The last candle is lit. Ready or not, Christmas is upon us. Ready or not, we will be back here Tuesday night to meet our Lord as he comes to us as a child; and to pray that we may continue to meet him, as he comes to us in so many ways, at so many times. Once more, for these last three days, we asked to prepare ourselves -- to be ready for what God is going to do.
This morning we hear two stories that talk about what it means to be prepared for God's appearing. They are very different stories about very different people -- King David and Mary, the mother of Jesus -- but in a strange way they say the same thing.
Let's take King David first -- his story needs the most explaining. Here's the background: As the reading begins, the year is around 995 B.C. David has always been an ambitious guy with big plans, and by now many of those plans have been accomplished. He has just been crowned king over all Israel. In the years leading up to that, he had conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital city; unified the various political factions in the nation around himself as leader; and won enough battles against the current bad guys to make his new kingdom militarily, as well as politically, secure. He has also built a brand new palace for himself and is comfortably established.
Now, David figures, it's time to do something nice for God. In fact, David has big plans for God. He is going to build God a house -- a temple that is almost, not quite, but almost, as big as his own palace; a temple that will gain as much glory and renown for the King who built it as it will for the God to whom it is dedicated. David had a lot of plans -- and God had a place in those plans.
The verses we have just heard are God's response to David's plans for God. God says "No." God says that God will not be a part of David's plans. But there is an alternative. David can be a part of God's plans. David will not build God a house -- instead God will do something for David. God will create from David a house, a dynasty, through which salvation will come to all people. David's plans, even his plans for God, were really centered on David himself. God's plans are for all creation -- and they include David.
What is to David's credit is not his grand plan to give God a pretty cathedral. What is to David's credit is his willingness to listen, to let God be God, and to surrender his own plans. David's victory is his ability to walk away from the future he has outlined -- and walk into the future God has in store. That's harder.
Almost exactly 1,000 years later, Mary was in a similar, if much less prestigious and public, situation. She was a young woman of respectable family who had made a good marriage. She was to be the wife of a skilled craftsman -- which would make her a part of the tiny middle-class of Palestine. Her hopes and plans no doubt included a quiet life, children, good health, some economic security, a little comfort, not much pain. God almost certainly had a place in her plans -- doubtless she would keep the Commandments, make the sacrifices, follow the rules, pay the tithes -- the usual stuff.
The story of the Annunciation is, among other things, God saying "No" to all of Mary's plans. God is saying that Mary will have very little of what she hoped for and expected. God is saying that, instead of Mary's plans for herself and for God -- God has plans for Mary, and these plans are different, they are unexpected, they are a bit scandalous, and they change everything. Through her, the dynasty begun with David would reach its fruition, and salvation will be offered to all people.
And the key to Mary's greatness, the central reason why she stands as first among the saints, and why "from henceforth all generations will call her blessed," is her ability to listen, to hear the voice of God, and to say, "Let it be to me according to your word." The key to Mary's greatness is her choice to walk away from the future she had outlined, and into the unknown future God offered her. And that is hard; that is always very hard.
We no doubt have plans for Christmas and for our families and for our lives. These plans certainly include God. As Advent ends, we need to realize also that God has plans for us. We need to remember that, very often, it has been those times in our lives when things did not go as we had planned that God was the most present, and the most real.
One of the things that we offer, that we give up, at this font, and at this altar, is the absolute authority of our own plans. We promise to listen, and to let God say "No", even to our best plans for ourselves, even to our best plans for God.
Do not misunderstand. Plans for the future, for our lives and for the direction of our lives, are very important. We are created as free and responsible people. We are to use that freedom responsibly, prudently, and carefully. Part of doing that is making plans, and making decisions, and following through with them. There is nothing wrong with plans. There was nothing wrong with David's plans, or with Mary's.
At the same time, Christmas is here to tell us that God's business quite often is different from "business as usual." And the story of David and the story of Mary can, and will, continue, in one form or another-for each of us.
So, as Christmas closes in, the last word Advent has for us this year is "openness." For there is no doubt that one of the hardest tasks we face in life is to be open to, and to accept, what God has in store for us. That task can also be one of the richest, and the most rewarding.
What will Christmas be like for us this year, what will it mean? What will it look like for the Lord to be born, and for him to be reborn within us? What will it be like for us to face the reality that God has kept God's promises and come to his world-and to each one of us?
We don't know. Just as David didn't know, and Mary didn't know. We can't exactly plan for it. Finally, we can only open ourselves, and seek both the grace to hear and to respond, and the faith to persevere.