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Some will be bigger than others, of course. Ask Mary. She surely got a MAJOR surprise. There she was, doing the dishes or sweeping the floor or sitting engrossed in the latest Harlequin Romance or whatever young Israelite girls did in those days when suddenly appeared the Angel Gabriel. "Guess what's going to happen to you, Mary." Surprise!
I wonder what Mary thought when she heard the news. Her first reaction was practical - she was not naive and knew where babies came from, so she asked, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" The strange messenger replied, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God... And if you think this is a big deal, your cousin Elizabeth whom everyone knows is too old to have babies, is going to have a baby herself. Surprise!"
What would your reaction have been had you been Mary? This odd-looking character shows up at your home with, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." So far, so good, but then this incredible announcement. How do you explain this to your parents? And what happens when Sadie down the street hears - it will be all over Nazareth. And Joseph...what to say to him? "Joseph, my sweet, I have good news and bad news - knowing how often you and I have said how we look forward to starting a family, the good news is you are going to be a father, the bad news is...ahem!" Surprise.
Surprise is hardly the word for Joseph's reaction. He and Mary were engaged, an agreement which in that day required the same fidelity as marriage; indeed, the only way to break the engagement was an actual divorce. Suddenly, he hears that his intended is pregnant with someone else's child. He must have been crushed. And remember, this is the part of the world that even today is perfectly OK with "honor killings" - the exacting of murderous vengeance if the family name is besmirched. Dangerous ground. But as the gospel account has it, an angel appeared to him in a dream and explained the circumstances of Mary's pregnancy, so Joseph was able to rest easily.(1) Still, it had to have been a shock.
To be honest, we should not find all this unusual. To read scripture, to look at history, to examine life shows that God regularly works, not only in mysterious ways, but in surprising ways as well.
Think about it. In the pages of the Old Testament, God chooses one nation to be a "light" to all the others. Which did God select? A little tiny, fifth-rate one...a nation of slaves in Egypt, wanderers in a wilderness. As the lines of doggerel have it, "How odd / Of God / To choose / The Jews." Surprise.
Others. Geographical surprises. The prophet Micah anticipates the coming of Israel's greatest king...from, of all places, Bethlehem rather than the Holy City of Jerusalem, six miles to the north. The angel Gabriel pays a visit to another little hick town, Nazareth - so unlikely a place for anything angelic to happen that it had earned the saying, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?"(2) Surprise.
Think about the young man from the very devout Jewish family who had more religious conviction than most all of us put together, the one who decided that he was going to destroy this heresy called Christianity. So he set about to. He went around the countryside as scripture says in the marvelous phrasing of the King James Version, "breathing out threatenings and slaughter."(3) His name was Saul of Tarsus. If you remember the story from your Sunday School days, Saul got bounced on his babushka on the Damascus Road and he became the greatest missionary the Church has ever known. Surprise!
Think through the centuries of church history to a time not quite 500 years after Christ, to the young man in the north of Africa who led such a wild, riotous life, that even after he decided to become a Christian he refused baptism because there was still some sinning he planned to do, and he wanted to go wild with at least a relatively clear conscience. He made a prayer once in reference to his raucous womanizing; he said, "Lord, make me chaste, but not yet." His name was Augustine, and even though he lived a thousand years before the Reformers, he became the inspiration for the work that they would do to change the church. Surprise!
There would be other surprises through the years. There was Martin Luther, a simple, scholarly priest who would have been much more content in an academic setting, but ended up taking on the whole church to correct massive abuses. Our own John Calvin began his career looking to become a lawyer, but instead became the greatest theologian of the Reformation. It was William Carey, a humble shoemaker who became the father of modern missionary enterprise when he took the gospel to India. There was John R. Mott, a businessman at the turn of this century who was convinced that Christian churches would present a better witness to the world if we could only begin to cooperate from one denomination to the next - it was Mott, a layperson, who became one of the founders of the Ecumenical movement. There was the young preacher's son, very ordinary, very fallible, but used of God in an incredible way as he became the messenger to America to call attention to our racism and bigotry. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered for his efforts, but his memory will never die. The list of God's surprises could go on and on and on. But then we have already said that life is full of them.
The late Norman Vincent Peale once told about two men who were standing on Fifth Avenue at 52nd Street in New York City during the Christmas rush, waiting for a red light. One of them was irritated by the traffic. "This town is totally disorganized," he growled. "Look at this traffic! It's terrible! Something ought to be done about it!"
