Credit for most of this goes to the Rt. Rev. Deon Johnson, who is the Bishop of the Diocese of Missouri. He writes about Mary.
She’s not expecting visitors, especially not a visit from the Angel Gabriel. But there he is, with the afterglow of divine light fresh on his robes. Standing before her, he says, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you!” Not your typical greeting. Who says stuff like that?! Just whom is he trying to impress? Mary’s a nobody in a village filled with nobodies; no need to waste grand angelic pronouncements on someone like her.
Gabriel’s silent presence alone would be more than enough to impress. Nevertheless, he speaks. “Do not be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God.” Do not be afraid?
How can Mary not be afraid? Angels don’t come to Nazareth, and they certainly don’t come to poor peasant girls like her. God just doesn’t find favor with people like Mary.
The angel must be mistaken. Maybe he’s lost. Maybe he landed in the wrong village. Maybe he’s looking for a different Mary. But he keeps talking. And Mary keeps on being perplexed and afraid. “And now, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”
Whoa! Shock! Surprise! How can this be? No great ruler has ever come out of Nazareth. And yet – here is the angel Gabriel, speaking of ancestors and throne and kingdoms. It makes no sense.
Why choose a young teenager who is barely engaged to carry God’s son? And yet--why not? If Elizabeth, like Sarah before her, could bear a son in her old age, there is nothing impossible with God. So Mary says, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary’s surprise is our surprise. Thousands of years later, God’s call to us still has the power to provoke us to wonder and awe, still has the power to mystify us. News from God is frequently too good to be true, and messengers are often completely unexpected, astonishing, surprising.
In fact, God is in the business of surprising us over and over and over again. Scripture is filled with God showing up in the most unlooked-for places and in the unlikeliest of people. People have encountered the God of wonder in bushes that burn without being consumed, in donkeys that talk, in raging whirlwinds, in pillars of fire, and under starry night skies. God has a way of amazing us on the tops of mountains, at wells in the noonday sun, and in strangers bearing gifts. No matter how often we look for God in the familiar places, God will somehow be revealed in the unfamiliar, the unexpected, the unlooked-for, the unpredicted, the most surprising.
Jesus’ birth to an unwed teenaged girl in a backwater town a little north of nowhere is perhaps God’s biggest surprise of all. No great kings or rulers to welcome the Messiah – instead, the poor, the marginalized and the outcast attend the birth of God made flesh. No fanfare, no fireworks, no finery for the Prince of Peace, just a makeshift bed in a straw-filled manger, on an average night.
Well, average, that is, until it’s punctuated by the message of the angels and the bewilderment of the shepherds. God indeed surprised the world in the extraordinarily ordinary birth of Jesus.
As we make our way once more with the shepherds and angels towards Bethlehem, we celebrate God’s favor for the last, the lowest, and the least. At Christmas we rejoice with Mary that Jesus is God’s biggest surprise. With this tiny helpless child in Mary’s arms, we see God making the common holy, the mundane mighty, and the everyday extraordinary. We are called to revel in God’s continued choice of the unexpected.
This is the good news at Christmas and beyond: that God is found not in a mansion but in a manger, not in a palace but in a poor house. Many still look for God in the halls of power and privilege. But that’s not the message of the God of the universe, and it’s not the message the angel Gabriel brings.
In a world filled with wars and rumors of war, injustices and unrest, protests and violence, political uncertainty, suffering and pandemics, we need the message of the angel. For those who are desperately searching for a different way, God finds us in our need and raises us up. Our world is indeed desperate for Good News and surprise and awe.
But too often we, as the church, find comfort in the known, the recognized, and the familiar. We like safe. We like certain. We like stability. But with God we’re never stable, or certain, or safe.
As we turn our gaze towards Christmas, the question that we -- those of us who look for and follow Jesus -- the question that we must ask ourselves is this. Have we heard the stories so often that we fail to see or share the surprise? Have we drained so much of the mystery from the world that we are no longer able to be startled by the workings of God? Have we failed to recognize Jesus in the passing touch of a hand (remember when we could do that?), the fleeting beauty of a smile (if you can see it behind the mask), the gentleness of a word of encouragement? Our lives, our communities, and our world are filled with God’s surprise if we stop long enough to recognize it.
When we domesticate the divine and muzzle the mysterious, we leave little room for God to work in and through us. When the mystery of God is regimented, regulated, and relegated to be contained within four walls on any given Sunday, we are no longer seeking the surprise of God’s in-breaking into our world. And yet, God still finds ways to get our attention and fill us with surprise.
Maybe that’s why God’s having us do our services –- let’s see, today is a Friday -- on Facebook. This is certainly not a regimented way to do this.
As people of God, as God’s beloved, we are called like Mary to fall into the uncertainty of God. We are called to let our lives, our hearts, and our eyes be open for glimpses of the divine so that we may follow in the way that Jesus has led.
To be amazed by God means that in Christ Jesus there is no work, no ministry, no person beyond our compassionate reach. If we are to be interrupted by God, we, like Mary and Joseph, must risk stepping out in faith into an uncertain future, knowing that God is waiting with still more surprises.
When we are surprised by God, our hearts are set free, our burdens are lifted and our fear fades. Like Mary, when we encounter the divine mystery, we respond in joyful song. (It blows me away that Mary answered as she did. And so joyfully! How much courage that took!)
As we journey to the manger once more, let us seek yet again to be surprised by a God who finds favor in us, who has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things. In our lives and our living may we magnify the Holy One, may we be messengers of God seeking the divine in the midst of the ordinary, and, when we can sing as an entire congregation again, may we in joyful song proclaim the greatness of the Lord.