Mary: Facing the Unexpected

Fourth in a series: Faces Near the Manger, Delivered December 21, 2003 by Rev. John Schmidt.
This was the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

Theme: Even when we try to follow Jesus, things don’t turn out as we expect. Our faith needs to be able to deal with life’s unexpected events.

Sermon Text:
Luke 1:26-38
and Luke 2:1-7

Sermon Notes are at the end.

Today we take a look at the Gospel of Luke. These passages are so familiar. It is so easy to kind of read them with the same eyes again and again, but let’s try to come to the Word of God fresh, and hear what He is saying. Luke, Chapter 1 beginning at verse 26.

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’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 be with child and give birth to a son, and you’re to give him the name 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 the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “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. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

Nobody sweats in Christmas cards. Have you noticed that? In a Christmas card, all the people look clean. In a Christmas card, stables glow. This is an unusual phenomenon, but you see it again and again in Christmas cards. In Christmas cards you have animals who are standing still in silent contemplation of the Holy event. In Christmas cards the hay never prickles; it’s always soft for the baby Jesus. Well, that’s a Christmas card stable, but a real stable the few times that I have had a chance to experience it are quite different. Real stables are filled with animals that move around. I don’t mind a cow at 100 yards, but inside a stable when that cow starts shifting, I don’t want to be there, and I have read enough by James Herriott to know that even veterinarians don’t want to be there. Have you ever tried to keep a goat away from a manger, you know from straw if it wants to eat? I mean, this is not an easy thing to deal with. And real stables are loaded with insects that are eager to get off their current host and get on to me. Real stables are very different than Christmas card stables. Mary gave birth in a real stable, and I don’t think that’s what she expected.

In today’s passage we have something that is very familiar, this conversation between Mary and the angel. It’s familiar, but for Mary it was the start of a very unfamiliar, unexpected journey, and so I would like to take a look at some of those things this morning. God begins with the unexpected. According to Luke, Mary is a young girl and so here right at the start of this Christmas story, God is doing something quite unexpected. He uses a teenage girl. Someone about early high school age. He’s about ready to answer all the promises of the Old Testament. He’s ready to do the most fundamental turning point in all of history. God is about to save the world and He begins by using someone whose not even old enough to get a driver’s license. That’s unexpected. God works through Mary, a perfectly powerless person, because Mary first of all, is a woman and women didn’t have any status in that society. And on top of that she is a child, so she doesn’t even have any status or power within her family. And so, then God comes to Mary and says this is what I want to do, I am looking for a response from you Mary and He doesn’t say, go ask your dad’s permission. That’s unexpected. God’s not going through the proper channels. He doesn’t say, go to Joseph your fiancee and work this out. God deals with a 14 or 15-year-old teenager and says I am about to change the world. Will you go with me?

Mary responds in verse 38. “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Now, we’ve got to take 20 centuries of distance and all the tinsel and gift bows off of this for a moment. You know, it’s so easy to imagine this with the folded hands that we see in the manger scenes. This is a real decision. God’s ways are not our ways. He does the unexpected here. He’s asking Mary a big, big request. She’s going to be pregnant. Unexpectedly. Unexplainably pregnant. What is her family going to say? What is Joseph going to say? What does this do to her marriage? Will she be married after this happens? What will the neighbors say? How does this all work out? Yes, God you have big plans, but all the relationships that are important to me are challenged by this moment. What will happen in my life? And yet at the end of it all, she says yes. Mary is willing to put aside her fears and say yes to this incredible message from God. Now in the Book of Luke, from the time this message comes till the time that Jesus is born is one chapter long. But for Mary it was nine months. Nine months. Now things worked out with Joseph, God worked that out. And then she goes and talks to Elizabeth, probably because Elizabeth will understand because a miracle is going on in her life too, and then things go on and what is she thinking about at a time like this? Nine months to think about Jesus being born. Oh, I think she is going to think what every mother thinks. What’s it going to look like? What’s his personality going to be like? She is probably thinking about, it would be nice to have the baby born close to family. She might even think about how she would decorate his corner of the house or make things for Jesus. Mary doing handwork getting ready for Jesus. And then on top of all the normal expectations, this is going to be this Messiah. So she is starting to think about, what does that mean? I’ve got royalty being born in my house. Where does this lead? All these things inevitably are going through her mind and so she starts to build a picture in her mind of what it is all going to be like, but what actually happened?

I am going to go to another passage now. Go to Luke, Chapter 2 and just read a few verses from the beginning of that chapter.

“In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house in line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

I am absolutely sure this was totally different than anything Mary could have possibly imagined in the nine months leading up to this point. Mary is sitting on the donkey saying, ” God I am pregnant. I am pregnant with the Messiah. What gives?” She’s in that stable area, and I can just imagine if she is anything like those of you I have met here and myself as well, she’s in that stable looking around saying, okay when is the miracle going to happen? When is the guy going to come in and say, there’s a canceled reservation, indeed there is room in the inn and we all leave and have a wonderful Christmas story. But that’s not what happens. So Mary is there in a stable, in a real stable, the smelly kind. She had expectations, but what God did was totally different from that. But you know God warns us that that’s going to happen. In Isaiah, he tells us that his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts. Again and again in scripture, we are reminded that God does not always do it our way, so why are we so surprised when that happens? You know, in our personal lives we make plans. We have expectations. We build a picture in our mind of what God should be doing in our lives, should be doing in our ministries, should be doing in our jobs. And then unexpected things happen and sorrows come and immediately we start to think, you know God’s not in this. Why didn’t He care? What did I do wrong? We immediately suppose that because it hasn’t gone in a straight line, that God is disinterested. But the Christmas story tells us that that isn’t true. That even in the most convoluted, unexpected events, God can be very present, very much at work and in this case at work to save the world.

