“Surprise, It’s Christmas!”
Christmas Eve Candlelight Service
Text: Luke 1: 26-28
Prayer: On this night we hear again the beautiful message of Christmas. May it speak to us, surprise us even and bring the message of peace and hope which is for all people. Amen.
The greatest thing about Christmas morning is the surprises. When else in life do you get to pile 10, 20, 30, 40 sometimes 50 surprises all together and sit for an hour enjoying each of them? One after another, surprise after surprise. Christmas Morning is wonderful in that way. I can remember still today the way I felt as a child, the amazement, the astonishment of Christmas morning.
Chuck Swindoll writes, “surprises come in many forms and guises: some good, some borderline amazing, some awful, some tragic, some hilarious.
But there’s one thing we can usually say surprises aren’t boring.” Surprises are woven through the very fabric of all our lives. They await each one of us at unexpected and unpredictable junctures (Finishing Touch p. 268).
I like the story about a professor who sat at his desk one evening working on the next day’s lectures. His housekeeper had laid that days mail and papers at his desk and he began to shuffle through them discarding most to the wastebasket. He then noticed a magazine, which was not even addressed to him but delivered to his office by mistake. It fell open to an article titled “The Needs of the Congo Mission”.
Casually he began to read when he was suddenly consumed by these words: “The need is great here. We have no one to work the northern province of Gabon in the central Congo. And it is my prayer as I write this article that God will lay His hand on one ‑ one on whom, already, the Master’s eyes have been cast ‑ that he or she shall be called to this place to help us.” Professor Albert Schweitzer closed the magazine and wrote in his diary: “My search is over.” He gave himself to the Congo.
That little article, hidden in a periodical intended for someone else, was placed by accident in Schweitzer’s mailbox. By chance he noticed the title. It leaped out at him. Chance? Nope. It was one of God’s surprises.
This evening we focus on one of the greatest surprises that ever there was, the surprise that took place when an angel by the name of Gabriel appeared to a young teenager by the name of Mary. Gabriel piled one surprise upon another. Mary and Joseph’s Christmas tree had more astonishing surprises than any couple on earth had ever experienced.
I. Gabriel’s first surprise to Mary was “The Lord is with you, do not be afraid.” You can be sure that Mary was gripped with fear. We call it the virgin birth; I don’t know what Mary called it, a mess, a dilemma, a thorny problem. It’s a problem for us even today. And that amazes me. I will admit that we do not understand it.
Many of us, adults included, do not know what we are talking about when we discuss the virgin birth.
There is a lot of mystery there, but as I understand it, it means that Jesus came from God. He is God’s Son. Yes he was born of a woman but his origin is also from God. The emphasis is not primarily on Mary, but on the power of Almighty God. As one theologian put it, Jesus is not the product of human evolution, the highest achievement of the human race; he is the product of the intervention of a transcendent God into human history (Reginald H. Fuller).
Think of the fear that must have gripped Mary. Her first reaction was, “You don’t know what you are talking about. I am still a virgin.” But Gabriel assured her that it was the work of the Holy Spirit. That God was with her.
Her next thought must have been, “My father will kill me.” It was hard enough to get a good girl married off but one that is pregnant, that will never do. But the Angel reassured her in a very special way.
He said, your relative Elizabeth, in her old age, is going to have a child as well. It was a miracle, not like Mary’s but a miracle nonetheless. That’s wonderful isn’t it?
God did not leave Mary alone in this miraculous event. Someone else in her family was going to experience the unexpected work of heaven in the womb. I can picture the family getting together and saying, “what Mary is telling us must be true. There are things afoot in our family that are too wonderful to ignore.”
But Mary’s heart must have skipped a beat when her thoughts turned to Joseph. Fear has a way of gripping us, telling us that what we are about to do is impossible. Mary must have felt that way, even with all of Gabriel’s convincing words. Mary surely thought that her fiancé Joseph would not endure the public disgrace. But an Angel appeared to him as well and told him not to fear. What a great surprise is Christmas.
Joseph, do not fear to take Mary as your wife. Mary, do not fear, you have found favor with God.
Zechariah and Elizabeth do not fear; your prayers have been heard. Do not fear! It’s the great surprise of Christmas. God’s great light coming into the world this season banishes the darkness and drives the fear from our heart.
II. The first surprise of Christmas is fear not, the Lord is with you. Gabriel’s second surprise to Mary was, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” Can you hear the surprise in that, Mary you will conceive and have a son? What could be more astonishing than God placing his most awesome work in the hands of a 16‑year‑old peasant girl named Mary? I’m afraid to have a 16 year old baby‑sit children, so forget entrusting the destiny of the world into such hands.
But once you get over Mary’s troubling circumstances, this whole thing is really so casual and domestic. What is more natural than the birth of a child? The babe in Bethlehem always appears to be less than he really is. He is a child born in poverty and obscurity. He is a simple boy of Nazareth, rambunctious and learning the trade of carpentry along side his father.
He is unnoticed for years while living in a family of little means. He is not a member of the religious class but a self styled preacher like John the Baptist. He is a prisoner refusing to answer the accusations of a judge. He is a common criminal like the two he was crucified along side. He is buried and except for a few fanatics is dead and forgotten. He is so natural. So like any other human on earth.
And then comes the surprise of Christmas, this child was God with us. I love the way the Apostle John describes it. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John is saying that God pitched his tent among us in the flesh of Jesus Christ, the possibility that no one thought possible, the identity that no one identified, the divinity that no one divined, was made possible at Christmas. This is the second surprise of Christmas, that Jesus was not only human but divine.
III. Gabriel’s third surprise to Mary was “He will be called the Son of God.” Let me tell you what is so surprising about Christmas.
It is simply this: When God chose to do this greatest work of salvation, God did so not with the splash of the earlier works:
Saving Noah from a world flood, hiding baby Moses in a basket on the Nile, delivering the Jews from bondage in Egypt, splitting the Sea, giving the Ten Commandments, bringing his people at last to the Promised Land. His greatest work was done in the frailty of a child.
Now don’t miss this. If you miss this you miss Christmas. Jesus was a child like every other child who has ever lived. He got sick like other children. He learned to be a carpenter along side his father. He laughed like every other boy, skinned his knee like every other boy, and grew in wisdom and stature. He was 100% boy.
But here is the surprise of Christmas: He was 100% God. 100% boy and 100% God. That’s crucial. The church has been careful throughout the centuries to point this out. He is not 50% God and 50% human. He is all boy and all God. That’s the mystery. He’s Mary’s son, yes.
But the angel assures Mary that he will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. Surprise, that’s Christmas!
Prayer: O Lord, help us to place our trust in you and the wonders that you surprised us with that first Christmas. Surprise us again and come to us now. Speak to our hearts that we might have faith in Christ and believing, have life in his name. For in him we see your love reaching out to the World in all times, and all places to offer your amazing love, acceptance and forgiveness. Amen.