Expecting More

“There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, And caroling out in the snow, there’ll be scary ghost stories, And tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago…”

As the old song goes…“There’ll be much mistltoeing, And hearts will be glowing, when loved ones are near, because it’s… the… most… STRESSFUL time of the year!”

Well, at least that’s how some of us feel that the song should go.

Because for many of us, between parties and shopping and baking and wrapping and negotiating traffic and fighting the crowds and taking on too much and traveling or welcoming travelers…

…and in the midst of it all just living with the anticipation…

…and all the while knowing that this Christmas will not be able to live up to the high expectations our culture places on the need to reach the heights of the glories of Christmases long, long ago, and in some magical way exceed them… because of all this Christmastime has become a season of high stress.

This time of year reminds me of how once, when I was in school, we had a professor who gave us an inventory, a test, that was intended to measure a person’s mental health. It was essentially a list of 100 or so possible life events – some large, some smaller – things like marriage, divorce, a move, death of a parent, death of a pet, enrolling in school, losing a job, gaining a job, and all sorts of other things, some good, some bad – but with each life event worth a certain number of points. The idea was that good or bad, significant events and transitions add up and exert a kind of exponential pressure on us.

So we were to take this inventory and give ourselves a certain number of points for each of the events we had personally experienced in the last year. We were to total them up and in that way we would find out where our mental health stood on the spectrum from healthy to being a candidate for a nervous breakdown.

I don’t know what Mary’s score would be on this inventory, but it would be high.

Mary, a young girl from the smallest of towns, with probably not-the-most life-experience-ever is engaged to be married – which is a wonderful time in a person’s life, but stressful – she is anticipating a move, beginning to say goodbye to family and friends, preparing for a new home with all the arrangements and transitions that this entails.

And Mary has just discovered that although unwed, and although a virgin, she is pregnant. And so, in addition to all the other unsettled things in her life, she contemplates the words the messenger from God has spoken to her:

That the Holy Spirit has overshadowed her and conceived in her a son. Now, in addition to everything else, she contemplates what it might mean that she will give birth to the Son of the Most High, who will sit on the throne of his ancestor David, who will reign over the house of Jacob, and whose Kingdom will have no end.

This sounds wonderful, of course, until we remember what all this really means for Mary.

Last year, a member of our congregation gave our children a movie called “the Nativity Story,” which was made in 2006 and stars Kesha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaacs. I cannot recommend it highly enough. The film takes you through the entire series of events leading up to Jesus birth with incredible artistry and acting and music, but the most shocking scene is when Mary, having been away visiting Elizabeth, returns home to Nazareth.

Her pregnancy is visible and the reaction from the people in the town is astonishing. First her neighbor’s see and stop what they’re doing – they stop working, they stop talking, and their jaws drop in disbelief. Her father and then her mother see her as she arrives and cannot hide their heartbroken bewilderment and profound disappointment. Mary is enveloped in shame and humiliation right in front of nearly every relationship that mattered in her life.

We think we feel the crush of pressure to live up to people’s expectations of us?

Mary is like us in every way – she knows all the stress we experience — almost certainly more.

We are like Mary in every way – both of us enduring almost more pressure from life than we can stand –and yet, Mary’s response is not to complain but to say without reservation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”

Our response to this season, and to the pressures we face in these days we are living can be that of of frustration, of trepidation, of fear, of grinchiness, of relief when we think about how it will all be over soon, but we learn from Mary what our response should be as we remember that God has chosen to come into the world in Jesus:

In those days, we hear, carrying God in her body, Mary sets out with eagerness, with enthusiasm, with haste, unafraid of what anyone will think, unconcerned with anything else, to visit Elizabeth and to rejoice together at what God is doing in their lives.

Elizabeth exclaims: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary replies: “My whole soul declares the Lord to be great. My spirit is overjoyed in God my savior. The Mighty One cares about me in my lowliness and humiliation and has done great things for me.”

Mary and Elizabeth show us how to rejoice that God in Christ has come to be WITH US in the stress, the pressure, the humiliation, the crushing inability to rise to the occasion, and the disappointment.

God has come to be WITH US in it all – in the midst of our addiction, our depression, the violence that robs us of life. God has come to be WITH US in our grief as we long for those who are no longer with us, and whom we miss at Christmas. God has come to be WITH US, as one of us — and in Jesus, to know our limitations.

Jesus has come for us, as the letter to the Hebrews says, so that our lives are sanctified once and for all through the offering of his body.

There is a couple in our congregation who put out a nativity set – like many of us, for sure. But when our seedling small group gathered at their house a couple weeks ago and I saw their little wooden nativity, it absolutely stopped me in my tracks. I had never seen anything like it.

