Expecting the Unexpected

December 23rd, 2018, Pastor Galen, Fourth Sunday of Advent

Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55

Not How We Would Have Expected

So often God shows up in the most unexpected places and in the most unexpected ways.

If we were to imagine what it would look like for God to come down to this earth, we probably would have expected there to be a lot of lightning bolts and earthquakes and crashes of thunder. Or perhaps God might appear in the sky with an army of angels.

But instead, at Christmastime we remember the surprising reality that God chose to show up in the form of a helpless baby, completely and utterly dependent on the care and concern of his family and those around him. Not only that, but he was born to a teenage girl, an unwed mother, and in the small town of Bethlehem, a tiny suburb on the outskirts of the capital city of Jerusalem.

Talk about God showing up in a most unexpected place, and in a most unexpected way!

Changing it Up

A few days ago the CBS Evening News ran a story about a wealthy businessman who calls himself “Secret Santa,” who every year goes around handing out $100 bills to random strangers at Christmas.

This year, “Secret Santa” did something a little different. He enlisted the help of a homeless man to help him hand out money to those who were generous to him or to those who needed extra help around this time of the year. The homeless man stood on the street corner where he always stood, holding up a sign saying “help serve the homeless.” Many people passed him by without even a glance in his direction. But every now and then someone would stop to give him some loose change. And when they did, they got the surprise of their lifetime! Because instead of accepting their money, he gave them a $100 bill instead!

Of course, as you can imagine, those who stopped to help never would have expected that this homeless man would give them money.

In a similar way, God shows up in the most unexpected places, and through the most unexpected people. The question for us this morning is, Do we have the eyes to see and to recognize God at work?

Mary

Most likely many of Mary’s friends and neighbors had trouble believing the story she told them, about the angel visiting her, about how her child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, about how she was going to give birth to the Messiah, the Son of God who would rule on David’s throne and whose kingdom would last forever and ever.

Now the truth is that we don’t really know how Mary’s family responded to the reality of her pregnancy, but what we do know is that Mary left and spent three months with her aging cousin Elizabeth, who was also pregnant, and who lived in the “hill country” of Judea. Now I suppose it’s possible that Mary and Elizabeth had such a close and intimate relationship that Mary (who was most likely a 14-year-old girl at the time) just really wanted to take a 4-5 day journey while expecting just so she could see and spend time with her elder cousin.

But I think it’s also possible that this visit to the hill country was really a way for Mary and her family to avoid the disapproving scrutiny and gossipy chatter of Mary’s friends and neighbors back home. What could be a better place for Mary to hide out for a few months than in the hill country of Judea, 100 miles away from her home in Galilee?

And so, in our Gospel lesson today, Mary finds herself arriving at the home of her cousin Elizabeth. I can only imagine the countless thoughts going through Mary’s head. What will Elizabeth say? Will Elizabeth believe her? Will she offer a stern lecture or even outright reject Mary as so many others had probably done? Will Mary be left out in the cold, forced to endure this pregnancy completely isolated and alone?

Elizabeth

Of course, Mary didn’t have anything to worry about. Elizabeth knew firsthand what it was like to conceive a child under miraculous circumstances. Elizabeth herself was well beyond child-bearing age, and she and her husband had never been able to have children before. And yet, here she was, three months away from giving birth to her very first child. As with Mary, an angel had appeared to her husband to tell him the significance of their son’s birth. And although the angel didn’t tell them anything about Mary’s child, Elizabeth had eyes to see God show up in the most unexpected places and in the most unexpected ways.

And so, when Mary arrived, Elizabeth immediately welcomed her with open arms.  Luke tells us that, “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit [and] In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” (Luke 1:41-42). She even goes on to call Mary the mother of the Lord! What an amazing recognition of the supernatural reality!

Rather than criticize, judge, or scold, Elizabeth had eyes to see and recognize God’s miraculous work. She knew that the baby jumping in her own womb was a sign that Mary’s child was special. Elizabeth had opened herself up to the Holy Spirit’s work in her own life, and thus she was able to see and identify God showing up where no one would have thought to look, in her own teenage cousin’s womb.

Mary and Elizabeth

And then, just like in a Broadway musical, Mary launches into a song, and I have to imagine that Elizabeth joined right in. It’s a song all about God’s surprising work in the world. About a God who “has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” (Luke 1:52), who “has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53). A God who always keeps promises, a God who shows mercy from generation to generation, and who looks with favor on the lowly.

Mary and Elizabeth are beautiful examples of women who opened themselves up to God’s miraculous work in their lives, and who had the eyes to see what so many others were not able to see. Mary and Elizabeth, different ages and different stages in life, yet bonded together through the common experience of God’s supernatural work in and through them.

Eyes to See

This Christmas, I wonder if we have eyes to see God at work in the world around us? Are we able to recognize God in our own lives, in the lives of those near and dear to us, or even in the lives of total strangers?

It’s so easy for us to explain away the supernatural. We love finding scientific explanations for everything, using reason and logic to explain why everything happens.

But I think Christmastime is a wonderful time for us to embrace the reality that so often God chooses to work in ways that we don’t expect, through people and in places we could never imagine. God can work through anyone. God can show up anywhere, and at any time. God loves to surprise us, and God loves to do things that highlight God’s power. God loves to show up in ways that show us that it must be God, because it couldn’t possibly have happened any other way.

This Christmas, I want to invite us to open our eyes to see God at work in the world, to see God at work even in the places and through the people we would least expect. Let’s ask God to fill us more and more with the Holy Spirit, that we may be able to discern God’s work in and through us.

The Daily Examen

One way that we can learn to see God at work in and around us is through practicing something called the Daily Examine. This is a habit of taking time at the end of each day to reflect back over the day and to take stock of where we’ve seen God at work. One way to do this is to ask yourself the questions, “What gave me life today?” and “What took like from me?” Sometimes through doing this, we can learn to see God at work even in the midst of the things that were challenging.

Our family practices a form of the Examen together every time we eat dinner together at home. We sit around the time and we take turns sharing the favorite parts and the least favorite parts of our day. By sharing our highs and lows of the day with each other, we help each other gain perspective on our day. We celebrate the good things that happened, we find consolation in the things that were challenging. And together we help each other learn and grow from both the joys and the sorrows.

This Christmas

And so this Christmas, as we reflect on the miraculous and wondrous birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as we celebrate the fact that God showed up in the way that we would have least expected, may we, like Mary and Elizabeth learn to see and celebrate God’s work in our lives and in the lives of those around us, through both the highs and the lows, the joys and the sorrows, the consolations and the desolations. And may we open ourselves up to the possibility that God may even want to work through us in supernatural ways to accomplish God’s work in the world.