every one of them says, “Yes, I will do what God asks of me.” They had a choice. We don’t know what would have happened if they said no—that’s not our story—but God would have made another way.
My point here, though, is that Mary said yes—even though she didn’t quite know what it was all about, she trusted that God had a purpose and a reason for asking her. She knew the difficulties ahead of her if she said yes—but she did.
And the result was not what she expected! Over and over again, God surprised her. Joseph did not abandon her. Her baby grew up to be a teacher and healer, not the carpenter she expected; nor did he simply gather students around him as would be expected of a teacher. He didn’t overthrow the Romans, as she must have thought the Messiah would. Jesus wasn’t rescued from the cross by an army of angels. And he didn’t stay in the tomb, either. Over and over God surprises her and us.
God does what God does, and that often upsets human expectations and wants. It’s not what we expected—but like the vacation that is even better than you expected and planned for, God’s surprises always bring us to be more of who we are, nourish us in ways we didn’t know we needed, and draw us closer to God.
No one who was looking for the Messiah, who was hoping for God’s help, who struggled under Rome’s rule, who looked at Israel’s history, could have guessed that God would choose this way to come to earth. As another new Christmas carol says, “What a strange way to save the world.” It is not what anyone expected.
In this season of surprises, remember God’s greatest unexpected gift of all—that baby, laid in a manger, who had come to be God with us, Emmanuel. The gift you need from God will be given to you—but it will not be what you expect. It will be more than you ever hoped for or dreamed of.
In the name of the God who journeys with us, amen.