I’ve been paying more attention to the length of the days than I have in years past. I think it’s probably due to the way the pandemic has upended life. March is that month when we’re all ready for the winter to be over and for spring to get on with things, yet we spent much of those weeks in our homes, taking occasional walks in the cold, wondering how long this was going to be. One solace I found all those months ago was that the daylight was growing, that the cold would be leaving for a time, and that my habitat might expand beyond my home into the outside world. Still, I always feel a touch of sadness on June 21 – the longest day of the year – because things are steadily marching on their way back to darkness, a few minutes each day going from day to night. The warm, sunny, long days make it easy to forget that day-by-day, they’re getting shorter. Most days I take our dog for a walk in the morning. He expects it (and, frankly, he’s pretty demanding), and I have come to enjoy it as a time for meditation and prayer. These days the sun is hardly cracking the horizon by the time I’m walking. Perhaps that’s why I noticed that we are close to things turning around. You see, this Monday is the darkest night of the year. Come Monday, we begin again reclaiming the daylight. A few minutes more each day, things move from night to day. Even though today is dark, knowing that the light is coming makes me hopeful once again. Yes, there weeks and months to go, but the sun is coming into our world once again. It’s going to take time, but it will come, and we can depend on that. We are living expectantly in this time. Expectation. We’ve been living with expectation through a lot of 2020. Expectation is rooted in hope for us because we believe that God is at work – even now, even in the mess – making things whole. Even in what I hope is one of the most challenging years we ever face individually or as a church, I find a deep yearning in my heart for how things are going to come around, for how deeply gratifying it will be to fill this sanctuary once again with you, God’s children, to take my family out for a bite to eat, or to once again have friends over to our house. These dark days make the thought of those brighter days simply dazzle. They’ll be here, dear friends. We live in great expectation of their coming. We live in hope even now while we wait in the darkness. I’m finding there is a connection to this kind of waiting and expectation that the pandemic has forced on us and the yearly rhythm of praying, “Come, Lord Jesus” at Advent. The hunger in our heart for a better day is like the hunger in our hearts for God to make everything right. We yearn for the end of hatred. Come, Lord Jesus. For the end of sickness. Come, Lord Jesus. For the end of violence. Come, Lord Jesus. For the end of death. Come, Lord Jesus. In normal years, that yearning is there in our lives, but it is usually at a low hum. It’s part of our lives, but we’ve learned to ignore the hum and get on with it. This year of pandemic has turned the volume up on that hum, and so we pray with all the more fervor – Come, Lord Jesus! Into all our pain and sorrow – Come, Lord Jesus! Into our brokenness and fear – Come, Lord Jesus! Into the challenges of today – Come, Lord Jesus! We’re not alone in our expectation. That’s what is so comforting and beautiful about hearing the familiar story of Christmas. For thousands of years, people from all over the planet have turned to God in expectation that God would come into the midst of the world, into the brokenness and hurt of it all, and fill it with glorious light. Mary herself was one of those billions of people who have expected the coming of God into her midst, but little did she know the miracle and the mystery of God’s coming. There’s such a familiarity to this story. This past week the church held a Christmas trivia night on Zoom. It was such fun to see people from our community of all ages having fun with each other. There was laughter and song. I think it’s going to go down as one of the highlights of 2020 for me – that even in hard circumstances, we are still capable of joy and laughter as a community. The questions for the night were about both the secular and biblical parts of this season, and I was amazed at how much we all know about the whole of Christmas. We know the songs. We know the story. It is familiar, even to the youngest among us. The familiarity is a gift, for sure, except I was finding the familiarity a bit frustrating this season. Don’t we know it all already? What is left to say about the birth of Jesus that hasn’t been said over and over again? Well, the answer to those questions is that, yes, many of us do know these stories well, and yes, there’s not much left to say that hasn’t been said. And yet. And yet, this year I found myself wanting to dig past the familiarity into the wonder of the incarnation, into the ludicrous thought that a human could bear God in her womb, into the mystery of it all. What is God up to in choosing Mary and in entering the world in this strange manner? Luke’s