What a surprise!


Here is the sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent – the gospel reading is Luke’s account of the annunciation.

Luke 1.26-38

When I was growing up Christmas presents were always surprises. You never knew what you were getting until you woke up on Christmas Day morning and starting ripping the paper off the presents. Well – you didn’t know unless you’d been doing some snooping around mum and dad’s bedroom before Christmas. My dad took to hiding them in the loft, little realising that getting into the loft was no barrier for a determined child.

These days people seem to have become accustomed to letting parents, wives, husbands, children know what they want for Christmas – and any element of surprise is taken away.

When our children were teenagers they made quite sure that we know exactly what to buy them. Any suggestion that mum and dad might buy something as a surprise went down like a lead balloon – no way can you trust your parents to give you a surprise present at Christmas.

Personally, I prefer surprises. Though, of course, the downside of surprise presents is that you may well end up with things you really don’t want but that someone else thinks you need – like socks and pyjamas. I had a lot of those kinds of presents as a child!

Of course, the biggest Christmas surprise of all time must have been the surprise that a young teenage girl got two thousand years ago when an angel turned up in her room and told her she was having a baby. An unexpected pregnancy is by definition always a surprise, of course, but it Mary’s case it should have an impossibility. Yet it was a surprise where there was certainly great joy in the giving – God was giving such a great gift to the world. But Mary could have been forgiven for not being too pleased with the gift.

The angel comes to Mary, greeting her, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.”

Mary, understandably perhaps, was greatly troubled we are told. Who wouldn’t be? It’s not every day that a young teenager girl finds an angel in her house who says “By the way, you’re pregnant”. But you probably don’t realise just how much Mary would have been troubled. A well-known story at the time was the story of  Tobit, a popular folk tale which you will find in the apocrypha in the Old Testament. It tells of a jealous angel who appeared on a bride’s wedding night each time she married and killed her bridegroom.

Mary would have known the story, and the fear of this young, betrothed girl at the appearance of an angel is all the more understandable. Possibly she thought an evil spirit was threatening to prevent her marriage.

But Gabriel reassures her, and the reason for the heavenly visitation is made clear. He tells her that all is well – she has found favour with God. And then comes the staggering news: she – Mary – was going to give birth to a child, and he would be the Son of God. His name would be called Jesus.

“You have found favour with God,” says Gabriel, “so this is what God is going to do for you!”

Mary had been chosen, “favoured” by God. But having found favour what a strange gift, what a strange blessing, she gets in return! Mary could be forgiven for thinking, “Not much of a blessing, this! How am I ever going to explain this to people!”

Today people all too often assume that those whom God favours will enjoy the thing we equate with a good life: social standing, wealth, and good health. That’s true of many Christians. Yet Mary, God’s favoured one, was blessed with having a child out of wedlock who would later be executed as a criminal. She faced the prospect of being accused as an adulterer as a direct result of God’s blessing, which could have led to her being stoned to death. Mary could have been forgiven for thinking that this wasn’t particularly good news at all. Some surprise!

Acceptability, prosperity, and comfort have never been the essence of God’s blessing. The story is so familiar that we let its familiarity mask its scandal. For when we look at this in truly wordly terms this is scandalous. Mary finds favour with God – and in return is blessed with a life that is going to embrace difficulty and sorrow. That’s what God’s gift to her means.

And God’s gift to Mary is something that she would never have asked for! How often do we think we know what God should give us and tell him, rather than accepting what he gives without question? God’s blessings come as surprise gifts, not as something that we pester him for.

And the surprise gift that Mary is offered by God came with a condition attached – and this is where we have so much to learn from Mary. For Mary accepts this somewhat dubious gift by saying “yes” to God despite not knowing what that may mean for her life from this point forward.  And because of her willingness to accept God’s will for her life and so allow God to come into our world as one of us we all have received the gift of salvation.

Gabriel gave Mary the surprise of her life. He told her of God’s great gift to the world and of her part in receiving it. It could have been such an unwanted gift – and yet Mary receives the gift with joy. And all generations have called her “blessed” for doing so.

Remember Mary’s response when she was surprised by God. Remember Mary’s “yes”. Let your trust be in God, be ready to accept God’s blessings in your life no matter how much of a surprise they may be, and let your answer to God be “yes”. And you too will be truly blessed!