Let’s take a look at Mary’s response to what actually happens. Now again, let’s picture this in our mind. She’s not only in a stable now, but then a group of hyperventilating shepherds come in saying, Glory to God we saw angels in the sky and they told us to come here! Now, I don’t know about you, I would make a comparison. God you couldn’t stop this from happening, but you can send an angelic choir to tell people where to find us. It’s not the way we would make decisions. But what does Mary do in the 19th verse of the second chapter of Luke. It says, she treasured up all of these things and pondered them in her heart. All these incredible things are happening. Some unexpected and painful, some absolutely beyond imagining and she takes it in cherishing it, thinking that maybe I will sort it out later, so she keeps her ear tuned to what God is saying. She keeps her eyes focused on what He is doing and she keeps her heart open for the next step of obedience.

Its easy to start thinking that if we have faith, then things are going to go in a certain direction, usually a linear direction and that they are going to work out well, they are going to work out in view of our plans and our thoughts of how it should work out; without heartache, without confusion. But what happens when Gods reality strikes? Its easy to submit when things go our way, but what happens when all of those plans are turned on their heads and we are starting to face something we never expected to face before. Every time I do a wedding, I think about this. Here is a couple getting ready to get married and they’ve got Christmas card ideas of what marriage will be like. I am marrying the most wonderful person in the world. Well, I hope you feel that way when you are getting married. But the fact is, the most wonderful person in the world sometimes isn’t much. We live in a sinful world. So I worry about that. What happens when illness comes up or debt or conflict? Same thing happens in careers. You know this week in News and Views we’ve got three different versions floating around. It’s unexpected. Three different families that have faced the unexpected in jobs, in childbirth, in family illness. And they have had to struggle with their response to what God was really doing in their lives.

What about us? How do we respond? At times like this, do we submit, do we try to hold on to our faith and continue to listen like Mary did? Or does our faith collapse and we start thinking that God really doesn’t care and turn our backs on him? This is a crucial survival skill because you are going to have to face this again and again, because Mary had to face it again and again. Her problems with the leading of God, don’t end at the end of chapter two in the book of Luke. In Mark, chapter 3, Jesus is a grown man and people are starting to say that he is demon possessed and he’s gone crazy and Mary starts to get anxious about this, so she tries to intervene in the situation. She goes to try to physically take Jesus home so he can get some perspective and Jesus rebukes her and says, who is my family? It’s the people who hear and obey the Word of God. She did not expect that. She expected that her intervention would do more. She expected that Jesus’ ministry would be a little more respectable and well received. Mary also ends up in John, Chapter 19 at the foot of the cross. There is no way in the world she could have ever expected that. Does this mean that all is lost? Or even if it isn’t, even if God is at work in this, does this mean, well even if Gods at work in it, it hurts no matter what it means. And so Mary is there at the foot of the cross. It’s not the way she planned it. So this is where the mother of Christmas morning ends up. This is where the child of Christmas morning ends up, at the cross.

Well, think of your own life. God comes into our lives. We experience salvation. We experience forgiveness. There’s an incredible sense of momentum of the world is different. If you become a Christian as an adult, you know just how startling sometimes this change can be. The whole world is new, but then God doesn’t protect us and shelter us like we thought and bad things still happen. Many of our plans and expectations get turned on their heads. God allows that. A dream has to die. A ministry doesn’t work out like it should. A job is difficult. An illness happens. All kinds of things come up and the question is how do we respond. If we are having experiences like this, well join the club. You’re having a Biblical experience. Life, even life with God is often harder and more confusing than we ever expected. But how well does our faith meet that challenge? Well, we see that Mary’s faith met the challenge because in Acts, Chapter 1 we find Mary together with the disciples seeing the resurrected Jesus. Mary got to see the resurrection. The ultimate unexpected event! So at this point Mary now knows without a doubt that it wasn’t foolish for her to hold on to faith through all of those crazy things that happened. She now knows absolutely for sure that God was present in all of those crazy unexpected events. And that God was powerful enough to pull all of it into good, the ultimate good of dealing with the sin of the world, her sin, her future, the greatness and goodness of God just displayed there. He was never cold and unconcerned. God was never out of control and this was all accomplished in Gods plan and this is not the gold leaf, pristine, Christmas card plan, but the gritty, sweaty reality of Gods plan. And it’s that plan that led to the resurrection. The greatest guarantee that God’s love is real, that his power is sufficient and that our future is secure.

Now, our lives don’t look much like Christmas cards. But that’s okay. Real life never did. Never will. But it’s in real life that we meet the real God. And it’s in real life that we see the resurrection. We may not get all the answers, but we will know in the middle of all this stuff that God’s love is real. We will know that his power is sufficient to carry us through. And, we will know that our future is secure with Him.

Let’s pray. Gracious God we are all at different places in our lives, but Lord, all of us struggle with the fact that there are huge elements in our lives that seem out of control, unexpected, and so Lord, we commit these things to you. Once again, we want to grab on to our faith, we want to hold on and listen to you through it, and Lord we believe that our faith is not foolish to hold on to you through it all because we will see your power at work in us. For we believe this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sermon Outline Notes:

God’s ways are not our ways. He does the unexpected.
It’s easy to submit when things are going our way
But what about when reality, God’s reality, strikes?
Where has God turned our expectations upside down?
Troubles don’t mean God is absent.
Our role is to persevere in faith.