Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

I noticed my wife Janna sending out Christmas cards this past week to a few of her friends and my relatives. I am no longer responsible for sending greeting cards in our household. Apparently I am a bit like the late humorist Erma Bombeck. “I bought my Christmas cards last January- unfortunately, now I just can’t find them.”  One of the cards Janna sent out a few years ago caught my fancy.  It was a picture of girl with a backpack standing alone on a road splitting in two directions with two road signs.  The one road sign read, “Your life ahead,” and the other sign stated, “Options no longer available.” And inside, the poignant wish, “Happy Birthday- I hope it’s a good day anyway.” It was funny, perhaps because it was so true. There are times in life where there seem to be no choices, and you find yourself on life’s journey burdened by missteps, missed opportunities and mistakes. 

The story of the angel Gabriel visiting the Virgin Mary in Nazareth and announcing the birth of the “long, expected Savior” is an intimate portrait of  human indecision, choice and hope.  It is also a story of doubt and faith.  Mary, you see, was equally perplexed at the challenge that God had set before her.  The angel Gabriel told her that she had found favor with God, and that she would give birth to the Son of God, and yet, all that Mary could muster was a skeptical response, “How can this be since, I am a virgin?”  So what was it that the angel Gabriel said that convinced Mary to answer boldly,  “Here  am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word?”  More importantly, what is it that you need to hear this Christmas Eve to inspire you to accept God’s purpose in your life? 

My friends, let me offer you three insights drawn from St. Luke’s telling of the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary.  First, remember, you are never alone, Second, You are a part of God’s greater plan, and Third, Choosing to be faithful leads you to even greater opportunities. 

To each one of us, God says, “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.”  But like Mary, we can all just as quickly question what sort of greeting this many be. Of course, there are many reasons that you may feel that your options in life are limited, and that God’s message is really intended for someone else. Perhaps, you’re not feeling encouraged. You wish that there would be someone who would recognize your work.  An anonymous note thanking you for your efforts on the fundraising committee; a word of encouragement spoken to you by a teacher on the way out class about the time you’ve spent working with the your child.  You wish your children would thank you and hug you for the new festive clothes they wore at their holiday concert. It would be wonderful and could put a lilt into your step, a smile to your face and a chuckle to your heart.  

Perhaps, you’re feeling stressed.  You’ve reached the sandwich generation.  You are stretched between the exhausting job of tending to your children while also dealing with parents who are suffering health problems or slipped into a form of Alzheimer’s.  Throw in an unsteady job situation and a spouse who’s dealing with a similar set of parental problems, and you’ve got the perfect starting block for a long exhausting race along a road where options are no longer available or at best limited.   

Or perhaps, you’re carrying the burdens of the past.  Misjudgments and mistakes continue to haunt you.  You would like to begin the journey again from that starting point before the options were no longer available, but that just doesn’t seem possible.    

Mary’s burdens may have been different, but she too was filled with uncertainty and doubt.  In fact, the very first time she opened her mouth in the New Testament, it was to question God. “How can this be?”  Who among us hasn’t wanted to ask in the face of a life-altering change, “How can this be?”  It seems holy confusion is a natural part of the life of every believer.  

The good news, however, my friends, is this.  You are never alone.  The “Long, Expected Jesus” has come.  He is here with you with the assurance that you need not fear the past, the present, nor the future.  You are now a part of God’s greater plan. 

Of course, we would all like to see happy endings unfold for our lives. We would all like to forget the hardships of the past.  I am reminded of the young first-grader who thought he could change the Christmas story by changing one line in the gospel. The Sunday School had been preparing for the Christmas pageant for months.  The songs had been memorized.  And when Joseph came to the inn and asked if there was room, the little first-grade boy playing the innkeeper replied, “You’re lucky.  We just had a cancellation.”  We would love to change the past, to forget our misjudgments and mistakes, and to change it all with a simple word or phrase.   

My friends, the long-expected Jesus, offers that possibility. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”  Jesus brings peace to the anxious heart.  He allows you to move forward even with the regrets. He allows you to move forward, even with loss.  God in all his wisdom knows that an uncontrolled life spent fretting over the past is an unhappy life, and so he brings the gift of forgiveness.  Instead of worrying endlessly about your flaws and failings, he invites you to forgive and forget, and to move on.    

But the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary also challenge us to live and act differently.   It means choosing to say, yes to God.  We don’t always recognize that belief is a choice.  We feel more like the passenger on a long flight, who was asked if he would like to have dinner. “What are my choices?” the passenger asked.  “Yes or no,” the flight attendant replied.  Sometimes, the act of believing is just as simple, but you must practice it. 

God knows that you need a real change of heart if you are to say yes reach your destination successfully and to accomplish your goals fully. So what changes are necessary for you so that long-expected Jesus may enter in?  Or to put it more directly: What are you doing that keeps God at arm’s length from you and prevents you from saying yes?   

For some, it is working too hard. For others, it is too much ambition. For some, it is too much greed. For others, it is a negative attitude and outlook.  Most often, however, we need another person of flesh and blood to encourage us and inspired us to change. The Angel Gabriel told Mary that her own relative Elizabeth in her old age had conceived a son, and that this was the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.”  The Virgin Mary needed the encouragement and physical support of another human being.  We all do.  We simply can’t remain devoted to God’s work when we are on our own.   The Angel Gabriel invites you to prepare yourselves by worshiping and serving with others, so that the “long, expected Jesus” can redirect and transform your past into a productive and healthy life.  Together with others you can begin to see God’s greater plan in your life.   Saying yes to God always leads you to even greater opportunities.  

As John Wesley was sailing from England across the Atlantic Ocean to the American colonies, he was terrified by a violent storm.   He noticed however that some people aboard the wildly tossing ship, German speaking Moravians were calm and confident during the storm.  They were singing hymns and praying.  They trusted in God’s providential care.   Wesley was impressed, but confessed that he didn’t have such a faith.  One of the Moravian passengers said, “It is a simple secret. Act as if you do have such faith, and in time, faith of that character will take hold of you.”   

Now this may seem a bit simplistic. Rather like the greeting card, “A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make the effort worthwhile.” But my friends, preparation for the long-expected Jesus takes time and energy.  It takes time to dedicate to prayer and reflection.  It takes energy to relax and meditate.  Suzanne Guthrie, an episcopal priest, writes in her Advent devotional.  Without preparation, “without the soul’s journey in tandem with Mary and Joseph, will I even notice the Divine interrupting my ordinary life?  How will I discern that gentle star rising above the horizon obscured by holiday glitter?  If I do not enter deeply, how shallow will my transformative journey be toward Galilee, Jerusalem, the cross, the empty tomb, Emmaus, and the ends of the earth?”   Belief, you see, is a choice. But it also takes practice. 

The long-expected offer of Jesus’ salvation and rest begins now with your yes.  “For nothing will be impossible with God.”  Mary too was skeptical and doubtful, but she answered boldly, “Here I am, Let it be according to your word.” The new possibilities of Christ begin now for you when you answer’s God call, “Yes, Lord, Here I am.”  Amen.   

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.