The last 48 hours belied expectation. The house, stacked high with bags and boxes and bows simply could not be put to rights by Christmas morning. Not one, but two batches of candy failed - runny caramel and crumbling toffee. The mall, which we expected to be open until 11 p.m., closed at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Our favorite carol was left out of the Christmas Eve worship service. And, there was not that quaking sense of rebirth for which we'd spent weeks preparing.
There seemed, in the final Christmas countdown, no end to disappointed expectations. Do you ever notice how little disappointments mount? Kind of like the lime build-up on the shower head--little by little and the next thing you know, water is spraying everywhere but the place you expect it.
The lectionary for this first Sunday after Christmas is largely about thanksgiving - about establishing a real understanding and appreciation for the incarnate deity that was Jesus - a child of flesh and blood, born of Mary amidst the sheltering care of a bewildered Joseph. It also moves the story forward and sets up for the reader a series of failed expectations. It sheds light on the role shattered expectations played in the early life of Jesus and the role dashed expectations might play in our lives.
The Isaiah passage echoes the now familiar theme of the covenant relationship between God and Israel. A key here is the assertion that "It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them." The words foreshadow a time when the LORD, in concrete presence, saves the people.
The Psalms passage calls all of creation into thanksgiving and praise for the LORD. From the sea monsters to the cattle to the sun and moon and stars, all of creation is called upon to recognize the LORD's good works and praise him. The passage also further asserts the LORD's favor for those who are faithful.
The Hebrews text was written for second generation Christians - possibly Jews that were now following Christ. It is a text full of Old Testament references. The selected text focuses on the importance of Jesus' humanity to the establishment of a new with everyone-Gentiles as well as Jews. It is a text that already begins to foreshadow the role Christ's ultimate death on a cross plays in the establishment of a new covenant with all of humanity.
These three texts stress the themes of Jesus' human birth redefining and renewing the covenant relationship between God and the people, and then the passage from Matthew drives us further into the narrative about the life of this incarnation of God.
After a weary arrival in Bethlehem, a less than comfortable birth in a stable, and a visit by wise men bearing precious gifts, Joseph thinks that all of the drama is over. And then he receives another angelic visit. This time he is warned to flee to Egypt to save his son from Herod's jealous wrath.
Now, we need to take just a moment to really process what has happened in a short of expanse of time surrounding the virgin birth of the Son of God. We know that this tiny baby was born into a society oppressed and weary from political upheaval and tyranny. How many expectations were violated by this chain of events? How many people had their expectations dashed? What motivated these people to continue to faithfully follow God?
Beginning with Zechariah (John the Baptist's father and husband to Elizabeth), we have an aged man resigned to being childless (not unlike Abraham and Sarah) who, because of his commitment to his own expectation is rendered mute until he recognizes the miracle God has performed in his life. His expectation was dashed and replaced with a gift from God.
Then we see a virgin, engaged to a hardworking carpenter, who turns up pregnant before she is married. All of this is unthinkable in her society. She has shamed her family and that of her husband to be, all because she trusts God to care for her.
And what about Joseph? He has every right to have this woman stoned. And somehow he understands that this is not about his expectation, nor about what the society around him believes to be acceptable and right. Something bigger is happening here and he sets aside his own agenda and rolls with the action.
Then there is Herod. He knows he is in trouble. He knows that the people hunger for a savior...a remarkable act that will save them from his tyranny. He instructs the wise men of the East to bring him news of this birth which some say was prophesied thousands of years earlier. Instead, the wise men shirk the expectation of Herod and skip town.
When we enter the story this week, we have a couple ready to move past the shock and awe of the unconventional birth of this baby boy. They are ready to move on with life. And then Joseph is told to take his "wife" and "her" son and leave his hometown because this tiny baby has rocked Herod to the core and he is in a terrible temper. He's going to destroy this child if they do not flee.
Dashed expectations...plans turned topsy-turvy. The story belies expectation.
It is easy to count the disappointments and the failed expectations that surround us. It turns out that a life open to God's Spirit is without predictability. When we open our lives to Jesus we are left to figure out how our expectations and God's callings can be reconciled.
+Will we listen for the voices that help us see the next move?
+Will we have faith to make that move as advised?
+Where are the places that your life has been unexpectedly upended?
+Who was present with you in those unexpected twists and turns?
When we are spent from the labor and longing to rest in our deliverance, when we hunger to stay in the celebration and crave a lasting Sabbath, you tell us this is where our work begins. For the labor that is never over, give us strength; for the healing that is ever before us, give us courage. May our resting be for renewal, not forever; and may we work for nothing save that which makes your people whole. (Jan L. Richardson)
So may it be. Amen.