Sunday, December 21, 2008

Expected and Unexpected Gifts

(A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent based on Luke 1:26-38)

I confess that I am easily amazed. The words of Proverbs 30:18 summarize it for me: “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden.”

Three categories of activity that amaze me are covered in that verse.

First, I am amazed by nature. To the verse’s naming of the eagle and the snake I would add such things as the twinkle of the stars in the sky, the ebb and flow of the tides, the intricacy of a flower, and the softness of the gentle breeze. When I pause and actually reflect on such realities, I am thoroughly amazed.

Second, I am amazed by technology. A ship sailing on the high seas was the essence of cutting edge technology in the time in which this proverb was written. I still can’t understand how something as heavy as an aircraft carrier floats, much less how things like the internet and GPS devices work. I’m a bit like that new secretary who was told by her boss to send a fax to an associate. A few minutes later the associate phoned and irately asked, “Why have you sent that fax to me thirty times?” When the boss asked his secretary about it she said, “Well, I keep putting it in the machine but it keeps coming out the other side.” She didn’t understand such technology. Neither do I.

Third and mostly, I am amazed by relationships. It was “the way of a man with a maiden” that the proverb names and I am amazed by that, too. Who knows why and how it happens? As one of my favorite songs says, “All at once you look across a crowded room and see the way that light attaches to a girl.” I remember the day that happened for me and I remember all the days since. But all kinds of loving relationships amaze me: those between child and parent, those between siblings, those between grandparent and grandchild, those between friends, those between Christians, and others. I am amazed at the complexities and complications that are a part of relationships.

Imagine, then, how amazed Mary must have been when the angel Gabriel announced to her that she was going to have a child. “How can this be,” she very logically asked, “since I have not been with a man?” Mary knew that the announcement she was hearing was impossible from the perspectives of nature, of relationship, and of technology. The only way to conceive a child in Mary’s day was the natural way that required a relationship with a man; no technology such as in vitro fertilization that had even been imagined, much less developed. “I know the way things work,” Mary was saying, “and none of those ways apply to me.”

But that little fact did not make what Gabriel was saying any less so because God was up to something.

Still, the gift that Mary was receiving was obviously an unexpected one because God was up to something unexpected. We need to remember—perhaps to relearn—that God does things in unexpected ways—in surprising ways—even in shocking ways.

Make no mistake about it—what God was up to in what God was doing through Mary was amazing and miraculous and unexpected. Oh, there were clear teachings in the prophets that God was going to send a Messiah and there were hints that he was going to do it in unexpected ways—but I dare say that you would have been unable to find a respectable rabbi in turn of the millennium Israel who would have had any inkling at all that God was going to use a person like Mary—simple and poor and humble—who lived in a place like Nazareth—can anything good come from there, after all—to give birth to the Messiah in a stable and lay him in a feed trough where he would be visited not by the dignitaries of Israel but by a bunch of shepherds and foreigners. Moreover, despite the hints of the prophets that suffering and dying were part and parcel of the way in which God in love would save his people, I doubt that few in Mary’s day—I almost said “any” but then I remembered Simeon who told Mary that a “sword will pierce your own soul too”—would have believed that the baby Messiah would grow up to be executed on a cross and would then rise on the third day.

To hear that God does things in unexpected ways should not be terribly surprising; after all, we’re talking about God. I mean, if we are amazed at things that we see and are in the middle of every day—things like nature, technology, and relationships—how can we not be amazed at the ways of God? After all, if we reduce God to the level of our expectations, are we not making God in our image and are we not then dealing with something far less than God? Don’t we want to worship and serve the true God—the God who is the Creator of the Universe and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—and not some tame and limited shadow of a god that fits only our expectations and does only our bidding and confirms only our opinions?

Here as we begin our journey together I hope that you will affirm with me that it is God that we worship and serve and that God is not bound by our expectations. It is thrilling, is it not—and exciting—and a little bit scary—to know that we do not know all of what God is up to and all of what God will do and all of what God will expect of us?

And yet it is not all brand new to us, is it? Mary was dealing with something that was unexpected because it was all so brand new. Neither she nor anyone else had ever heard such a thing before or known that God could be up to such a thing. Here we are 2000 years later, the heirs of the old, old story. And here we are having heard and told the story of Christmas for our entire lives. My fear is that in its familiarity the story has become predictable and mundane—but it shouldn’t. It shouldn’t because what happened is still so amazing and unbelievable and wonderful.

It should still leave us so amazed that our minds spin and our hearts soar and our mouths gape.

Our daughter Sara spent the past few months working in the preschool department of a church in Macon. A few days ago the children were engaged in an activity in which they would wrap packages and give them to one another. These were not “real” presents that they would get to keep; they were just wrapping and opening large play blocks. Sara said that the children were absolutely thrilled to open those blocks, even as they opened the same thing over and over again. Each time it was just like they were opening a brand new and unexpected present. A three-year-old girl named Cara, when her friend Ellie gave her a present well into the process, put her hand over her heart and said, “Oh, Ewwie, a gift for me?” And when she opened it she exclaimed, “Oh, Ewwie, a bwock, a bwock!” Sara reports that the thrill was genuine—and contagious.

So here we are, waiting to open the same old present again, waiting to welcome the same old Messiah again, waiting to greet the same old baby again. And here we may be, thinking that we have it all figured out, thinking that we know exactly what God is up to now, thinking that nothing will surprise us.

Maybe a little child should lead us: “Oh, my Lord, a gift for me? A Savior! A Savior!” How can we not experience a thrill that is contagious? How can we be other than overcome with amazement?

When all was said and done on that day, Mary said—and this is something else that amazes me—“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” As we open our lives up to the old yet new, expected yet unexpected, familiar yet surprising things that God is about to do, may that be our stance as well: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

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