To me the best thing about Christmas is the surprises. Who does not enjoy the look of wondrous surprise on a child’s face on Christmas morning? Who among us does not remember the rush of excitement we experienced when we were surprised on Christmas day with the best gift ever?
I will always remember the surprise I experienced the Christmas of 1984. That Christmas I received one of the best gifts an American boy could receive. In the months leading up to Christmas I had begged my parents for it, but they didn’t seem too keen on giving it to me. I had resigned my-self to the fact that I was not going to get it. When I came down the stairs on Christmas morning, my doubts seemed to be confirmed. There was no gift that matched the size and shape of the gift I wanted. Toward the end of our chaotic un-wrapping session, I noticed a box hidden under other gifts. It had my name on it. I opened it up and there was a note that read, “Go to the garage to see what this goes with!” In the box was a blue helmet! I ran to the garage door and opened it, and there it was in all of its glory â€” a bright blue shiny go-cart! Surprise! I almost heard angels singing!
Christmas is all about surprises. In fact, Christmas began with a big surprise. Mary got the biggest surprise of her life when the angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her that she would be pregnant with the Son of God! What could be more astonishing than that? Maybe shocked is a better word. After all, she was a virgin. Surprise!
Christmas is about the joyous surprises of God. In the spirit of the surprise of Christmas I want to open up a few Christmas surprises from Mary’s story because through Mary’s story we find the transforming message of Christmas. If you take that message to heart you will never be the same.
If there is one thing Mary’s surprise teaches us it is that God loves to do extraordinary things through ordinary people. Mary was just a poor, Jewish teenage girl. Based on life expectancy at the time Mary was probably between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. Mary didn’t have much experience in life. She was not sophisticated. Yet, God chose her to birth the Son of God.
Luke reports that Mary was perplexed by what the an-gel told her (Luke 1:29). This is perhaps the greatest under-statement in the Bible. If an angel appeared to you, would perplexed the best word to describe your reaction? No, you would be terrified! So was Mary! Gabriel sensed Mary’s fear and explained why he was appearing to her. Mary’s response in verse 34 was priceless, “How can this be?” In our vernacular, Mary asked, “Are you kidding me? How is that going to happen? Um, there is a problem here. I am a virgin. How can this be?”
Many of us have the same reaction when God desires to birth something great through us. We are perplexed. We can’t bring ourselves to believe it. We are afraid. We have doubts. We have excuses. “How can this be?”
Maybe for a long time God has been tugging on your heart to do an extraordinary thing and you have given every excuse in the book why you are not able to do it. God wants you to do it and all you can give God back are your doubts and excuses. I’m too old. I’m too young. I’m not smart enough. I’m not good enough. I’m not educated enough. I’m not experienced enough. How can this be? If that is where you are today, it is time to get the word “can’t” out of your vocabulary.
Look at what Mary said to the angel in Luke 1:38. After the angel explained that all this was going to happen through the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary stepped out in faith and said, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord, let it be according to God’s word! Mary moved beyond her doubts and excuses and said “yes” to God! Aren’t we glad she did?
Mary believed in herself and believed in God. She was used by God in a powerful way. But what exactly turned the key for Mary? Why caused her to move beyond her doubts? I believe it was what the angel Gabriel said to Mary in verse 37, “For nothing is impossible with God!”
Mary knew this. Mary believed this. Otherwise, she could not have done what she did. Imagine the fears and doubts she had to overcome. All Mary knew were the risks. For example, can you imagine how Joseph reacted when Mary told him that she was pregnant with Son of God? “Right, Mary. Sure. Some spirit got you pregnant.” In fact, Joseph was making plans to quietly leave until God got a hold of him. What’s more is that Mary knew that she risked being ostracized by her family and community. She risked rejection. She risked being humiliated.
Yet, knowing all that and risking all that, Mary said “yes” God because she believed that nothing was impossible with God! She believed God would do what he said he would do.
Do you want to know how to be used by God for a great purpose? It is revealed later through something Elizabeth said to her cousin Mary when they met. Elizabeth said to Mary, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:45, emphasis added).
