December 18, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
SURPRISED AND AMAZED
Some of us are old enough to remember dictionaries. For the rest of you, they are big books with lots of words listed in alphabetical order. The best known dictionary is probably Webster’s, named after Noah Webster. He gets credit for standardizing American English during the formative years of our Republic. He was a stickler for using words properly, using the right word, and never settling for a word that just comes close to what you really mean.
There’s a story that illustrates this. I hope the story’s not true. Noah Webster was a fine Christian man so I’m going to assume this story is made up. One day Noah Webster’s wife opened the kitchen door to discover her husband kissing their maid. Mrs. Webster exclaimed, “Why Noah, I’m surprised!” He said, “No, my dear. We are surprised. You are amazed.”
Surprised refers to the unexpected. Amazed refers to being astounded and rendered speechless by what you just saw. In most cases one can be either surprised or amazed. But on rare occasions, one can be surprised and amazed at the same time. The scripture we read this morning is one of those occasions.
Mary was surprised by that angel. She wasn’t expecting to see one. And she was also amazed. “She was greatly troubled”. She was speechless. The angel had to fill the silence by saying, “Do not be afraid.” She was surprised and she was amazed.
It reminds me of another Bible story, the story of Sarah and Abraham. It too is a story of an angel announcing the birth of a baby to people who were both surprised and amazed by that announcement.
They’d been waiting for that baby. And waiting, and waiting. God had promised that they would have descendents “as numerous as the stars in the heavens” (Genesis 15:5). But that couldn’t possibly happen now because they were both old. Way too old to have a baby. So what did they do when the angel told them they were about to become parents? They laughed.
Sometimes you just have to laugh at the promises of God! They are impossible. There is no way this can happen. This has to be some kind of a joke. And what do you do when you hear a good joke? You laugh.
It’s been said that the Bible is comedy. That doesn’t mean it’s a joke book. The literary definition of comedy is a story with a happy ending. And the literary definition of tragedy is the opposite. A tragedy is a story that moves inevitably toward disaster. You know it’s going to happen but you can’t do a thing to stop it. A comedy is a story with a happy ending and a tragedy is a story that ends badly.
So why does comedy make us laugh? There’s more to it than the happy ending. Happy endings sometimes make us cry. Comedy makes us laugh because on the way to the happy ending there are twists and turns you never could have expected. There are surprises.
The proud are humbled. The lowly are lifted up. The underdog prevails. The powerful are defeated.
History as written by secular historians is not like that. History repeats itself. It is predictable. Empires rise, empires fall. You can read the histories of different civilizations and, except for the names and the dates, they are all pretty much the same. The history of Egypt and its Pharaohs is no different from the history of Babylon and its kings. The history of Assyria and its princes is no different from the history of Rome and its Caesars. They are all about great people doing great things, building cites, fighting wars, accumulating wealth. And then they are about these same great civilizations eventually declining and dying and existing now only in our history books.
But the history of the Jews is different. That history is recorded for us in the Old Testament of our Bible. It reads differently from all the other history books. Because it is not the history of the greatness of kings. It is the history of the graciousness of God.
It tells the story of how God did something surprising. He took the side not of the rich and the powerful, but of the poor and the weak. That’s what the Jews were. They had nothing to commend themselves other than God’s grace. God chose them for a special purpose. He said, “You will be my people, and I will be your God, and I will give you a great future.”
But on their way to that great future, they managed to get themselves into some terrible predicaments. And God graciously intervened, time and time again.
They had all these kings, starting with Saul who was a disaster and then David who was better but still had at least one gigantic moral lapse. The story of all these kings is told with great candor. There is no attempt to sugarcoat their stories and make them sound better than they were. Basically, the way the history is told, none of these kings was all that great. Maybe Josiah was an exception. I think he’s about the only one.
The Jews were writing their own history. They could write it any way they wanted to. So why didn’t they make themselves look good? That’s the way every other nation has ever written the “authorized” version of their history. Why did they include all the strange and embarrassing parts? Why did they include that odd detail that when Sarah and Abraham were told they were going to have a baby, they laughed?
Somehow the writers of this book knew that true telling of history is not about how great we are and how much we have accomplished. It is about how great God is and how much God has accomplished through us and in spite of us.
The Pharaohs are gone, the Babylonians are gone, the Caesars are gone, the Assyrians are gone. But the Jews are still here. Against all odds. No one could have predicted it. The Jews are still here because God made a promise. Because God honored that promise. Not because they are so great or so good, but because God is so great and so good.
As Christians we believe that a Jew named Jesus is God’s promised Messiah. And we believe that because of Jesus, the grace God extended to the Jews is extended now to all people. “For God so loved the world,” not just the Jews. The Christmas angel announced, “good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.” God in Jesus says to the whole world, “You are my people. I love you. You can have a wonderful future. And I will be with you, no matter what.”
That’s why the New Testament begins the way it begins. It doesn’t begin with Christmas. It doesn’t begin with Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus. Remember from last week? It begins with Zechariah and Elizabeth, that old couple, way past their childbearing years, and an angel telling them it’s time to get a room ready for their baby.
