“When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear. The angel said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard.'” (Luke 1: 12-13a CEB)
This evening my family started our Advent devotional titled: “Unexpected.” The first day talked about Zechariah and his encounter with Gabriel, an encounter that was most definitely unexpected.
We’ve probably all heard the phrase, “expect the unexpected,” but that’s easier said than done, right? It’s especially difficult to do during the Holidays.
We all run into the unexpected in different ways this time of year. Sometimes unexpected family or guests can drop in unannounced. Maybe you go off to do your shopping and get stuck in traffic. Maybe your family goes out to eat on a Saturday evening and every restaurant in town is packed to the rafters, even late at night. How often do little unexpected things happen? Maybe the side dish or pie you made didn’t turn out right. Maybe you weren’t able to get a gift you wanted to get someone else. Maybe someone’s reaction to a gift you got them wasn’t what you had hoped.
Of course, not all unexpected things are bad. Maybe you truly surprise someone with a gift. Maybe you get something unexpected that really means a lot to you! Maybe you make your first ever brine and turkey and it turns out even better than you thought! These things can be good, but still unexpected.
Still, none of that is “angel popping up at your workplace” unexpected. If that happened to me they’d finally have to carry me out in a straight jacket. That’s what happened to Zechariah though, and the unexpectedness didn’t end there. The angel’s message was just as unexpected: “your aged, barren wife is going to have a baby.” Zechariah is as about as impressed as Scrooge is when he first encounters Marley’s ghost. I don’t know if he thought the angel was a bit of underdone potato or not, but his reaction to Gabriel’s message seems to be along the lines of, “Yeah right, and I’m the tooth fairy!” Of course then Zechariah pays for his unbelief by being struck speechless for the next nine months or so.
Now, maybe those were some of the nicest months of his wife Elizabeth’s life, but my guess is that it was even more unexpected when her body actually started to show the signs of pregnancy. What might have seemed like this weird, ethereal experience her husband had became very real, unexpectedly, to her at that point.
Gabriel seems to have a knack for this kind of thing. Just a few verses later in Luke’s Gospel, he’s showing up to Mary and telling her that she’s going to be pregnant, even though she’s a virgin. Mary is also skeptical at first, but ultimately believes where Zechariah needed a bit more convincing.
But it was all still very unexpected, to say the least.
Every single bit of the Christmas story is unexpected. Not only that, but it’s the exact opposite of the way you’d expect such a story to take place! What all powerful God would willingly clothe himself in the body of a vulnerable human baby dependent on others? If he did, why would he pick a young peasant girl as opposed to a powerful queen or member of an aristocratic family? And why wouldn’t he choose to be born in a palace full of warmth and opulence instead of a feeding trough in a cave? Plus wouldn’t he want all the important people, kings and soldiers, to witness his birth? What’s up with the dirty, smelly shepherds?
And of course the entire life of Christ is a model of the unexpected. Instead of a conquering king they get a wandering preacher. Instead of spending his time among the elite of society he consistently chooses the sinner and outcast. Instead of healing Lazarus from his illness he lets him pass away. Ultimately instead of traveling to Jerusalem to take up a thrown and a crown of gold, he takes up a cross and a crown of thorns.
And ultimately he breaks the bonds of death by rising again, talk about unexpected!
Do we leave room for the unexpected in our lives, not only during the holidays but all year round? Are we willing to admit that the way we see it, the way we think things should go, is not the way things will, or even should, work out? Are we willing to look for Christ not only in the unexpected corners of our own private lives, but in the unexpected places in the world as well, in the refugee, immigrant, homeless, poor, imprisoned, or sick person?
I know I’m not always good at that. Usually I kind of want to see Christ in the brilliant flash of light, or in the heat of the flame, or in the roaring of a mighty wind, but as Elijah witnessed, that’s not usually God’s style. He’s more likely to show up in a whisper or a still, small, voice.
What does that mean for us, for our world? I actually think it’s a bit intimidating. We like to think we have things all figured out. Those of us in positions of privilege or power like to feel comfortable with ourselves, but we don’t expect the unexpected. We don’t expect the quiet potential and power of the Virgin’s son, sleeping in a manger.
For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep down in their souls, from which they shy away. These are the manger and cross of Jesus Christ. No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught. They have no right, no hope. They are judged.