Christmas is about surprises.
Of course, I like the kind of surprises that end of up being good for me. Usually that means it helps my situation become more enjoyable. Some surprises don’t end that way.
When doing my taxes last year, I counted all three of my children as exemptions. I do this every year. I’m usually pretty good at figuring out my taxes, but several months afterward I received a letter from the IRS saying I owed them $1000! Needless to say, this was not the surprise I was hoping for but owing that exact amount sounded odd to me. Upon reading the letter, I discovered that my oldest daughter could no longer be counted on my taxes in that way. She had her 17th birthday during the year.
Like any good father, I rebuked her for getting older and costing me $1000.
There are, on the other hand, surprises that can change a person’s life and renew her faith in humankind. This happened to Helen Johnson, a woman living in a small Alabama town who made a mistake in a tough situation.
Helen and her family had gone without food for two days, and she went to the Dollar General store with $1.25 to buy a carton of eggs. Upon getting to the store, she realized that wasn’t enough to purchase the eggs. Helen made $120 disability for herself, two daughters, niece and two grandchildren. In desperation she stuffed five eggs in her pocket. As she walked out, she was stopped by an associate of the store who called the police. Helen admitted stealing the eggs to the police officer, who told her to remain by the door. Helen waited for handcuffs, but but instead the officer came out with a carton of eggs.
In addition to this kind act, the officer took her to police headquarters and signed her up for the Toy Drive for her children. He later took her two loads of groceries and got her help from a nearby church as well.
Upon receiving these tremendous acts of kindness and seeing her pantry full, Helen broke down in tears. She said, “The last time I saw my house this full, I was 12 years old and staying with grandmother.”
Surprises can be a good thing.
I can’t imagine anyone expecting the Son of God to arrive on earth like he did over two thousand years ago. Read the gospel accounts, especially those of Matthew and Luke. God chose unassuming, regular people to be responsible for bringing God incarnate into the world. There didn’t appear to be anything special about Mary and Joseph. There wasn’t anything especially beautiful about the place where Jesus was born. It wasn’t a prestigious audience that first heard the birth announcement about Jesus’ arrival. The whole situation seemed unlikely and undeserving for the Son of God.
The words of angel must have surprised those first hearers: “This will be a sign unto you: You will find a baby wrapped in clothes, and lying in a manger” (Luke 2.12 NIV). Shepherds. What an undignified, undervalued congregation!
I enjoy Barbara Brown Taylor’s description of the nativity scene: The hole in the heavens had closed up and the only music came from the bar at the inn. One of the cows stepped on a chicken and the resulting racket made the baby cry. As she leaned over to pick him up, Mary started crying too and when Joseph tried to comfort her she told him she wanted her mother. If she had just married a nice boy from Nazareth, she said, she would be back home where she belonged instead of competing with sheep for a place to sleep (Home By Another Way, 23).
There had to be at least some humor in that situation.
There isn’t any record of that exchange taking place, but I have to think that Mary and Joseph were overwhelmed by the journey and the circumstances. It was surpassed only by the distance God went to arrive in fragile, human form on a planet in desperate need of hope and a surprise that would make a difference.
I’ve been a pastor for 20 plus years now, and believe that churches need to surprised on occasion as well. That’s what the Holy Spirit is good at doing, and that is evident on several occasions in the birth narratives. This is also reinforced by the adult Jesus when talking to Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3.8).
We can’t program the work of the Holy Spirit. Like many pastors, I have read and told the birth narrative countless times. It’s easy to allow the words to become repetitious and for our heart to become callous to its meaning.
My prayer for myself first and for all of us this Christmas is that something will take us off guard, maybe even surprise us a little bit, as we get closer to the little town of Bethlehem once again. I am hopeful that the sign first seen by the shepherds would create wonder in our hearts once again.
May we allow the Holy Spirit to move among us and remind us that God knows who we are and that there is a purpose in all things. And for this reason, we ought not be afraid.