An Advent sermon on Luke 1:26-38
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
December 20, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
We begin this morning with a quote that has been attributed to musician John Lennon—one of the Beatles. I do not know if he actually said this or not. (Things on the internet can get kind of misstated when it comes to things like this.) And I would confess that, while I have not read every interview that Lennon gave during his all-too-brief life nor have I read every biography of his life, I have read a lot of them. And I can say that I have never encountered it in anything that I have read. The quote goes like this: “Life is what happens in between the things we plan.”
I think that is fair enough. As I look back over my life and take stock of it from the vantage point of 64 years, I can vouch for its truth. Things that did not seem to be very important when they were going on eventually turned into turning points in my life—even if they were totally unbidden and unexpected. That has been t rue of career choices, relationships, educational opportunities and lots of other things. Sometimes things happened that have had far-reaching effects that were not planned or even considered at the time. I think that such is the nature of life. But in looking back on it, I can often see how the hand of God shaped events and relationships and opportunities to work out his good pleasure in my life. Things that changed the course of my life…things that have eternal consequences… I imagine that if you were also to take a few moments to reflect back on the turning points of your life, you could testify to the same experience—plans that were had made were altered dramatically in ways that we would not have planned or expected…
The text today is Luke 1:26-38, which is commonly known as “The Annunciation.” This is the story of how the angel Gabriel came to a teenaged Mary to announce to her that she had been chosen by God to be the one through whom God would send his son Jesus into the world. This is one episode of several in the nativity story that illustrates the point, “Life is what happens in between the things we plan…”
Before this passage, we do not know much about Mary. We know that she was from Nazareth, a backwater town off the beaten path. In fact, it is a town that is so insignificant that it is not even mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament. When we meet Mary, we are told that she was a virgin and that she was engaged to a man named Joseph. That’s all that we really know for sure. Scholars tell us that since she was a young woman engaged to be married that she was probably in her teens, as that was usually the age that young women got married in that time.
When Gabriel came to visit, she was most likely busy doing things that a young woman of that time would be busy doing. She was involved in planning her wedding. After that, she would settle down
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in Nazareth with her carpenter husband, have some kids, and then she would be occupied with making a home for her new family there. That is the kind of thing that one would expect of a young woman in those days.
But as you know, those plans got overturned. No one could have anticipated a visit from Gabriel and the news that he would bring to Mary. Consequently everything got scrambled around. Her wedding was no longer the main thing that occupied her mind. Her life was forever changed because “Life is what happens in between the things we plan…”
When we are introduced to Joseph, we are told that he was a righteous man. He no doubt was looking forward to the time when he could make Mary his wife. Then they could settle down in Nazareth, raise and family, and he could tend to his carpentry business and make a living. But things suddenly changed when Mary was found to be pregnant. When he received the news that Mary was with child, he decided to break the engagement quietly, so as to not embarrass or humiliate Mary even more. He took some convincing before he could accept the truth of Mary’s condition. Those plans had to go out the window. His life was altered in ways which he could not fully understand. “Life is what happens in between the things we plan…”
“And there were in the same country, shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” For these shepherds, it was just another night working the third shift tending the sheep and keeping them safe. They were not planning anything special that night. It was just another night of counting sheep to make sure they were all present and accounted for. They were making sure that the sheep in their care had adequate food and water, and places to lie down and sleep. The shepherds would make occasional walks around the perimeter of the flock to make sure that no wild animals were lurking nearby, waiting for an opportunity to snatch a lamb. Perhaps they were sitting around a fire cooking dinner and having a few drinks. (Shepherds in those days were known to have an unsavory reputation for being heavy drinkers and drunks.) That was their short-term and long-term plan for the evening—and probably for the rest of their lives. That night was a night just like the last one…and the one before that…and the one before that…and the one before that…
No one would have predicted that these common, everyday working stiffs would be the recipients of their own angelic visitation. First one—and then a whole group of angels—appeared to them on the hillside. First, they brought news that the Savior had been born in Bethlehem that night. Then they were treated to the most heavenly—and beautiful music ever to be heard on earth as the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to all on whom his favor rests.” Their very normal lives had been interrupted in a way that they would likely never forget for all the length of their days. Something extraordinary had happened: “Life is what happens in between the things we plan…”
Christmas Day is just a few days away. And then a week later, we will say goodbye to the year 2020. I doubt if anyone will be sad to see it go. A year ago in the days leading up to Christmas 2019, no one could have predicted all of the different ways that our lives would be disrupted. The pandemic has changed everything this year and made it impractical for us to even celebrate the birth of Christ
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together on Christmas Eve as we have come to observe it. Whatever plans that we have had were forced to be put on hold—or cancelled altogether. It has been disappointing for sure…
As we stand at the precipice of a new year, there are hopeful signs for the future. Vaccines have been developed to combat COVID. Once folks will have had an opportunity to treated, then perhaps we will be able to return to some semblance of what used to be considered normal for us.
