Wasn’t expecting that. . .

Good morning, Friends! Thank you for coming to worship today.

It hardly feels as though we’re getting close to Christmas. But it’s only three weeks away, and we’ve got a lot of the Christmas story to go over, and we’ve got a lot of spiritual preparation to do.

Last week, Jesus said that he was going to come at an unexpected time – like a thief in the night was how he put it. He said that even he didn’t know when he was going to come. It was a secret, known only by God the Father.

Today, we’re going to continue with that theme of secret and surprise in our Scripture reading. No one was more surprised by the coming of Jesus than his mother, Mary. You’d think she would have had some idea, but Mary was the most surprised person of all.

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a young woman who was pledged to be married to a man named Joseph. Joseph was a descendant of David. The young woman’s name was Mary.

The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.

But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.

The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I haven’t been with anyone yet?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. Look! Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age. She who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.

In a loud voice Elizabeth exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed!

For the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.

Luke 1:26-26

The bottom line on this whole story, is that Mary wasn’t expecting any of this.

Back in the day, the custom was that people were engaged for a year, before they got married. They were considered legally married, but they didn’t live together. That way, if a baby was born during the engagement year, the husband would know that the baby wasn’t his.

It was considered an enormous shame if the wife became pregnant during that time. In fact, it was considered adultery.

So, what happened to Mary was way beyond unusual. Way behind acceptable.

What Mary was expecting, in her future at that time, was to live the ordinary life of a young woman in a village in Palestine.

Every day, morning and evening, she would go to the well or to a stream, and bring home a big jar of water for the family. She might well have to make this trip carrying water several times. It was a woman’s daily job.

She probably expected to spend most of the day preparing food – gathering crops, planting a garden, grinding grain, laboriously with a hand mill, cooking and serving. That was women’s work.

She might have expected to spend time, sewing and mending. She probably hoped to have children one day.

Mary probably didn’t go to church or synagogue on the Sabbath. That was something men mostly did. Men and boys went there to study and to pray; women mostly stayed home.

Women did have an important religious role in the home. Women said the prayers that ushered in the Sabbath every week. Women kept the home clean – not just spick and spam clean, but religiously clean. They had to know and follow the many rules for keeping a strict Jewish table.

Mary might have longed for the possibility of going to a major religious festival in Jerusalem. It would have been the high point in her life, to see the Temple, to bring a small sacrifice, to hear the psalms and prayers and smell the incense.

At night, after supper, Mary would have heard the stories about what God had done for the Jewish people in the past. She would have heard the words of the prophecies, about how God would save the people again.

She was probably poor, even if she didn’t think of herself that way. People – especially women – didn’t see any money for months at a time. If her husband allowed it, she might have kept a few coins buried in a corner of the house, to save against some unknown emergency or famine in the future.

That was her life. That’s what she expected. She hoped her husband would be kind. She hoped her children would be healthy and live to grow up. She probably hoped that war would never come near to her little village. But then, Mary, and the whole world, changed forever.

It doesn’t say what Mary was doing, when the angel came. It doesn’t say what time of day or night it happened.

She was probably alone. Maybe she was praying by herself, praying for her future. She was probably still very young, in her teens. Most young women back then got married at the age our young women are partway through high school.
What happened?

We don’t know what the angel looked like. We don’t know if it was in a dream, if she heard a voice, or if she saw something. It doesn’t say.

What the angel said was, “Peace! Don’t be afraid! You are favored and blessed by God. The Lord is with you!”

I read a devotion this week, in a book given to my wife and me by a friend of ours. The devotion said that the word with is very important.

When the Bible says, “The Lord is with you,” that has a special meaning. “With” means that God is in fellowship with us, that God is our companion.

It means that we and God are working together, walking together. It means that God has thrown his lot in with us, that we are now part of God’s plan. It means God cares for us, shelters us, is friendly towards us.

The Lord is WITH you. . .” That’s what the angel was saying.

Mary had no idea what was going on here. This was completely unexpected. We need to remember that, about Christmas.

In the old translation, the angel says, “Hail, full of grace!” Most modern translations say something like, “highly favored,” or “gifted by God.”

Mary probably had never thought about herself that way. She probably thought she was completely ordinary. As I said before, she was looking forward confidently to a really ordinary life in a small village in a poor and forgotten village.

But when the angel spoke to her, she felt different.

Here’s a random thought. When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, they were handsome and beautiful. They were made in God’s own image. They were the highest reflection of God’s glory.

But then, when they did what they shouldn’t have done, they were ashamed of themselves. They saw how naked they were. Instead of looking God straight in the face, they hid themselves. They didn’t think they were handsome or beautiful any more.
Their daily lives were a burden, not a joy. They ran away from God.

When the angel spoke to Mary, it was as if all this went away. The clock got turned back. She wasn’t just an ordinary young woman. The angel saw her as filled with grace, filled with inner strength, filled with the Holy Spirit, breathing the Holy Spirit every moment, just as it happened at the creation.

Creation. Re-creation. Filled with the Spirit. Filled with grace. Beautiful. Made in God’s image. That’s what the angel meant.

And tasked with something special. Given a responsibility which would change her life forever.

The angel said that Mary would conceive and bear a son, and would name him Jesus. The name in Hebrew means, “God saves” or “God is my help” or “God will save his people”.

The angel said that this little boy, being conceived in that moment, would be known as “Son of the Most High,” and would be like David, the greatest king that Israel ever had.

The standard translation says that Mary was troubled or perplexed by all this. That doesn’t even begin to cover the way she felt. When I dug into the original language, it says she was disturbed, alarmed, startled and agitated.

She was probably scared out of her mind. She was gobsmacked. This was beyond, BEYOND unexpected. This was something pretty close to terrified.

But she took a deep breath, and she felt that God was with her, in all the ways we just talked about. She felt, inside herself that this was really happening.

She remembered God’s promises. She remembered the stories of how God had saved people in the past. She thought about the name her baby would have.

And she said, “God’s will be done! I am God’s servant. May it all be, according to your word.”

Then the angel took off, or stepped back, or did whatever angels do when they disappear.

Mary had a cousin, name of Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s story is too long to tell right now, but Elizabeth was a lot older. She’d never had a baby, and she was way past the change of life.

But Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, had been to the Temple, and had his own vision, that he and his wife would have a son, and they’d call him John.

Zechariah didn’t believe all this at first. It was nothing he expected. And because he questioned the angel, the angel took away his ability to speak, till the baby John was born.

Anyway, back to the main story. When the angel was just about done speaking to Mary, the angel said something else.

“Why don’t you go and see your cousin Betty, up in the mountains? She’s about six months along now, and they said it was impossible for her ever to have a baby. Betty might need some help now, and you can see for yourself what’s possible, or not.”

“And Betty’s husband, cousin Zach – he’s having that little speech problem right now. You might could help both of them out a little. Go on, now! Get going!”

When Mary got there, Elizabeth’s baby jumped for joy, inside her. Mary laid her hand on Elizabeth, and felt the baby move.

It’s always a miracle. But this was a special miracle. And it gave Mary confidence, that this was all really happening.

The song that Mary and Elizabeth sang together that day, is the same song that I sang to you earlier this morning:

My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed!

For the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. And holy, holy is His Name!”

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