“God Came Near In This Uncertainty”

Luke 1:26-38
December 18, 2022
Matt Goodale

So two weeks ago we read about our first angel encounter in the Christmas story. An angel visited Zechariah and told him that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would finally bear a son – something they’ve been praying for for a long time. And remember, we talked about how angels in the Bible aren’t like those cute chubby angel babies on Hallmark cards or the kind you hang on Christmas trees. But the angels in the Bible are kindof terrifying, usually scaring the bejesus out of people…which explains why the first thing out their mouths is always, “Don’t be afraid.”

Well we have another angel encounter in our story this week. And this angel didn’t just stop by to have a quick chat with Mary to see how her day was going; and unlike the angel who visited Zechariah, this angel doesn’t come to make any of Mary’s prayers come true. This angel comes to turn her whole world upside down.

I mean, just imagine with me for a second that you’re a young girl, probably no older than 14 or 15 years old, just going about your day, minding your own business, when all of the sudden an angel of God shows up, probably scaring the bejesus out of you, and then informs you that you are in fact pregnant. And no, the angel isn’t going to do the hard job of having that incredibly awkward conversation with your fiancée, Joseph, for you. That’s your job. Oh joy.

I mean, what do you even say to the angel? “Thank you”? Or maybe, “Get lost, go turn somebody else’s life upside down?” I don’t know. But no matter how she responds to the angel, Mary’s life has just forever changed. And having a baby before she was married was not part of the plan. In ancient culture, being a pregnant unwed woman was either a death sentence or a sentence to a life on the underbelly of society. I can imagine this was not how Mary had planned for her life to unfold.

Growing up, one of the games I often played with friends or my sister was Battleship. You know, the game where you each have a tray of coordinates with a backboard to hide it from your opponent. And the goal was to secretly place your “battleships” on the coordinates and then take turns trying to guess the coordinates of your opponent’s battleships.

If you guessed correctly then you got a “hit”, if you hit all three of four points on their ship then it sunk, and if you guessed wrong, the it was called a miss. And it’s a funny game, because both of you are playing completely blind, it’s pretty much entirely based on luck, but when you finally get a hit on their battleship you pretend with all the fake bravado you can muster that it was in fact skill or intuition which led you to a hit. Because what fun are games without gloating?

And I never really enjoyed the game of battleship. It was too frustrating. It was a game where things could be going well – you could be winning – and all of the sudden you get a string of misses and your opponent gets some lucky guesses and sinks all your battleships. Plus, why do I want to spend my time guessing random coordinates? That doesn’t sound fun. Waaaaayyyyy too much luck involved.

That’s why my game of choice growing up was chess. I loved chess and from late elementary school until high school I spent one Saturday a month playing chess tournaments. What I enjoyed about chess is that it’s the opposite of battleship in just about every way. It’s just about the only game that has no luck involved.

When playing chess you are truly the master of your own fate. If you win, it’s because you planned more moves ahead than your opponent and if you lost, it’s because you didn’t. It’s a game that’s all about looking ahead into the future to see all the possible moves and choosing which set of moves is best. In chess, if you’re good enough, there are no surprises or misses.

And you know, I was thinking this week about how most of us can go through life thinking that we’re playing a game of chess, when really we’re just playing a game of battleship. Now stay with me here: 

Life, we often like to pretend is something fully in our control; that we are the masters of our own fates. And so we look ahead, like chess, at all the future possibilities and make the choices that seem best, like what type of career will I have, will I get married or have kids, will I buy a home, where will we move, when will we retire and how will we financially prepare for it? We plan and we plan and we plan.

And of course we do. There’s a choir of voices around us from marketing agencies to TV evangelists to Instagram influencers, health coaches and financial planners who all promise a beautiful, perfect life if we just put the time, or the money or the effort into it. They try to sell us a set of moves that will promise us a win at this game of chess we call life.

And then, we wake up one day and realize that darn it, life is actually more like a game of battleship—full of misses and surprise hits. One moment things are going well, and all of the sudden your battleship has been sunk out of nowhere. Plans are in place, you can see where you want your future to go, and then you just get miss after miss after miss. Life, much like the game of battleship, is unpredictable and uncertain, and it can be frustrating as heck.

Because something always inevitably happens: we hit a bump in the road, our story takes a turn and all of the sudden the curtain drops as we realize that we’ve been playing the wrong game the whole time; we were promised a game of chess where all our moves can be perfectly planned and calculated, but then we find we’re actually just guessing random coordinates, getting lucky hits and unlucky misses.

And I suspect that our story today captures Mary in what I’ll call her “battleship” moment, when she realizes that her life is not in fact a game of chess, but is actually a frustrating, uncertain, foggy game of battleship. Mary has planned well, she’s made all the right choices: she’s betrothed to a good man who makes a good living. Her future looks bright.

And then an angel shows up to sink her battleship. I wonder if in that moment when Mary received the news that she would bear a child, if she saw her future shattering into a million pieces.