Matthew Hartsfield reminds us to notice what Elizabeth did not say. She did not say, “Mary, you are blessed because you come from the right family. Mary, you are blessed be-cause you are beautiful. Mary, you are blessed because you are intelligent. Mary, you are blessed because you are sophisticated.” No! Mary was blessed because she believed God would do what he said he would.
God does not bless us because of our ability; God blesses us because of our availability. We see this confirmed through-out the Bible. Have you ever taken a look at the people God uses? Most of them belong on the island of the “Lost and Misfit Toys” yet God did powerful things through all of them simply because they were available. Are you available? God blesses and uses us to the fullest when we say, “Lord, I make myself available to you. Use me however you want to use me. Do your will in my life.”
You see, Mary got this. Mary got that it wasn’t about her. It was about what God could do through her. This is revealed in the greatest Christmas carol ever written. Think for a moment. What do you think is the greatest Christmas carol ever written? “Silent Night?” “Joy To The World?” “White Christmas?” “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer?” John Ortberg reminds us that the greatest Christmas carol was written by a Jewish peasant girl named Mary over 2,000 years ago. It is called “The Magnificat.” It is the beautiful words she pours forth to God beginning in verse 46. In “The Magnificat” all Mary can do is talk about what God has done.
When we stop thinking about our limitations and begin believing in what God can do through us, life begins to open up for us. When we stop trying to control our lives and say, “God, you take it from here,” real life begins.
There is a touching verse in “The Magnificat.” It is verse 48. Mary said, “For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Other translations say, “He has been mindful.” The one I like the best, which I believe best de-scribes Mary’s experience is “He has taken notice.” Can’t you feel Mary’s emotion? “God, you have taken notice of me, a poor teenage girl. You have taken notice of me!”
If there is one consistent theme throughout the Bible it is that God loves us and takes notice of each of us. Now that sounds simple enough, but you would not believe how difficult it is to convince people that it is true. As a preacher, I hear so many myths about God. When I am on the golf course and people find out I am a preacher they will give me a four foot putt and say things like, “Be sure to say a good word about me to the man upstairs. I’d like to get into heaven. I have been a bad boy.” Or they will say, “You seem nice, but I could never go to church. Lightning would strike.”
What does John 3:16 say? Hartsfield reminds us again to look at what this verse does not say. It does not say, “God so loved the perfect people.” It does not say, “God so loved the religious people.” It says, “For God so loved the world!” Receive God’s love today. God takes notice of you and cares for you. What do we think Christmas is all about? Love came down at Christmas to show each of us that God takes notice of us and wants to be in our lives. God wants to re-deem us with his grace, encourage us with his love, guide us with his wisdom, and use us with his power.
Don’t listen to your doubts. Don’t listen to what the critics say. Listen to what God says about you and what God wants to do through you. No one ever did anything great for God by listening to criticism.
Have you ever heard the story about Jan Paderewski, the great concert pianist? When he was young he left Poland to play his first recital in London. Before he left, he asked an influential musician to give him a letter of introduction to a leading figure in Britain’s musical world who might be able to help Paderewski if he was not able to live up to his dreams. The letter was handed to him in a sealed envelope. He hoped that he would accomplish everything he set out to do and would not have to use the letter. Fortunately, he never had to use it. He was an instant success. Some years later, while going through his papers, he came upon the letter and opened it. It read: “This will introduce Jan Paderewski, who plays the piano, for which he demonstrates no conspicuous talent.”
What if Paderewski had opened the letter in the beginning? He may not have believed that he had the gift God had blessed him with. He may not have performed that first recital. He may not have become who he was created to become!
What if Mary had listened to her doubts instead of listening to God? The world would be a different place.
Did you know that God wants to do something extraordinary through you? Did you know that nothing is impossible with God? Did you know that God takes notice of you? That is the message of Christmas and if you believe it, it will change your life. Amen.
1. Bits and Pieces, January 9, 1992, pp. 1-2.
CSS Publishing Co., Inc., Mission Possible!: Cycle B sermons for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, by Charley Reeb