No One Would Have Predicted That
Luke 1: 39-55
A common exercise in a retreat setting asks the participants to list five people who have been particularly influential in our lives or five people who have earned our appreciation and respect. Lots of different kinds of folks capture our attention and earn our admiration, so every time I am asked to fill out that list I follow a certain pattern. I always compile my list from these five categories: someone with enormous integrity, someone with incredible imagination and creativity, someone who displays unbelievable talent, a dirty, rotten scoundrel who has overcome major mistakes to do good for other people, and someone who day after day attends to rather mundane tasks with great devotion and attention. I try to come up with different people each time for each category.
When it comes to God working in the lives of people, it is easy for us to imagine God at work among those who are people of integrity and imagination and talent. That is easy. What is more difficult is imagining God using a dirty, rotten scoundrel. It couldn’t be possible, we say, but both scripture and life are full of surprises.
Scripture is full of surprises, and that’s because scripture is about the activity of God in the lives of regular and ordinary people. Sometimes the people who are characters in the stories of scriptures are offensively immoral, repulsively greedy and outrageously arrogant. Yet, surprise! God is not only present in their lives, God uses these people as instruments of God’s purposes. Moses was a murderer. Jacob was a trickster of the worst kind. Saul and David exploited people on a regular basis. Some of Jesus’ disciples had backgrounds that would disqualify them from doing the work of God in the minds of many today. And we wouldn’t want the people who followed Jesus around following us around. It would be enough to destroy our reputation.
President Clinton is leaving office now. For many, his legacy will be of slicing words so thinly that he always left doubt in the minds of hearers about what he really meant. For many, only memories of scandal and moral failure will remain. For others, however, he leaves enormously popular and effective, having accomplished much for the country. Perhaps the new president will have more of a passion for truth-telling, but history is not on his side. There’s something about the office that seems to corrupt a lot of people who hold it. Maybe the pressure is too great. Maybe the expectations are too much. For whatever reason, honesty and forthrightness seems hard to come by in the world of politics. Yet, every president has accomplished a lot of good for the people of this land, despite their moral failings. And it’s not just presidents we are talking about here. Most of us can point to other folks with the thought, “I can’t believe he is a teacher!” “I can’t believe she is a minister!” “I can’t believe they are officers in the church!” More than a few of us haven’t gotten over the fact that God can use some pretty dismal people as instruments of God’s peace and grace, and sometimes those dismal people are us!
Throughout the ages God has chosen people we would have least expected, and Christmas is no different. Only at Christmas, it is not the group of dirty, rotten scoundrels that take major roles but the other group of people who even surprise us more by their participation. Get ready, folks, here comes some really average people to play parts in the most powerful drama we have heard. We have tamed the Christmas story to the point that it has been reduced to a romantic, pastoral event that is used as the background for department store commercials. The events and participants in the first Christmas are evidence that tricks lie up the sleeve of God, surprises from a divine Culprit, who is intensely determined to show the world the breadth and depth of love.
To begin with, it is no small surprise to see God taking such an active part in the Christmas story at all. Shouldn’t God be on the throne in heaven tending to cosmic order rather than busy in some hidden corner of the earth? Nothing ever happens in Nazareth, and if something would happen there, it wouldn’t be good. Yet, that is precisely the place where God set this story. No one would have predicted that.
Then there’s the matter of how John the Baptist is introduced into the story. John’s father, Zechariah, who was a priest, was offering incense one day in the temple when the Lord spoke to him. The promise from the Lord was that he and his wife would have a son whose life would turn people toward God and reconcile the differences of enemies. That part may not seem too surprising. God ought to be sending people like that, and the temple is the logical place for such a promise to be heard. But Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, weren’t the logical people to hear such a promise. Zechariah said, “Lord, I am old as the hills and my wife is no spring chicken either. You must have the wrong couple.” But there was no mistake. God had chosen an old priest and a barren woman beyond child-bearing years to be the parents of John the Baptist. No one would have predicted that.
Then there’s Mary. I know, especially among our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, that Mary is termed “the mother of God.” Her likeness is seen everywhere in paintings and statues which capture for all time her place in our hearts and in the history of the human race. But Mary has come a long way. To be the mother of the messiah, God chose a poor, country girl who was as young as Elizabeth was old. Mary wasn’t even properly married. Matthew reminds us of the potential her pregnancy had to start the tongues of the townspeople wagging. Of all the princesses, of all the women who were well placed and well heeled to whom Jesus could have been born, God chose Mary. No one would have predicted that.
Then we hear this great story about Mary visiting Elizabeth. Here were two women, one too old and the other too young, and both of them were pregnant. We don’t know exactly what their kinship was, but surely they quickly developed an even deeper kindred spirit by being together in circumstances beyond belief. We might have been afraid of some rivalry between the young and the old or some sense of competition, or perhaps since the miracle was greater with Elizabeth that she would dominate the conversation. But Elizabeth graciously welcomed Mary and focused the attention on Mary and away from herself. This was like a pregnant grandmother and a pregnant granddaughter sharing a heart-warming conversation about the children they would soon give birth to. No one would have predicted that.