Have you ever thought about how similar this is to the story of Sarah and Abraham? It’s like we’ve heard all this before. We know where this is going. Old people having a baby. God making a promise that is so unbelievably absurd that it has to be true.
But this is just the set-up for the real thing. The real surprise. Because Gabriel the angel had someone else to visit after he got done with Zechariah. He visited Mary.
This is where you are supposed to laugh. Or gasp. For a couple of reasons. For one, the angel is visiting a woman. That’s not the way angels are supposed to operate. They don’t waste their time with women. They only go to men. That was true with Abraham. The angel didn’t appear to Sarah. That was true with Zechariah. The angel didn’t appear to Elizabeth. In Matthew’s story of Christmas, the angel appears to Joseph, not Mary. But in Luke, the Gospel of the nobodies, the angel appears to Mary, a woman, a nobody as far as the patriarchal rules of that culture were concerned.
The other reason to laugh, if not gasp, is that Mary is not old. All the others were both male and old. Mary is neither. She’s female. She’s young. She’s a virgin. We usually think about sex when we hear this, but the sexual purity of Mary wasn’t Luke’s main concern. He’s just telling us that she’s real young. Our best guess is that she was maybe 12 or 13 years old. Barely an adolescent. Angels only speak to men, old men. Not to women. Not to girls.
So this is a new twist to the old familiar story. God is doing something new. The promise given once to Abraham and Sarah is given now to us. God will be with us. God will never leave us.
Mary is at first speechless, but when she can finally speak she says, “How can this be?” In the old familiar story, it is always, “How can this be because I am too old?” This time it is, “How can this be because I am too young? I am too poor. I am too humble. I am a nobody. And besides, I don’t even have a husband.” And the angel says, “With God, nothing will be impossible.” That’s what he said to Abraham. That’s what he said to Zechariah. “With God, nothing will be impossible.”
We might call that the Bible’s philosophy of history. Nothing is impossible with God. So don’t ever say that something cannot happen. Don’t say this isn’t the right time, or this isn’t the right place, or I’m not the right person. People have always been saying things like that to God. And when we do, we’re just setting things up for God to surprise us yet again. Surprise us and amaze us.
And that’s the essence of comedy. Comedy is when what you don’t expect to happen, happens. The arrogant, pompous character gets put in his place. Or the awkward, can’t do anything right character wins the prize. There is a series of events no one could have predicted. It shouldn’t be possible, but it happens. And when it happens, everyone laughs, everyone cheers, because it’s a happy ending. That’s what comedy is.
And the Bible says that’s the way God rules history. So prepare to be surprised. Be ready for anything. As we sing in that praise chorus, “Anything can happen and it probably will.” Christmas was the surprise to top all surprises. And God still has more than a few surprises up his sleeve. So prepare to be surprised.
Here’s one way to look at it. Some people open Christmas gifts that have been wrapped with great care, but they already know what’s inside. They just pretend to be surprised. Because they had it all planned out what they were going to get. They made a list. Maybe there was just one thing on the list and it just happens to be the shape of that wrapped present with their name on it. Or maybe they were concerned no one would get them what they really wanted so they bought it for themselves and wrapped by themselves, and on Christmas morning they tear off the paper and say, “I can’t believe it! Just what I wanted!!”
That’s not the spirit of Christmas. Christmas is about being surprised. It’s about God’s gift that amazed and surprised us all. It’s about not knowing what God is going to do next, but trusting that since God is good, it will be good. It’s about saying to God as Mary said to the angel, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). In other words, “Surprise me.”
Some of us this morning are seeing life as tragedy, not comedy. Everything is predictable. Everything is inevitable. Nothing good is going to come of it all. If that’s you, if that’s the way you’re experiencing life right now, I’d like to appeal to you this morning to try a fresh perspective.
Try seeing life as comedy. Not in the sense that it’s funny, though life often is, and laughter is very good medicine for the soul. But what I mean is that you try seeing life as comedy in the sense that through all the twists and turns and unexpected surprises, God is at work. God is doing something good. God is creating in you and through you something magnificent.
So if you are struggling with something this morning. Or if you are actually fighting for your life. Or if you are in the grip of some bondage and you feel like there is an enemy inside you doing battle against your better self. Or if you just feel that you just aren’t very important. Or you fear for the future, for yourself or for those you love. If any or all of those describe you this morning, Christmas is for you.
Because here’s the message of Christmas: Behind the obvious and the powerful and the inevitable, God is at work. God is at work in ways we cannot see, cannot understand, on God’s timetable, not ours, in ways God chooses, not ways that we would expect. As God did with that girl named Mary, who said, “Let it be to me according to your word.” In other words, “Surprise me.”
God of the impossible, we praise you this morning in anticipation of what you did on Christmas. And we praise you this morning in anticipation of what you will do through us, or in spite of us, as your work on earth continues. Open our eyes to see what only eyes of faith can see: that all the bad news that is so obvious and so discouraging is nothing compared to the good news that came into our world and still comes into our world in Jesus. We pray in his name, Amen.