The other man was more philosophical. Thoughtfully he countered, "You know, it is astounding, the romance of it. There was a baby born of peasant parents in a little out-of-the-way place halfway around the world from here. The parents had no money or social standing, yet 2,000 years later that little baby creates a traffic jam on Fifth Avenue, one of the most sophisticated streets in the world. This irritates you? It should FASCINATE you." Surprise.
What is NO surprise is what we hear and read in the news. From a story this week datelined Bethlehem we learn "There's room at the inn. In fact, at the Bethlehem Hotel, all 210 of them are available.(4) Not a single Christmas booking has been made at the comfortable, well-appointed accommodation just down a gentle slope from Manger Square, where tradition says Christ was born. And the establishment's Palestinian proprietor, Elias Arjah, is not expecting any last-minute rush. "God help us -- not even one guest...No one, absolutely no one, wants to spend this Christmas in Bethlehem." No wonder. Bethlehem has been occupied for nearly a month by Israeli troops who moved in after a suicide bomber from the area killed 11 Israelis, and they are not going to be withdrawn before Christmas."
In the words of Bethlehem's mayor, Hanna Nasser, a native of the city whose family traces its roots there back several centuries, "This is the most unhappy Christmas I can remember. Where will all this suffering end?"
How still...TOO still...we see thee lie.
In my files I have an old newspaper clipping that is probably reprintable again tomorrow with only a slight adjustment for more up-to-date statistics. The headline is, "For Criminals, shoppers are in season."(5) It says, "For most people the holiday season is the shopping season. But for many criminals, its...the `shop and rob' season. They're shopping for the opportunity to rob you." The article cited police numbers noting that thefts from vehicles increased 37% in November as compared to the year before, and a 25% increase was expected in December. Police were also projecting a 7% increase in robberies of individuals in November and December as compared to the year before. So Police suggested extra precautions for your shopping - don't shop alone; keep car windows rolled up and doors locked; park in well-lighted areas; check the back seat before you get into your car; and so on. Ho, Ho, Ho. Merry Christmas. Surprised? Not really. And with the economy the way it is right now, the only surprise to me would be if this year's numbers were not worse!
I AM somewhat surprised by the continuing appearance of articles in newspapers and magazines describing the way the baby boom generation and their children are looking to religion for meaning for their lives. Not all of them, obviously, but the articles note that, at one time or another, roughly two-thirds of the baby boomers dropped out of organized religion. Now, in recent years, more than one-third of them have returned. Almost 60% say they now attend church or synagogue. More than 80% of the baby boomers consider themselves religious, and they believe in life after death. The biggest group of returnees (about three out of five) are married with children. The least likely to have returned are married couples without children. With all we hear about the decline in the influence of religion in America and the resulting lack of moral values, the crime and violence we hear so much about, the stories come as a surprise - a pleasant one, to be sure, but still a surprise. Perhaps this is one of those divine messages given to encourage us, to spur us on, to get us to work.
Here is one more surprise. The surprise that God had for Mary is not entirely different from the surprise God has for you...and you and you and you and me. If you can believe it, God has actually chosen US to bear his only begotten Son. Not physically, of course. God asks you and me to bring Christ into our own individual worlds...into our joys and into our sorrows, into our disappointments, into our grief, into our fear, into sickness and into health, into good times and into bad. God asks us to give life to Christ by the way we live out and witness to the gospel.
If that makes you uncomfortable or scares you a little, I understand. A divine surprise often looks daunting. Our first reaction is that we are not up to it. But then we remember that one day, 2000 years ago, a heavenly messenger came to a young girl (probably in her mid-teens) from a no-account family, in a no-account town, in a no-account nation and announced that she had been selected for the great honor of giving life to the Savior. I doubt that any of us could be more uncomfortable or more scared than young Mary. But God gave her the grace to get through it. God will give it to you and me too.
The message of our Gospel lesson is not simply a narrative about the beginning of Jesus' earthly life. It is a reminder to us to be on the lookout for angels - heavenly messengers of some sort (maybe some celestial being, maybe a Bible verse, maybe some Christian friend, maybe even something as mundane as a sermon) - with an announcement...one that could be surprising and unexpected, one that calls us to give life to Christ again.
We can ignore it. We can reject it. Or we can say with Mary, "I am the Lord's servant; May it be to me as you have said."
Descend to us we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in;
Be born in us today.(6)
1. Matthew 1:20-24
2. John 1:46
3. Acts 9:1
4. Laura King, "Oh, Little Town Lies Still Indeed," New York Times, 12/18/02
5. Greensboro News & Record, 12/10/94, p. B1-2
6. Phillips Brooks