All the pieces were there – the diligent father, the expectant mother, the unassuming camels and sheep, and the little child, but looming over it all was a large wooden cross, standing on a pedestal right there in the manger.
For a moment it seemed out of place….premature. But as this couple know so well: Jesus is born in the shadow of the cross.

Jesus birth is for the purpose of bringing God’s desires to fruition:

To bring mercy and compassion to those who fear him, to scatter the arrogant in the thoughts of their hearts, to bring down the powerful from their places of power and to lift up the poor and undistinguished, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty-handed, to come to the help of his children, according to the promise he made to Israel…
…and the Lord does this through the gift of his life.

The Lord came to save us and to love us and to fulfill his promises, and Mary shows us how to receive the Lord with joyful expectation.

There is a poem that has been going around facebook this week. It was on a lot of people’s feeds and getting a lot of shares. I saw it on a good friend’s page. It’s the shortest of poems. A poem written by an Australian poet named Pam Brown.

It goes like this:

“We expect too much at Christmas. It’s got to be magical. It’s got to go right. Feasting. Fun. The perfect present. All that anticipation. Take it easy. Love’s the thing. The rest is tinsel.”

Lots of shares, likes, and loves, commend this profound advice as wise words to live by. Love is the thing. Its not all about the trimmings and not about all the trappings; and perhaps, as Pam Brown says, we do expect too much of Christmas, but another way to look at it would be what we expect too LITTLE of Christmas.

The same God who promised Bethlehem that she would be the place from which a shepherd would be born to feed God’s people, makes a promise to us.

The same God who promised Zechariah and Elizabeth that they would have a baby in their old age who would prepare a way for the Lord, makes a promise to us.

The same God who promised Mary she would give birth even though it seemed impossible, makes a promise to us.

This same God has come to us in our living Lord Jesus Christ, born to a virgin, crucified on the cross, and risen from the tomb. He comes to us again today and tomorrow, bearing God’s promise.

He promises to speak to us through his word and to feed us with his supper, to forgive or sins and to make a home for us with God.

If we expect anything less that to be with God and join the angel chorus that hails his birth, we have expected too little of Christmas.

Our God makes promises and keeps promises, and he promises us that he will come again to this world being crushed by our desires to be perfect and save ourselves – once and for all he will lift us up, fill us with good things, and remember the promise of his mercy forever.

He will come again, and I don’t know about mistletoeing, but hearts will be glowing, and loved ones will be gathered near, and all creation will join in Mary’s song of praise:

“My whole soul declares the Lord to be great. My spirit is overjoyed in God my savior. The Mighty One cares about me in my lowliness and has done great things for me.”

Yes, that’s how the song will go.

Thanks be to God!

