In the Name...
A little boy returned from Sunday School to tell his parents what he had learned about the first Christmas. “Santa Claus and Rudolph weren’t around, way back then, so three guys on camels had to deliver all the toys.”
In 1910, a young North Carolina teacher named Lillian Trasher was reading the book of Acts when this verse from chapter 7, leapt out at her: “Come now, I will send you to Egypt.” Over the years, she had probably read this passage a thousand times, but, this particular time something stirred within her and she took it as a personal direction from God and did just that.
Upon arrival, she realized that Egypt really had nothing in the way of orphanages, despite a high orphan population, and, so, she started one, with only one child. Over the next fifty years, however, until her death, some 25,000 children were served by what she started and it continues today, supported by Muslims and Christians alike. All because of something spoken two thousand years ago, read by hundreds of millions, if not billions, since, but which held special meaning for one person at one point in time thanks to one of God’s surprises. Today, our Scripture lessons presented us with God working surprises in the lives of two people who couldn't be more different. A king named David, and a peasant named Mary. In a strange way, though, they're very similar. Let's take King David first. David had always been an ambitious guy with big plans, and by the time of our reading many of those plans had been accomplished. He'd conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital; unified the political factions; won enough battles to make his new kingdom secure and he's finished building a brand new palace for himself, his wives, and his porcupines, I mean, concubines.
So now, David decides, it's time to do something nice for God. After all, he wouldn't be where he was if it wasn't for God, so he decides to build God a house, a temple almost as big as the royal palace and right next door. Yes, David has plans and God has an important place in those plans.
But, the verses we just heard are God's response to David. "No." No. God will not be a part of David's plans, but, David can be a part of God's plans. David will not get to build God a house. Instead, God will create from David a house, a family, through which salvation will come to all people. You see, David's plans were really centred on David. They just happened to include God. God's plans were centred on all creation and they just happened to include David.
What is to David's credit, though, is not his grand design to give God a pretty temple. What is to David's credit is his willingness to let God Be God; his ability to walk away from the future as he thinks it should be and walk into the future God has in store. David is a man after God's own heart and responds accordingly.
Almost exactly 1,000 years later, Mary was in a similar, if less prestigious situation. She was a young woman with a great future. She was to be the wife of a skilled middle-class craftsman. Her hopes and plans no doubt included a respectable life, a family, economic security. And being a good Jewish woman, her plans included God. She would say the ritual prayers, keep the Commandments, make the sacrifices, pay the tithes, all the usual covenant stuff.
But, the story of the Annunciation is, among other things, God saying "No" to Mary's plans. Mary will have very little of what she hoped for and expected. On the contrary, God has plans for Mary, and these plans are very different. They are unexpected, they are scandalous, even tragic at the end of the day, but, they will change everything for everybody. Through her, the house begun with David would reach its fruition, and salvation would be offered to the world.
And the key to Mary's greatness, the central reason why she stands as first among the saints, and why "from henceforth all generations will call her blessed," is her ability to hear the voice of God, and say, "Let it be to me according to your word." Mary's greatness is her choice to walk away from the future she had some good reason to expect, and into the unknown future God offered her. She is a woman after God's own heart.
We all have plans for our families and for our lives. And these plans certainly include God in a very important way. But, as Advent ends, we need to realize that God also has plans for us. We need to remember that, very often, it has been those times when things did not go the way we had planned that God was the most present and most real to us.
We speak in the liturgy of offering to God, "ourselves, our souls and bodies" and one of the things that we offer, that we give up at this altar, is the absolute authority of our own plans. We promise to listen, and to let God say "No", even to our best plans for ourselves, even to our best plans for God.
Don't misunderstand. Plans for the future are very important. We are created as free and responsible people and we are to use that freedom responsibly, prudently, and carefully. Part of doing that is making plans and following through with them. There's nothing wrong with plans. There was nothing wrong with David's plans, or with Mary's.
But, Christmas is here to tell us that God's business can be different from our business. And the story of David and the story of Mary can, and will, continue, and in one form or another happen to each of us.
One of the hardest tasks we face in life is to be open to, and to accept, what God has in store for us, especially if it's different from what we think or have come to expect.
What will Christmas be like for us this year and what will it mean? What will it look like for the Lord to be born and reborn within us? What will it be like for us to experience what it means that God has kept His promises and comes to each one of us?
We don't know. Just as David didn't know, and Mary didn't know. Like them, and like Lillian Trasher, we can't exactly plan for it, but, we can be ready for it. As a famous general once said, "There's always the unexpected." We can only open ourselves, and ask for the grace to hear and to respond and the faith to persevere.
In the Name...