gospel introduces Mary in verse 27 of chapter 1. Gabriel, God’s messenger angel appears to “a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary,” according to Luke. What do we know about Mary? Quite likely she was very young. It was common in those days for marriages to be arranged long in advance. She’s engaged to Joseph, whose family descends from the household of David, an important point because it links Jesus to the Davidic line. Usually in these stories of miraculous births in the Bible, an angel visits a woman who has difficulty conceiving. Think about Abraham’s wife Sarah. Or Hannah, the mother of Samuel. This is not the case with Mary. She’s not trying to conceive. She’s just a teenager betrothed to be married at some point down the line. And yet, into this lack of expectation, Gabriel comes and says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” It wasn’t until this week when I read the Greek that I realized that this greeting is filled with grace. It’s actually the line from which our Catholic friends derive “Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you.” Into Mary’s quiet existence, Gabriel comes and fills her life with grace. “Greetings” in Greek shares a root with grace. “Favored one” in Greek does the same. Later, Gabriel tells Mary that she has “found favor” with God, another echo of grace. It’s as though this entire incarnation is rooted in grace – unmerited favor. Mary wasn’t expecting it. Mary didn’t do things to deserve it. She is a stand-in for all of the world at this moment. Grace comes to us, without our deserving it and without our planning on it. It’s what we do with that grace that matters. As we should expect, Mary is confused by all of this. Who wouldn’t be? She’s visiting with an angel. She hasn’t done what is necessary to get pregnant. This all is a lot for anyone, let alone a teenager. Gabriel goes on, “Don’t be afraid!” Those are words that the Bible uses all the time in the strange encounter between God and humanity. Who wouldn’t be afraid interfacing with the One who created the whole cosmos, and yet, time and again God tells us to fear not in this encounter. Gabriel explains what is to happen, and Mary listens. You’ll conceive by the Holy Spirit and have a Son. You’re to name him Jesus. He’s the promised one, the Messiah. God is at work right now fulfilling promises. With good reason, Mary protests, “How can this be, since I am virgin?” Gabriel’s response? “Nothing will be impossible with God.” What a statement. Nothing – not one problem or roadblock or fear we can throw in the way – can prevent God from bringing grace into the world or into our lives. Nothing. There’s something about Mary, though. God chose her for a reason because she has the mettle to handle this news, to raise the Messiah, to watch him become an amazing teacher and healer, and to stand at the foot of the cross when he is crucified. There’s something about Mary, for sure. Mary’s response to this whole wild scene? “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” What Mary agrees to is beyond words. It’s so familiar, that there’s a danger in taming it. God is taking on flesh and moving into the neighborhood. God is doing so in a manner that is perilous. Yet, God does it out of gracious love for the world. I think the British poet, John Donne captures this so well in his sonnet, “The Annunciation.” The final lines are these, speaking to Mary: Yea, thou art now Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother, Thou has light in dark, and shutt’st in little room Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb. Young Mary – the mother of her creator. Mary, child of God, is mother to God now as well. Within the darkness of her womb, she bears the light of the word. Her flesh will feed and protect the very One who knitted Mary together in her own mother’s womb. In the ever-tightening space of her womb that miraculously enlarges to hold a baby, she holds the very immensity of Almighty God. She shelters Jesus inside of her, bringing him safely into a dark and violent world. She mothers the very One who created her, making possible the salvation of the whole world. Friends, I believe that God chose Mary because she was capable of living expectantly for what God could do in the world through her. I also believe that we all have the capacity to be like Mary. We, too, can live expectantly for what God can do in our lives and world. Like Mary, when we follow Jesus, we have made room for God in our lives, and we bear Jesus everywhere we go. Like Mary, we have a calling to live in a way that nurtures the way of Jesus, not only filling us with grace but also filling the world with it. Don’t be afraid, children of God! Be hopeful, because we, too, are called to fill our lives and the whole world with heaven’s peace. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel – God with us – has come to us. Even in these dark days, live with expectation that God is bringing light through you to others. With Mary, let us say, “Let it be with us according to your word.” Come, Lord Jesus!