Joseph was another surprise. We can tell that from those questions which appear in Luke and John. People asked about Jesus with, “Are you sure that is Joseph’s son?” It wasn’t that Joseph was a bad person, we don’t suppose, but there is something in that question which suggests that people were absolutely astonished that one like Jesus could have come from Joseph. Of all the princes and kings and people of wealth and sophistication and education, God chose a carpenter named Joseph for a part in this story. No one would have predicted that.
God’s idea of a messiah surprised everyone, and I think it continues to surprise us even today. We are no more likely to think that a baby born in crude conditions out back in an alley would make much of him or herself. Not only was he not a military leader, he didn’t seem that interested in associating with the powerful. Everyone looked for the messiah within the establishment, but Jesus came and lived his whole life as an outsider. The stories he told were full of reversals in which the righteous ended up being the goats and the sleaziest bunch of people we have ever heard of led the rest of us into the kingdom. With the world’s eyes focused on the palaces and board rooms and centers of government, God slipped into the world as a powerless baby. No one would have predicted that.
The witness of the Christmas story is that God works in the youth and in the aging, in the temple and in odd places like Nazareth, in barrenness and in virginity. The witness of the Christmas story is that if God works in people and places like that, God may work in us as well. The angel that spoke to Mary said nothing is impossible with God.
We do have a rather major obstacle with which we must deal. Most of us only like surprises if we can choose them. Of course, that takes the surprise out of it! There is a good reason why we don’t like surprises. We have been hurt by them before. The phone call in the middle of the night, the pink-slip at Christmas time, the unmerciful weather pattern, the betrayal by a friend – all of these are surprises we could have lived without. In fact, I imagine that Mary’s surprise was just about too much for her at the time. The angel greets Mary with, “Hail, O favored one of God,” but Mary must have been thinking, “Yeah, thanks a lot.”
God’s surprises aren’t intended to harm or trick or deceive. God does not make people sick or cause the earth to move or send tornadoes or direct planes to fall from the sky. God’s nature is one of boundless love for all humankind. It’s just that sometimes humankind doesn’t get it. I dare say God would not even use surprises except that sometimes we have so badly missed the point that it takes something rather dramatic to get our attention. In fact, these things probably aren’t surprises to God. It’s just the way things are with God. We are the ones who are surprised simply because we see things more as the world sees them and less as God sees them.
Sometimes we don’t want to hear what surprises God has in store for us. I think especially of the time Saul had his conversion experience on the road to Damascus and God sent Ananias to go and talk to Saul afterwards. Ananias had heard about all the evil Saul had done to Christians and, no doubt, would have preferred that God send someone else to talk with Saul. Ananias probably thought Saul would kill him like he had killed the other Christians.
We probably prefer that God would send someone else in our place and have that person do the hard things that we would rather not do. “Surprise somebody else, Lord, because I don’t think that is somebody I can love.” “Surprise somebody else, Lord, because that project requires more time and talent and money than I have to give.” And God says, “Nope, you’re the one I have chosen. You love that person, and support that other person, and work alongside this one. If you couldn’t handle it I wouldn’t have chosen you. Now go and do what I have asked you to do.”
You see, the Christmas story seems full of surprises because it runs contrary to our idea of God. Maybe that is the problem. Maybe we are worshiping our idea of God instead of God. Maybe the Christmas story is just powerful and surprising enough that we are persuaded to give up this self-serving god of our own making who would never ask us to do anything that would make us uncomfortable, and bow before the One who will ask of us everything we have and are. That seems like a rude surprise, especially at this time of the year, but after hearing about Zechariah and Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph and Jesus and Nazareth, no one should be able to say that they would not have predicted that one.
Christmas is no fuller of surprises than any other time of the year. It’s just that we are more open to them now then at other times. If there’s one thing we can take from this season into the whole year and, indeed, our whole lives, it is this rich experience of anticipation of what good thing God will do next in our lives and in our world.
Will Willimon tells the story of a pastor who baptized a baby. After the baptism the pastor said, in a voice loud enough to be heard by parents and congregation, “Little sister, by this act of baptism, we welcome you to a journey that will take your whole life. This isn’t the end. It’s the beginning of God’s experiment with your life. What God will make of you, we know not. Where God will take you or how God will surprise you, we cannot say. This we do know and this we say–God is with you.”
For now, we wait in faith and confidence with Elizabeth and Mary to hear for ourselves the voice of God saying, “Surprise!”
. Glen V. Viberg, The Christian Century, “Living By The Word,” December 7, 1994, 1155.
. William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens, 52.