Luke 1:5-17
Matthew 1:18-23

Unexpected surprises often have a way of interfering with our Christmas expectations.

77 years ago Friday, people across this great land were preparing for Christmas in all the familiar and expected ways when suddenly something very unexpected happened. Many people were disappointed with Christmas of 1941. My own father was 14 years old on that ‘day of infamy’ when the Japanese took everyone by surprise. He, like everyone else was preparing for Christmas in the usual way, hoping for a band new American Flyer sled. And he was disappointed when, under the circumstances, my grandfather thought it best to be financially conservative.

Christmas is not always about what we expect.

The first Christmas reminds us of that truth. Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph didn’t expect to see Angels from the Realms of Glory but they did. Zechariah and Elizabeth didn’t expect to have a baby in their old age. Joseph didn’t expect and was therefore surprised to hear that his finance was with child. Mary didn’t expect to be the mother of God. People didn’t expect the Son of God to be born in the hick town of Bethlehem. Shepherds didn’t expect to sing, Angels We Have Heard on High.

Please note that not all these unexpected surprises were welcome. I’m sure that when Mary and Joseph discovered an unplanned pregnancy they didn’t exactly jump up and down with glee! And yet because they exhibited faithful determination and patience, they eventually experienced great joy.

I was thinking this morning about the movie A Christmas Story, in which young Ralphie wants a Red Ryder BB gun, but his parents’ only response is, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” At school, Ralphie’s teacher asks the class to write a theme paper titled, What I Want for Christmas. Ralphie’s face beams with joy as he sets about to write the greatest theme paper ever submitted in an elementary school. As he turns his paper in, Ralphie is convinced he has submitted his magnum opus. He imagines the teacher reviewing one bad theme paper after another in disgust, until she finally comes across Ralphie’s paper. The teacher is swept away by Ralphie’s submission. “Poetry! Sheer poetry!” she exclaims, writing A++++++ across the blackboard, as Ralphie is hoisted into the air by his classmates. Later, his teacher lays his graded theme paper on his desk. The grade on his paper is a C+. Ralphie is devastated; especially by the words written underneath in red pen: “You’ll shoot your eye out.” But in the end, after exhibiting patience and determination, Ralphie is rewarded with joy.

It may be true that some here are going to experience an unexpected and unwanted surprise this Christmas. If that be true for you, follow the example of Mary and Joseph’s faith, determination and patience and you will discover with them that as time passes things have a way of working themselves out; oftentimes becoming better than before.

In Robert Brown’s autobiography Creative Dislocation the Movement of Grace, “the greatest things that happened to me were the things I never expected; things I didn’t plan for, things that didn’t seem like blessings at all at the time. I have learned to speak of grace is to say that the things most worth expecting are the things totally unexpected.”

The New York Times printed a story a few years back about an unexpected Christmas surprise concerning a man who chose to be homeless. His first Christmas living in and around Grand Central Terminal, he felt a certain eagerness. He’d heard rumors of people displaying Christmas benevolence in the past: a good Samaritan who would hand out $100 bills, and other sudden acts of provident kindness from the most unlikely folks. So, he had his eyes and ears figuratively cocked for a sign that, yes, there might be a Christmas surprise.

But as soon as he stirred on Christmas Eve morning, he noticed his shoes were missing. Someone not content to wait on the hand of Providence took them. Hungry, he slap-footed his way upstairs and slipped inside an idling train. He soon found an abandoned cooler with its leftover contents of cold chicken and mashed taters but to him a treasure so he ate, drank and hoisted a heartfelt toast to Providence.

He even began to see his stolen shoes as a good thing. You see, his mother was expecting him for Christmas dinner. She lived 45 minutes north of the city, and they had talked collect over the phone. With his brother and father dead, their clan had been whittled down to two. And the thought of sitting across that lonely table sent a shiver through his bones. But worse than that was the prospect of showing up empty-handed. The last thing he needed this Christmas was shame. So he called collect again, told his mother he had no shoes, that there was no way he was going to be able to make it.

The day unwound in loud silence. And as it wore on, thoughts of his mother, who had bad eyes and didn’t get around too well anymore, began to haunt him. And so a different kind of shame drove him back to the phone, but now she wasn’t answering, the operator said.

He threaded his way back to the waiting room, past gift-laden travelers in thick winter coats, past eager, wide eyed children. Sitting down on a bench, he closed his eyes. When he opened them again, his mother was standing there, a pair of his old sneakers in her hand. “Merry Christmas,” she said.

And let’s not only look for God to work in unexpected places, let’s follow the lead of that mother and make ourselves available so He might use us to bring His surprise to someone else.

Korea, 1951 – December 24, after being on patrol in a wet, heavy snow Sergeant Wayne Montgomery was back at his barracks shedding his wet, heavy clothing and preparing to lay down for some much-needed rest. About that time a lieutenant came in asking for volunteers to go looking for a group of Korean civilians who had been forced to leave their burning village and were spotted wandering in the countryside in this blizzard. The group included a woman about to give birth.

The Sarge’s first thought was it would be impossible to find them in the snowstorm, but then compassion for them gripped his heart. So he called four of his men, gathered food and blankets and on a whim some Christmas presents, a small tree and Christmas candles that had been sent by the USO.

After driving for several miles, the blinding snow forced them to walk for what seemed like miles until they came to an old abandoned mission. The roof was gone but the walls were intact so they built a fire in a fireplace. After warming up, decided it made no sense to go on, so they left the food, blankets, the presents, and some Christmas candles in hopes that the needy people would find them.

The next spring Montgomery was in a hospital at Won Ju after being wounded. A Korean pastor of a church came to visit and began to tell about a miracle that happened on the pervious Christmas that made the sergeant jump. The pastor was with a group of Korean refugees who been wandering around for days after their village was burned. And how they were nearly starved when they stumbled upon an old mission. A pregnant woman in their group was in desperate condition. “As we approached the mission we saw smoke coming from the chimney. We feared the North Koreans were there but were too desperate to turn back. To our relief the mission was empty, but lo and behold, there was a fire in the fireplace, food, blankets and Christmas candles. We made a bed for the pregnant woman; we had plenty of food to eat and wood to burn to keep warm and we were comfortable for the first time in days. It was Christmas Eve; the baby was born the next day and on the following morning we were rescued by some American soldiers. We gave thanks to God for our deliverance and decided to form a Christian Church here in this city.

And Sergeant Wayne Montgomery writes, “You just never know when you have a special part to play in one of God’s surprises.”

Speaking of Christmas surprises it’s a common assumption that kids today care more about getting than giving.

But watch this video in which children from low income families are told that they to decide between receiving a gift for themselves, or giving a gift to their parents. In the video kids show that while they may love Lego sets and Xbox, they love their parents a whole lot more. 80% of the kids interviewed decide to give their parents a gift instead of keeping the toys they were offered.

Aaron Freeman, 9, is shown deliberating between keeping a Minecraft Lego or a bracelet for his mother. It only takes a moment before Aaron knows his answer: “Legos don’t matter, your family matters—not Legos, not toys—your family. So, it’s either family or Legos, and I choose family.”

The surprises of God. We never know where, or when, or through whom they are coming. But the word of the gospel is that they are, and they do come. And that is what Christmas is all about!

So this Christmas let’s follow the example of a mother of a homeless man and Sergeant Wayne Montgomery, and those kids we just saw and make ourselves available to create a Christmas surprise for someone else.