Face to Face

Brandon and Emily hosted our young adult seedling small group at their house this past week and as we read scripture, prayed, and talked, one of the leader’s guide questions inspired Brandon to tell us a story about how he had been on his way home from work one night in the past week.
He had stopped someplace for supper and sat at the bar. He ordered a drink and something to eat and found himself sitting next to a guy who was also there for supper. As they sat and ate, God was present, as he always is, and he came up in conversation.
The man sitting next to Brandon made it clear that he was no friend of God. He sounded hostile to those who would call themselves Christians, and conjectured that the biggest problem our country is facing is that we need freedom from religion. Again, and again he said, we need “freedom from religion.” Brandon listened, tried to understand, and shared his perspective about God’s graciousness, but at the end of the meal Brandon left fairly certain that he had not changed this guy’s mind.
We are looking for Jesus and waiting for him to return, trusting the promise that he is coming to bring renewal, redemption, and healing to us and to the whole world – to those of us who gather on a cold and misty Sunday morning to praise him and to those who sit with a chip on their shoulder at the bar.
Like an unexpected knock or ringing of the doorbell, Jesus will come, and open the door so that we see the guest on our doorstep — we will see our Lord face to face, and the whole world will see him. He will appear to all flesh, to all creation, and to the whole world. And Jesus encourage us to be ready for that day, to hope in that day above every other hope in our life, to yearn for that day.
With his own passion and cross just ahead of him, he describes the Day of his reappearing with apocalyptic, end-of-the-world language:
“There will be indications in the sun and moon and the stars, and even on the earth there will be distress and anguish among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and from terror of what is coming into the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the cloud with power and great glory.”
But you can almost imagine Jesus finishing these words and then twirling around on his barstool and looking you dead in the eye when he says, “But, now when YOU see these things begin to take place, you stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption and release are drawing near.”
Because there is a distinction between how the world will receive this promised Day to come, and how we are to receive this same Day. The world may find itself in anguish and despair, but we are encouraged to stand, and to straighten ourselves up with confidence, because the Lord promises that whatever this Day may be like or look like, it is for our good.
We can trust that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
One of my best friends in high school and college was Brent Wilson. In high school, Brent drove a Bronco II, had great taste in music, was really smart, and always super interesting to talk to. Back then, we had a lot of mutual friends with whom we hung out, but a lot of times the two of us would get into adventures on our own.
One night really late, we were out and Brent said he had to go by his Dad’s office for some reason. Brent’s Dad was a dentist and so we drove to the office park where his Dad’s practice was located. Everything was really dark, and we parked, and Brent had a key, and we went into the office and turned on the lights.
Brent went into the office area, and while he was doing whatever he was doing, getting some piece of paper or a making copy as I remember, I poked my nose into the rooms where the business really happened. I eased back into the kooshie dentist chairs, looked at the white, futuristic looking robotic dental arms, the large hanging lights, and the little sinks where you’re instructed to spit.
“Hey Brent, does your Dad clean your teeth?” I just though of it in the moment.
“Yeah,” He called.
“Just whenever.”
I had never really thought about it, but it turned out that Brent never really made an appointment to see the dentist like the rest of us. He would just be there with his Dad sometime and hop in the chair for a quick check-up, plaque removal, and deep clean. No big deal.
Now, our children, who three and four, are scared silly to go to the dentist like a lot of kids. The dentist we go to gives out stickers at the end of a good visit, hoping that if there are tears and yelling, (which who am I kidding, there always are) — at least everything ENDS on a good note.
Many adults, if not outright scared of a trip to the dentist, are at least apprehensive about the prospect.
The difference between my good friend Brent and all of us who are scared of the dentist is the kind of relationship we have with the dentist.
Because I get uneasy when my appointment for a teeth-cleaning pops up on the calendar, but candidly, I don’t even recall my dentist’s name. I see him twice a year, after all.
But Brent rides in the car and shares holidays with his dentist. They watch Carolina basketball together, talk on the phone, and eat meals together. They love one another. Because their relationship is so close every day, Brent is not scared of the day when he sees his dentist face to face.
One day, the whole world will be brought to its consummation and stand before God our Maker. The difference in how we will receive that Day, and the difference in how we can live our life in the meantime, has to do with the relationship we have NOW with the God we will see on that Day face to face.
And God comes to us now in his word, in bread and wine, in water, in community, so that we can trust he is real, so that we can learn to see that he is also with us when we ride in car, celebrate holidays, talk on the phone, eat our meals, when we remember his kindness and when we have a chip on our shoulder, when we’re able to articulate his goodness and when we fail miserably.
In all these things Christ is present to assure us that there is no need to faint with fear in the face of the worst the world can offer; war and violence in the news, hunger or addiction, feelings of hopelessness or chronic illness; brokenness in our homes, in our hearts, or in our lives, because God has initiated a relationship with us in Jesus, so that the God who already knows US intimately has also made HIMSELF known in the birth and life, teaching and healing, and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
He has come to us, sent by God our Father, who made us in love, who delights to watch us grow, who wants the very best for us, who cares for our health, who is there to welcome us home, and who also wants to give us freedom from fear.
Yes, we are sad about all the ways this world is broken and in need of care, but Jesus says “do not be afraid.”
Heaven and earth will pass away, but our Living Lord’s words will not pass away:
He says to us with love, “This is my Body and Blood, given for you, do this for the remembrance of me.”
He says from the cross, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
He says to us after his resurrection, “You are my witnesses.”
These are words that will not pass away.
With these words in our hearts, we are on our guard so that we are not weighed down, drunk with the worries of this life.
We are not afraid.
The consensus in our small group at Brandon and Emily’s house was that we know what the guy with the chip on his shoulder at the bar feels like sometimes. We also would sometimes like to choose freedom from the constraints of following Jesus.
We would rather not live under his demands to forgive those we don’t want to forgive, to listen to those who bore us or infuriate us, to give of our money and time and selves without reserve to a world in need – but to imagine that this kind of life would be more-free is a trap.
In following Jesus and his way of life we receive true freedom – freedom from fear, as he teaches us to trust him with this day and all the days to come.
The. Very. Last. Parable. Jesus tells, as the cross looms on the horizon is this: look at the fig tree and all the trees, as soon as they sprout leaves you see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.
Jesus invites us into life, budding, growing…
…like a seedling group working out its call to discipleship,
…like a congregation gathering gifts for members of the larger community to make the celebration of Christ’s birth brighter, …like children and adults bringing cans of food for the food pantry,
…like women and men taking time to listen to those who feel estranged from God, trying to understand, sharing the perspective of God’s graciousness, and trusting God’s promise to increase our love for one another and for all.
On the great Day to come, and on this day, the Lord who gives us life makes us to stand up, raise our heads, and trust soon and very soon, we will see him face to face.
Thanks be to God!
Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent [Luke 21:25-36]