Who would think that what was needed

to transform and save the earth

might not be a plan or army,

proud in purpose, proved in worth?

Who would think, despite derision,

that a child should lead the way?

God surprises earth with heaven,

coming here on Christmas Day.

Church Hymnary  4th  ed.,  no. 295

At the first Christmas it was Mary who discovered the surprising way that God chooses to work. She more than anyone grasped that God works from unexpected quarters and by turning the established order upside down. It was she who was on the sharp end of discovering that God was going to do something truly amazing for the world by giving us Jesus … and that this wonderful gift would ask a lot of us in return.

When the people of God were in trouble and God sent someone special to rescue them, it often began with a woman thought to be “barren” becoming pregnant. It is surely not just random that God works in this way, not just a coincidence that God’s appearance on the scene means that barrenness gives way to fruitfulness. In the vision of Isaiah, God will “grant to those who mourn in Zion – beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.” (Isaiah 61:3) That is what is involved in the advent of God. Into situations of heartbreak, disappointment and fruitlessness comes the God who changes things.

A strong motif in the Bible is a woman unable to conceive, the appearance of an angel and the promise of a child. Mary, the mother of Jesus, stood in this line and she knew how to respond with faith and courage. She models a response that we are all called to make. Not that we will all be the mother of the Messiah but the purpose of God is long and wide, with a place in it for each one of us. We too are called to hear God’s promise, to receive God’s gift, to take our place in the fulfillment of God’s purposes in the world.

We can all identify with the excitement that is felt when the news breaks that a new baby is expected. It seems that God too sets great store by the arrival of a baby. When God is doing something new, the birth of a special baby is often the prompt. Christmas is the classic case. The fact that God chooses to work through a baby – fragile, vulnerable, dependent – tells us a lot about God; and about ourselves.

What do we hunger for? A revealing question. We are living at a time when life seems to be all about satisfying hunger – the age of consumerism. Whether we are talking about satisfying our bodily appetites or our yearning for experience, we are looking for ways to satisfy our hunger. But are we hungry for the right things? Jesus said:“You shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

Truth be told, we are all rather prone to complain. In Argyll, we have always been complaining about the weather. Now we also have parking in Oban to complain about. Of course, a complaint may be justifiable. But it is all too easy to get drawn into a cycle of negativity where we do nothing but complain! That is unlikely to do us any good. Perhaps that is why the Bible calls us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thessalonians 5:17). The Christian life is a grateful life.

An amazing thing that we learn from the Bible is that God needs people to fulfil the divine purposes. And those people might be us. We know that we have made many mistakes and that there are many flaws in our character. Our whole inclination is that we should stand back and leave it to others to take responsibility. But here’s the wonder of God’s grace. No matter what our failings, no matter what our flaws, no matter what our faults, no matter what our foibles, God chooses to work through people like us.

Harvest thanksgiving might be an old tradition but it is also an urgent contemporary necessity. The earth has suffered as we have extracted its resources for short-term advantage. We need to be generous rather than grasping in the way we relate to the natural world. Exactly the same principle applies to our own spiritual prosperity. When we are mean and selfish we don’t actually benefit as a result. But when we are open-hearted and caring, our life becomes better and richer.

After a glorious summer, Argyll experienced a big storm this week. Such was the wind and rain we could imagine what it was like in the days of Noah and the great flood. With the ark and all the animals it is a fabulous story. But above all it is a story about God – God’s promise and God’s salvation. When we meet the storms of life how good it is to know that God is with us and will see us through.