Summary: Fourth Sunday in Advent: God’s surprising announcement to Mary - why it is our surprise too. Nothing is impossible with God.

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Surprises come in all shapes and sizes. Four birthdays ago, I thought that I was going to have a quiet dinner with Sofi and a couple of friends. It had been a tough several weeks. I was turning over the office where I worked because we were moving to San Antonio. At home – chaos – furniture all over the place; workmen coming and going - getting it ready to go on the market. We were sleeping on an air mattress. But these friends had invited us to go out to dinner to celebrate my birthday.

Not really being one for crowds or crowded places - I was looking forward to a little conversation and some good vittles. We drove to their house to meet them. Then we drove to a restaurant that we had never been to with these friends. That should have been the first hint. When we drove into the parking lot, I thought that I recognized some of the cars. That should have been another hint. Then we walked into the restaurant – and there they were, a whole pack of friends – folks that I worked with and their spouses. We were having us a birthday party. We even had the waiters do a little happy birthday restaurant ditty. I was surprised – and so happy to see how much my friends cared.

Chuck Swindoll writes, “Surprises come in many forms and guises: some good, some borderline amazing, some awful, some tragic, some hilarious. But there’s one thing we can usually say - surprises aren’t boring.” (Finishing Touch p. 268) How true!

This morning we focus on one of the greatest surprises that ever happened. It took place when an angel by the name of Gabriel appeared to a young teenager by the name of Mary. Gabriel piled one surprise upon another. If God’s surprises could be gift wrapped and put under a tree, Mary and Joseph’s Christmas tree would have been packed.

What does an angel’s visit mean to a believer? In scripture, angel visits were events filled with wonder. In the Old Testament, angels visited God’s people many times. Usually a visit by an angel meant that big stuff was about to happen. Fear and awe are part of angel visits. Why? Because the person being visited knows that the Almighty – the Lord – the Maker of Heaven and Earth – is involved in his or her life.

Can you imagine Mary’s surprise when the Angel Gabriel came to her? It’s easy to treat the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary as old news. The familiarity of the story to us has perhaps made it a bit ordinary. But let me tell you, when angels appear to people – its anything but ordinary. Try to imagine a young girl – perhaps 13 or 14 years of age. Try to imagine her going about her daily chores – and all of a sudden, an angel appears to her. And not just any angel mind you, but Gabriel, the Archangel.

Mary was a believer. She had heard the stories of old. She knew of the visits of the angels to the Old Testament patriarchs. She knew of the times that the angels had visited Abraham and how his life had taken dramatic turns every time. Mary remembered Jacob wrestling with an angel. The vision of the angel placing a hot coal on Isaiah’s lips had probably been burned in her memories. And in front of her stood Gabriel.

What would you do? Little Mary must’ve been thinking, “Why would an angel be visiting me?” What’s going to happen to me? How is my life going to change? And then Gabriel speaks: “The Lord is with you, do not be afraid.” Gabriel’s literally said: “Ave María - greetings Mary - be cheerful because the Lord has shown great kindness to you.”

What we often don’t realize is that Gabriel’s visit to Mary is our angel visit too. Gabriel’s announcement of grace and favor extends through time and space and comes to us here and now. And we need it. You see, right now, today, some of you, my brothers and sisters, are feeling the accumulated pressures of life, made more intense by the season. Its almost unfair – like piling on. Life and it’s pressures and on top of that marathon shopping and traffic snarls and the cost of gifts and packed shopping malls. All around us we hear the message that we can go to Best Buy or Dillards and buy happiness. But it doesn’t work – the pain is still there, the strained relationships are still there.

And in the middle of all this, the visit of the angel comes into our world. The angel surprises us and tells us that there is something more meaningful then tinsel. The angel points us to God’s favor and grace. Gabriel’s announcement, “Greetings, you who are highly favored – the Lord is with you” – its for us! Those words are intended to bring us peace and joy – just like they did to Mary.

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