The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, December 21, 2008.  The text for this week’s message is Luke 1:26-38.
The time has finally come.  I’m not sure what has happened to this month, but this Thursday is Christmas.  We’ve spent the last several weeks preparing for this very time, but it seems like it is too soon.  Of course, if we think back, perhaps it is appropriate that Christmas has come upon us so quickly and unexpectedly.  After all, we’ve seen multiple times this month that Jesus’ return will happen quickly and unexpectedly.  It is important for us to be prepared for Christmas this week.  Nobody wants Christmas morning, or whatever day it is that you celebrate Christmas with your family, nobody wants that day to come and to be totally unprepared for the festivities.  It would be unthinkable, even horrifying, if we were not ready.  We would be so embarrassed if that happened.  But why is that?  Why are we so embarrassed about being unprepared for something like a family Christmas, but  we don’t even think twice about being unprepared in our spiritual life.  Today’s passage reminds us of the importance of being ready, but also that when the time comes we need to be able to respond out of obedience.  Not only did Mary have to be spiritually prepared for her encounter with Gabriel, she had to be ready to respond when she was called.
Luke begins by saying, “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth.”  Now the “sixth month” that is referred to here is not the sixth month of the year, but rather a continuation of the story that begins with an angel’s appearance to Zechariah at the Temple.  And in order to get some idea of the background of what is going on with Mary, let’s take a look at the opening of the narrative in Luke.
Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were along in years, and to this point they did not have any children.  However, this angel comes while he is praying and tells him that they will conceive and bear a child who would “be filled with the Holy Spirit… and turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to make them ready for the Lord” (Lk 1:15-17).  Here it is!  The time that Israel has been preparing for so long is almost upon them!
Remember, according to Malachi, Elijah would come before the Lord to prepare their hearts.  The one who has been expected for so long has just been announced to a priest, who doubtlessly has been praying over and over again for the blessing of a child.  His prayer is more than answered by a messenger of the Lord, in the Temple no less!  My goodness!  Take just a minute and think of something that you’ve been praying about for a long, long time.  Now, imagine that you are sitting in this sanctuary praying one day, and an angel appears to tell you that your prayer has been heard and will be answered a thousandfold.  That is what is going on with Zechariah here, and what’s his response?  Well, basically, it’s, “Are you kidding me?”  Now, as you can imagine, the angel Gabriel wasn’t too fond of this response, and basically said, “Do you know who I am?  I stand in the presence of God, and He told me to come tell you this.”  Zechariah was prepared, but his response when God’s call came was less than positive, and because of this, he ends up with the divine equivalent of getting his mouth washed out with soap.  Zechariah is unable to speak until John is born, and that brings us to Mary.
Mary is betrothed to Joseph.  A betrothal is something like an engagement in the first century, but it was much more serious.  It was a legally binding agreement to be husband and wife, but the marriage would not be consummated for a full year after the betrothal.  The only way to end a betrothal was by divorce.  Mary is going about her daily business, when she is greeted by Gabriel – the same angel who visited Zechariah in the Temple.  I can only imagine what it would be like for one to be greeted by an angel of the Lord.  It must be incredible and terrifying at the same time.  It seems as though everytime one appears in Scripture, the reaction is one of fear.  Zechariah is said to be troubled at the angel’s appearance, and Gabriel tells Mary not to be afraid.  The unexpected visitor appears and tells Mary that she is highly favored by the Lord, and she will conceive and bear a child, who will be the Son of the Most High and will sit on the throne of David.  How do you take in this kind of information?  In this one simple conversation, Mary’s life is turned upside down.
Remember, Mary was betrothed to Joseph.  She was supposed to be a virgin when it came time for them to consumate their marriage, and now she is being told that she is going to conceive and bear a child.  In the experience of human history, only one thing leads to a baby being conceived, and I’m sure y’all are familiar with what that is.  According to the Old Testament laws, unfaithfulness during a betrothal would be considered adultery, which was punishable by death.  In Matthew, we find out that Joseph was going to quietly divorce Mary so that she wouldn’t face this punishment.  While it would be easy to quietly divorce Mary, it would be much more difficult to hide a pregnancy, especially one that was unplanned and unexpected.
I don’t think Mary woke up that morning thinking that she would conceive a child.  And something tells me that giving birth to a child conceived by the Holy Spirit wasn’t in her long term plans.  But that is how God works sometimes.  Sometimes God will show up in our lives when we least expect Him and turn our world upside down.  Mary wasn’t expecting her day to turn out this way.  In the same way, Paul, on his journey to Damascus, wasn’t expecting to have a profound encounter with the risen Christ that would forever change the course of his life and the course of history.  
On the day that you finally gave it all to Christ, something tells me that it wasn’t part of your schedule for the day.  Maybe that day hasn’t come for you yet, but I can guarantee you that it’s not on your calendar right now, nor will it be on the day that it finally happens.  Maybe that day is today.  You probably didn’t wake up thinking that this would be a day that you would encounter the risen Christ, but maybe there is something in this service today that has spoken to your heart, or in a conversation that you’ll have later on this afternoon.  The question is, “Are you willing to act when the time comes?”
God has a way of breaking into our world and changing everything in an instant.  And sometimes, no, often it is at an inconvienent time in our lives.  We like the way our lives are going.  We don’t want to give that control over to a God who has seemed so distant for so long.  Yet, the reality is, God has been with us all along, and we are the ones who have been distant.  God’s call in our lives is not about our personal convenience or comfort.  It is about being who we are supposed to be, and that is neither convenient nor comfortable in a world that tries to shut out God.  And often, our call doesn’t seem to make sense either.
When the angel tells Mary about her call, it doesn’t make sense.  She doesn’t understand what is going on.  In verse 34, she says, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”  She’s not saying, “Are you kidding me?” like Zechariah was saying in the Temple.  She’s saying, “I don’t know how this is possible because I haven’t been with a man.”  Mary knew where babies came from, and she knew that physically, what she was being told was not possible.  She is not doubting the messenger, she just doesn’t understand how it is going to happen.  More often than not, we simply don’t understand how our calling is even possible.
I remember helping out with a middle school youth program when I was in high school.  For some reason, the youth pastor asked me to lead the devotion time one week.  I worked hard on the message, and I thought that it went pretty well.  Afterwards, I was sitting around talking to some of my friends, and one of them referred to me as Pastor Swish.  And immediately, I said that there was no way that I was going to be a pastor.  I didn’t see how it was possible.  Just a few months later, God called me to ministry.  At the time, it didn’t make any sense to me.  Now, 11 years later, I can see how God worked in my life to bring me to this point.  Thankfully, God is not done with me yet.  I’m sure many of you can see the same thing in your life.  Why are you here this morning?  Because somewhere along the way, God has worked in your life to bring you here at this point and time.  But the question is, “Why?”
Why are you here?  Why are we here as a congregation?  What call has God placed on us for this time in our lives?  I believe that there is something that God has in store for us as a congregation.  I can’t say exactly what it is right now, but I know it is something that we just might think is impossible.  And why is that?  Because of what Gabriel says in verse 37, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”  I really, and truly believe with all my heart that God has a call for us as a congregation; that we can make a major impact on our small community if we only listen for His guiding and are obedient to that call, and that is the final point that I want to make this morning.
It is not enough for us to be prepared.  We have to be willing to step out in faith when the time comes.  When God has given us a clear direction, it is our responsibility to respond like Mary, and not like Zechariah.  Zechariah’s response was, “Are you kidding me?”  Mary’s response was, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
I read an article this week that said, “Faith is not simply expressed in obedience – faith is obedience.  To be faithful is not to be full of an emotion or a belief; it is to act steadfastly on the basis of a commitment or a relationship.”  Christmas is Thursday.  Christmas is not just a time to enjoy one another’s company and open presents.  Christmas is a time when we need to think about what it is that we have been preparing for during this season of Advent.  Are we preparing for a commitment or a relationship from which we can express our faithfulness?  Or are we simply preparing for another fun season of parties and presents?  
I believe that this year, we need to take Christmas as more than just a time to gather with friends and family.  We need to take it seriously as a time in which we have the opportunity to respond to God’s call.  I want to challenge you to pray about this over the next week.  God has a call for us as a congregation.  I cannot figure out what that call is on my own.  It has to be all of us turning to God together to listen for the call that He has placed on this congregation, and to respond by following the example of Mary – even if it is inconvenient, even if it is impossible, we need to be able to say, “We are servants of the Lord; let it be to us according to Your word.”