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ADVENT 4 Mary’s Expectation 2 Sam 7:1-11, 16 and Luke 1:26-38

An actress, welcoming children to an exhibition, and dressed as Queen Victoria, introduced her colleague as her 'lady-in-waiting'. 'Do you know what a lady-in-waiting is?' she asked. After a pause, one young hopeful suggested, 'Is it a woman who's going to have a baby?' The child wasn't far wrong; many people describe such a woman as an 'expectant mother'. And expectation is a term we use for waiting in hope.

Mary’s Reactions
The Virgin Mary was expecting to get married in the not-too-distant future. She was engaged and I imagine was simply looking forward with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, to her marriage to Joseph and what it would be like. She certainly wasn’t expecting the angel Gabriel (or any angel, for that matter) to pay her a visit. Luke’s way of telling the story only hints at what this must have been like for Mary. The one thing that she is completely unaware of, to start with, is that she is a key part of God’s cosmic purposes in bringing salvation through the eternal Son. Jane Williams comments that it is as if God waits patiently, outside the house, while he sends his messenger inside to announce to Mary how he would like her to be involved. “God, whom the whole world cannot contain, waits quietly while his angel talks to Mary.” And behind God, you can almost see the whole of heaven waiting for her to say “Yes!”. You can sense their relief when she agrees – and their excitement: “She said ‘Yes’! It’s going to work out! You’re on your way to earth, Son! Mary agrees to co-operate with God!”

Just before we move on from this scene, though, some further thoughts about how Mary reacts and how this shows that Mary was entirely suitable for this role. Again Jane Williams points out the nature of Mary’s reaction. After her initial shock of the angel and the way Gabriel greets her, Mary’s one question is “Aren’t I a bit of a problem? Are you sure I fulfil your requirements?” It is such a clue to her character. She doesn’t demand to know exactly how this will all come about; she doesn’t ask what it will cost (in reputation as much as money); she doesn’t want to know what she’ll get out of this proposal; she doesn’t make herself high and mighty suddenly realising she’s been noticed. The angel gives her an explanation that is at once simple but also a mystery: “The Holy Spirit will overshadow you”. Mary simply says: “Okay! I am the Lord’s servant!”

Hopes Exceeded
Do you know the feeling of having your hopes not only fulfilled but exceeded? We use words like “Beyond my wildest dreams!” or just “I’m gobsmacked!” We learn from Luke that Mary took the angel’s advice and went to visit her relative Elizabeth. It is when she arrives that Mary begins to get really excited about what is to happen to her. She had expected, hoped, that she'd conceive a baby, after she got married to Joseph. Then the angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her that her hopes would be fulfilled, but earlier than she'd expected. The Holy Spirit overshadowed her, and she became pregnant, an expectant mother. She had hoped for a baby, and would have been quite satisfied with a perfectly ordinary child, but in fact, as the angel had told her, her baby was to be unique, the long-expected Messiah. God gives us what we hope for, and sometimes more than we'd hoped for. But while his gifts fulfil our hopes, they are not always in ways we expected.

The Hopes of God’s people
God’s people had been hoping for a Messiah. They'd asked God for a king to defend them against their enemies. God gave them King Saul, who was a disaster; then King David, who was a mixed blessing; King Solomon, who was led into idolatry by his foreign wives; and then a whole succession of kings, who were, to say the least, a real disappointment. But they didn't lose hope. They still expected God to send them, one day, a perfect king who'd solve all their troubles. There were different pictures of the Messiah that different sections of their society expected. Some were this worldly and others a bit more out of this world. The down-to-earth expectations were that this Messiah would perhaps be a great general, a military leader who would drive out the Roman army of occupation. But such a Messiah never came. After the second Temple was destroyed a few years after the life of Jesus, the Jewish faith developed in different ways and the idea of a Messiah to come became less important, and certainly less like the idea of a liberating worldly figure.

But the New Testament tells us that a small but growing body of believers gradually realised that Mary’s child was a fulfilment of the world’s hopes for a better life. God’s people, Israel, were always meant to be “a light to enlighten the nations”, but in their suffering and oppression, they drew increasingly into themselves in order to survive. They began to interpret their hopes in different ways. But the followers of the man who began as a weak and helpless baby crying in a manger began to see their hopes and dreams fulfilled, indeed, exceeding in him. I say it again: God always gives us what we hope for, and sometimes more than we hope, but often his gifts fulfil our hopes in unexpected ways.

God and Humanity at home in each other
Our two readings today have a common thread: they both describe the way in which God and humanity may find a home in each other. King David had come from an unsettled and semi-nomadic background. God and his people lived in tents which they had to pack up and move from place to place. At last, as his people become more settled, David establishes a permanent place of rule in Jerusalem. He builds a palace and then stops to think that perhaps God, who has blessed him and his people, should also have some kind of palace. David’s hope and expectation is to build a temple suitable for the God of Israel, the God of his ancestors. There should be a suitable home for the Ark of the Covenant. But God speaks to David through the prophet Nathan and says that David could never out-give God. Though David’s heart is in the right place, he wants to honour God; perhaps unwittingly he is trying to domesticate God. David tries to put God in a particular place, to contain God. This world, this universe is God’s in the first place, a home which God has built for his creatures. How could we ever imagine that we’d give God a home? Through Nathan, God tells David that it is God’s role to establish a royal house in his name. His kingdom, his dynasty, will last for ever. So David goes to his grave with that expectation in his heart. It is only centuries later, through one of his descendants, a humble village girl, that God fulfils such hopes and expectations in a completely unexpected way: a way that goes beyond the wildest dreams of any human. God makes his home in the small space and short life-span of a human being. Yet through that mobile and living home, God provides a way, not just for David and Mary’s people to be at home with God, but a way for the whole of humanity and creation, to find its true home in God.

Christmas Expectations
So are you full of hope and expectation at Christmas? God's gift fulfils our hopes, and exceeds them. You won't be disappointed. But in what ways do you expect God to act? We wish each other a happy and peaceful Christmas. Ideally, in a perfect world, the whole family would be together at home, unwrapping the presents they've given each other. For many families that hope will be literally fulfilled. But for others the happiness will be limited by the absence of some faces round the table: people who are sick, or too far away, or who may, sadly, have died since last Christmas. For some the underlying tensions of family life come to the surface at Christmas and expectations for a happy time together go unfulfilled. Then there are those who have to spend Christmas alone. But the heart of Christmas is that God gives us better gifts than we had ever dreamed of. The gift he gives is immeasurably greater than any other. Let's all be ladies and gentlemen in waiting, expectant with promise, but open for God to surprise us by giving, not what we asked for, but something much better. And let us seek to be like Mary in the way she responded to God: not objecting because we can’t understand how God’s plan will work out, but humbly accepting the mystery and goodness of all that God wants and praying: “Let it be!”

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith