“Unexpected and Unexpecting People” - on Luke 1:26-38 by Michelle Ellis - Dec. 24, 2023
There are so many layers to what happens in the Christmas story, so many facets of beauty and meaning and mystery. Tonight on Christmas Eve, I would like us to notice together just one. I’d like to notice that God chooses to reveal this history-altering moment of His coming to hidden people in hidden places. Because many of us have heard this story so many times, we can miss this. But notice that back in that time, and in ours, young women in their early teens aren’t in the inner circles of worldly power.
Mary, being engaged yet unmarried has really no status in her time. She lives in a tiny, nowhere town. She’s not the kind of person you would think to give big news to. After the angel does come to share with her of all people this larger than life news, who, besides those closest to her, would ever know? Who would ever believe her, especially as a means of explaining her unwed teen-mom state? But nevertheless, this, in His strange wisdom, is where God chooses to come. To a powerless, young, but wise, wondering teenage girl, who by saying “Let it be to me as you have said,” will take on great stigma and will appear on the surface to be the bearer of great shame.
And the story is full of unexpected things like this. In the section just before this you can read about how an angel shocks an old, childless priest by showing up in perhaps the place he least expects after his years of quiet service, in the Temple! The angels tells him he and his wife will have a child in their old age, a child who will prepare the way for God’s coming. Perhaps more in our time than in theirs, old, disillusioned, tired priests are not in the inner circles of power. They are not the ones with influence. Not the people you would want to share things with to get the word out, or to gain popularity. Yet again, this, in His strange wisdom, is where God chooses to come. To show up in, of all places, a church, to a priest who after years of faithfulness and unmet desires has perhaps quietly given up on his hope and expectation.
If we read on in Luke 2, we would hear about two announcements given, one from Caesar, and the other from God. Caesar’s decree travels far and wide through his own structures of power, that everyone needs to go to their hometown to be counted, the purpose of which was to be taxed, so Caesar as ruler could build up his own power. Yes, he will trample others for his power, he will take advantage, and he will use those he rules for his own gain. Everyone hears this news and obeys, for fear of the ‘or else’ that they all would have heard implicit in this command, even very pregnant teenagers and others for whom the journey was very difficult.
God had His own announcement that he gives at around the same time. His is an announcement of good news of great joy that will be for all people. He doesn’t spread His decree through politicians or religious leaders, or to anyone holding anything remotely resembling authority. Instead, God announces this good news to nomadic shepherds, those without an address, those who fly under the radar, who spend most of their time isolated with animals in the fields. This is God’s strange wisdom, to announce His history-changing good news first to the outsiders, first to the forgotten and invisible, first to those who will be dismissed by others. It is how, in His strange wisdom, He chooses to come.
I have another story that is part of the continuing story of God coming to His people.*
A man named Skip had stood before distinguished judges, arguing cases for some of the largest corporations in America, and even rubbed shoulders with leading politicians in Washington. But now, sitting at the top of the heap, he found himself each morning wearing in an expensive suit, slumped in the corner of a commuter train, sobbing. This wasn’t normal, but he couldn’t stop it. Every morning, the crying just came without control. The more he tried to shove it down, the more awkwardly it rose to the surface. He just wanted it to stop.
One day, while fighting and failing to keep back the tears, he was given a New Testament by someone he dismissed as a serious weirdo. Opening it, he read the Nativity story in Luke. The angel’s words, “Fear not” felt like they were for him. When he read them, the crying stopped. It was a welcome surprise. Nothing had worked—not exercise, not meditation, or self-help books. Nothing stopped the crying like these tiny words on tissue-thin paper. So the next day, when the crying came again, he reached for the words of the angel, reading them again: “Fear not” and again, peace came.
A few days later, things got stranger. As Skip returned to the angel’s words, reading them over and over, he lifted his head, and across from him sat the resurrected Jesus. As in the appearance to Thomas, Jesus, dressed in a robe with sandals, sat before him as real as the man reading the newspaper six seats up. Jesus spoke directly to him saying, “Skip, do not be afraid—I’ll take care of everything.” This, again, is how God chooses to come. In hidden ways, to unexpected and unexpecting people. This is God’s mysterious, but beautiful wisdom.
This is really good news for us, who live in this insignificant village of Telkwa, this place that doesn’t register at all on the world scene. This is good news for our small, unimportant and sometimes empty church. This is good news for religious outsiders, for the old and disillusioned, for the young and written off, for those who feel forgotten, unseen, for those without an address, for those who are afraid, for those who are hungry and long to be filled with good things. This is really good news for those who wouldn’t dream of setting foot in this or any church, and it is good news for those who tonight find themselves an outsider, or a wonderer, or a doubter, for those who feel forgotten and for those filled to overflowing with grief or with longing. It is good news for those who feel they are bearing shame. It is good news for all of us who have been walking in darkness. Because Scripture says again and again that these are the people, these are the places that God chooses to come. Often quietly, often secretly, often outside of the notice of powers and authorities, He comes. In the stillness of a teenager lost in her own thoughts, in the quiet of an empty church, in a back field among the animals, on a morning commute, during a midnight feeding of a little one, in the chaos of the emergency room, in the locker room, in the classroom, or in the quiet, hidden places of our deepest selves. This is where angels are sent to come. These are the places where God chooses to announce good news of great joy for you, for me, for all people. Watch, wait, look. He has come, and He is coming, even and especially when and where you least expect it.
* This story is taken from Andrew Root’s book, The Pastor in the Secular Age