Meanwhile life happened for all of us. Even though our plans were thwarted and had to be altered, life went on. What did we learn this year? As our lives have been upended, what has God taught us through these days of the pandemic? I think that we have all learned that we cannot put our trust in our own resources and our own resourcefulness. Because life is unpredictable. If I have learned anything this year, that is the lesson. We can have all the resources that we think we need, make all the plans we want, and yet we can still find that it is not enough when faced with the unknown like COVID. It has helped us to refocus our attention on God, for he has the resources that we need when ours have long since run out. We have learned the lesson of faithfulness. I have been inspired by the ways in which the people of First Baptist have continued to support the work of the church even during the days when we have been unable to physically meet.
As the sermon is drawing to a close, I want you to take a few minutes to look back over the course that your life has taken. Can you identify some places where God interrupted the plans that you had made? How did those interruptions change the arc of your life? How has his hand guided you through those changes? How have they made a difference? And then, after you have reflected on those things for a few minutes, breathe a prayer of praise and thanksgiving for the God who is present with us—“Emmanuel”—and guides through all the times that the course of our lives have changed—even when it has been radical or unexpected…

Several years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine when the topic of conversation wandered around to the Christmas story. (I honestly do not remember how it got to that point, but that’s really what happened.) In talking about the birth narrative of Jesus, he said something that stuck with me for all these years afterward. He said, “There’s nothing in the Bible to indicate that Jesus was anything less than a full-term, nine month baby.”
To tell the truth, I had never really considered that idea before. In reading through the story in the gospel of Luke dozens (if not hundreds) of times, it all seems so neat and precise. And I guess the familiarity of the story, plus the many years of watching Christmas pageants in church and on TV, made the events of the first two chapters of Luke all seem logical and rather matter-of-fact. Upon further reflection, though, I imagine that it was anything but logical and matter-of-fact to the folks in the center of the story, Mary and Joseph.
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A few years after that conversation, I wrote what has become one of my favorites of the songs that I have written. It deals with perhaps some of the things that Mary and Joseph had to deal with during the time until “the time had come for her to be delivered.” If we were not in the middle of a raging pandemic and we were meeting in person today, I would be performing this song with gentle guitar and harmonica accompaniment as the conclusion of the sermon today. Alas, that is not to be. But I am including the lyrics of the song for your consideration. I pray that, as you carefully and prayerfully read them, they will speak to you during these final days as we await the birth of the Christ Child. The song is titled “Something in the Air”:
The air is cool on a moonlit night, a time so long ago,
A couple travels alone—there’s no one with them.
The woman’s name is Mary and Joseph is the man,
And they’re travelling down the road to Bethlehem.
And there’s something in the air tonight, I can feel it, I can feel it,
Yes, there’s something in the air…
She remembers telling her parents, amid tears of grief and joy,
“I’m pregnant, mom, but let me explain.
The child is the Holy Spirit’s, I’ve never known a man,”
And her parent’s smiles could hardly disguise the pain.
As her body kept on growing with the child inside her womb,
The stories in the town kept growing too.
They all just snickered when they heard her name and it hurt her deep down inside
For an unwed mother feels pain that belongs to few.
But there’s something in the air tonight, I can feel it, I can feel it.
Yes, there’s something in the air…
He’s lost in thought as he goes back in time to when he first found out the news
That his fiancée was soon to bear a son.
He remembers feeling the anger, he remembers feeling the rage,
‘cause he knew the child wasn’t his own.
He didn’t believe the gossip, yet it was hard to believe the truth
Till an angel spoke in a dream and then he knew.
“Things have been so strange,” he says to himself as he gazes down the road,
“And what a time to travel with the baby almost due…”
And there’s something in the air tonight, I can feel it, I can feel it.
Yes, there’s something in the air…
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The breeze turns cold and she shivers a little as they travel down the road.
He gently wraps a blanket around her shoulder.
The carpenter and his bride-to-be are young enough and strong,
But after nine long months, their faces seem much older…
But there’s something in the air tonight, I can feel it, I can feel it.
Yes, there’s something in the air.1
To God alone be the glory! Amen.

And now a Christmas blessing for you:
May the Christ who was born in a stable, who was crucified on a cross, and who rose victorious from the grave be born anew in your heart this season. May he guide your steps, and lead you at the last into life everlasting. Amen.
Merry Christmas!