Adv 4B/Christmas Eve: God’s Surprising Choices

Luke 1:26-38

Luke 2:1-20

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Martin Luther loved Mary. You may already have known that. As a life-long Lutheran pastor, I have regularly been surprised by how few Lutherans know that. I suspect that’s because, while Lutherans often know too little about their Roman Catholic kindred, one of the things they do know is that Mary has a significant place in Roman Catholic piety and so assume Luther would not have been a fan. But he was; indeed, he was a huge fan.

To Luther, Mary represented the typical pattern of God’s interaction with humans. Indeed, not just interaction, but election. That is, it wasn’t Mary’s goodness or innocence or beauty or even her willingness to serve God that Luther focused on. Rather, it was the plain and simple fact that God chose Mary to bear the Christ child. And that fact, to Luther, is not simply plain and simple but also surprising, perhaps even shocking. God didn’t choose a royal princess or holy priestess, but a plain and, at least to the world’s eyes, utterly insignificant young girl. God chose her. God elected her. God addressed her and honored her and elevated her.

Nobody would have expected this. Which is why Luther just loved Mary: because she stands for all of us, all of us who have no right to expect God’s attention and favor and yet are surprised to discover that God has chosen, elected, called, addressed, and honored each of us.

Which in turn helps explain Mary’s response. Surprised, frightened, even confused, nevertheless Mary, when she was chosen by grace to play this significant role, can only allow herself to be caught up in God’s gracious plans and so receives God’s invitation in joy (which of course does not mean that she wasn’t still rather surprised, a bit frightened, and still confused!).

When you think about it, this surprising choice of God isn’t limited to Mary but rather is a theme of the whole of Luke’s story of the nativity. Because no one would have imagined that shepherds would have been the chosen audience of the angels, either. We tend to romanticize shepherds, but most folks in the first century would have found nothing romantic about them. At the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, dirty and smelly from their work, with no social standing to speak of, shepherds were just a rung above outcasts. Yet the angels don’t appear to those at the Temple in Jerusalem or to the well-to-do of Bethlehem, but to the shepherds. The last people anyone would have expected.

Matthew’s account – though we don’t read it this year – is no different. Why foreign kings and astrologers and not those of Israel? Why a poor carpenter and his fiancé? Why any of the people who figure so significantly in Matthew’s story?

Of course, once we’ve gone this far, we realize that this is the paradigm for most of the biblical story. Why the Jewish nation and not one with greater armies or territory? Why the strange assortment of characters that become prophets? Why the old and childless Abraham and Sarah? Why mischievous if not downright crooked Jacob? Why adulterous King David? Why…?

Well, the list goes right on down, all the way until you get to us. For those who gather this Christmas in our sanctuaries – including we who lead them! – are also a rather motley crew. We don’t have our lives together as we should, or even as we’d like. We come with a mix of hopes and fears, moments of faith and an equal number of moments of failing. We come with very little to boast about, if truth be told, and much to confess. We come as those, finally, with no more right to expect God’s attention, let alone God’s favor, than Mary and the shepherds and all those we will hear about both Sunday morning in the story of the Annunciation to Mary and in the afternoon and evening in the Christmas story.

We come as those who should not expect God’s attention and we leave as those who recognize, perhaps again with some measure of surprise, confusion, and even a bit of fear, that we are also those whom God has addressed, called, honored, and elevated. We are God’s own beloved children, and the whole of the Christmas story – and indeed, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – is intended to assure us of God’s love and presence that we might turn and share that good news with others.

We’ve heard this story before, of course, but I pray that it will surprise us once more when we realize that in the birth of Jesus we ourselves are reborn as the children of God, children, St. John writes, “who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:13). Thank you for sharing this good news, Dear Partner, and a blessed Christmas to you and yours.

In Christ,

PS: Some former students who are now colleagues and friends (kinda cool when that happens) have put together a new podcast called “Alter Guild.” I’m not totally sure what it’s about, but I’m more than sure it’s executed with equal measures of faith, love, and grace by some folks who deeply care about creating space for wonder at the intersection of faith and everyday life. The first episode is out Christmas day with the oh so double entendre-ish title, “The Twelve Daze of Christmas.” Check it out when you have a chance!

Post image: Henry Ossawa Tanner, “The Annunciation.