I know we’ve all had moments like this, when our story takes an unexpected twist. Most of us have survived more twists than we can count. These twists come in many forms. We lose a job. Our marriage crumbles. A family member dies. We receive a difficult health diagnosis. Our finances get too tight. We suffer from a mental illness that isolates us and turns our hopes into fears. Each twist in our story jars us out of the fantasy that life is something firmly within our control, usually leaving us with a mess of broken hopes, shattered dreams and nothing but a foggy uncertain future ahead. Our life does not always unfold the way we wish it would.

Perhaps you find yourself trying to pick up these various broken fragments of your life this Christmas season. For some reason the holidays often amplify the cracks and missing pieces in our picture of what we think a perfect life looks like.

When the angel appears to Mary, she is left with a lot of pieces to pick up and a whole lot of uncertainty ahead. What would Joseph say? Would he divorce her, or even have her stoned? What about her parents and the rest of the town—what would they think? This wasn’t something she could hide forever. Would she be able to raise the child on her own? Where would she go?

I can only imagine what must have been running through Mary’s head as she receives the news that her life is about to change forever.

But her response to the angel amazes me. You know, I’d probably tell the angel to get lost and go pick on somebody else. But Mary responds, and I’m sure with all the courage she can muster, “I serve the Lord, and so may it happen to me just as you said it would.”

In other words, she basically tells the angel, “I may not have chosen this for myself, but I do know the type of God I worship and I trust that God enough, so may this happen to me just as you’ve said.” That takes a whole lot of faith and courage for a young teenage woman to receive this uncertain future she’s just been handed. This is why Mary has become the model of faithfulness in many traditions.

And I wonder if we can learn from Mary’s response during this Advent season. Because Mary’s response drives right to the core of a very hard truth that none of us really want to face: your life is not in your control. You can plan and prepare and look ahead all you want, but there will always be some twist in your story, some bump in the road, some life-altering experience that you never wanted nor chose for yourself. Your life is not always in your control. And I know none of us want to hear this! – if you want to kick me out of the pulpit this is your chance.

Mary has come to terms with this hard hard truth for herself, because she has realized another truth: that God is there to walk with her through life’s twists and turns. Mary willingly submits to this twist in her story, not because she necessarily wants to, but because she trusts the God who will walk with her through it.

Mary knows the game has changed. She knows she’s not playing chess anymore. The angel destroyed that illusion. But so too have her expectations of the game changed. She no longer expects to be the master of her own fate; she no longer expects everything to be roses and daisies. She says, “I don’t know where I’m going, but Lord, I trust you’ll be there with me. So may it happen as you said it would.”

But this is a difficult trust to have. It takes a lot of faith. Some of us barely trust the weatherman to give us an accurate forecast, how are we supposed to trust that God will walk with us through life’s twists and turns? How are we supposed to have the faith to walk into an uncertain and foggy future without carrying our usual luggage of anxious worrying and planning and reaching and grasping after some certainty and security?

Faith in God never promises us certainty. It never even promises we’ll end up in a place we want to be. But it does promise we won’t have to walk this uncertain road alone. Because you’re surrounded by a community of people who are on this foggy journey into the unknown with you, and you have a God who has promised to never leave you.

I find it kindof funny and ironic how we live in a culture that is obsessed with mystery novels and crime investigation shows. We all love a good plot twist, because it’s fun! If someone tells you the ending to a good book or movie before you’ve experienced it for yourself, then it kindof ruins the whole thing! Because it’s not really as much about the destination, where the story ends up, but the whole fun of it is experiencing the journey along the way, the dead ends, the false starts and plot twists. It’s all part of the experience!

And it’s funny, because of course we don’t like any of that when dealing with our own lives. We want a straight, linear plot line, with no twists, no dead ends, no false starts. We want to know exactly where and how the story is going to end. But dang it, that’s not how life works, is it?

And the sooner we can come to terms with the fact that we really have so little control over this wonderful life of ours, the sooner we’ll be opened up to receiving it all as a gift. When we take a page out of Mary’s book and finally give up our need for control, then we are freed up to fully appreciate every moment, every day, every wonderful relationship as a gift, because we don’t know what tomorrow will look like.

Now, I’m not going to promise that everything will work out for you in the end; I’m not going to make some trite declarations that I’ve heard too many preachers claim, that if you have this kind of faith everything will be peachy and all your problems will be fixed. For many of us, that may not be the case. Mary’s own story ends with her son being strung up on a cross and then taken away from her.

Mary’s story reminds us that not every twist will have a “happily ever after” ending like the fairy tales. But Mary’s story reminds us that every twist in the road still leads us to God. Because Mary, when she finally gives birth to her son whom she carried with her for nine months, Luke’s gospel tells us that “Mary treasured all these things and stored them up in her heart.” She relinquished control of her story, and went along for the ride of a lifetime, storing up every precious moment of it, trusting that God would never leave her to travel this uncertain foggy road alone.

The same is true for you and your story. God walks with you every step of the way. And even when your battleship gets sunk or you hit miss after miss after miss, God is there to pick up the pieces with you and to encourage you to just take the next step forward and then the one after that into the unknown ahead. Amen. And May it be so.