This sermon was preached on Dec. 15, 2019 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT. The texts were:
Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19
Isaiah 35: 1-10
Matthew 11: 2-11
Children’s sermon: I have these two boxes (one beautifully wrapped and one that is very plain). Which one would you pick if you could? This nice one? Yep, I would too. We would expect that whatever is in this box to be wonderful and we would expect what is in this box to be plain. This time of year, we have what we call expectations-which means we have an idea about how things should be. As in Christmas morning we expect that we will have presents to open and to eat a yummy meal. We think we know how the day should go. In our bible stories today we are thinking about how things should go. Mary, Jesus’ mother, is so excited that she is going to have a baby that is God’s son that she sings a song that is about how she expects God will change the world with her son. And then we hear a story about John, Jesus’ cousin (do you have any cousins?) who also had expectations for what the Messiah would do and Jesus wasn’t necessarily doing those things. John thought that the Messiah from God would totally change the world and be a little more like a worldly king. But Jesus tells him that the world is changing, just not quite the way John expected. Instead of big events and Jesus directly taking on kings and rulers, Jesus is with the people whom no one else wants to be with and is taking care of them-and this is what changes the world. It’s hard to us to see this sometimes as we expect little things to not matter. But Jesus says-they do! And that’s what joy is! Joy is when we realize that things may not be what we expect but God is at work and loves us. Let’s open both boxes: Hey there was a treat in the plain box! We didn’t expect that did we? Nope! So let this candy cane remind you to always look with joy for God doing things differently that what we expect. Let’s pray:
One of our favorite go-to holiday movies is Christmas Vacation with Chevy Chase. It sums up every holiday challenge in one hilarious over the top movie. One of the early scenes in this movie is a conversation between Clark and Ellen around the whole extended family coming for Christmas and Clark is so excited with planning and details. Ellen says to him: “Clark you build these events up in your head with expectations that no one can fulfill.” Clark says “oh honey when have I ever done that?” She replies deadpan, “birthdays, weddings, funerals, family dinners, vacations, anniversaries, holidays…” and the scene closes with her unending list of when Clark has put a high expectation and it doesn’t work out. And in this movie everything goes wrong: the tree catches on fire, dinner is ruined, the house is destroyed and they are all almost arrested and yet, at the end joy is had as the big expectations gave way to the overlooked importance of being together. The movie is funny because it’s true for many of us, I think. This is a time of year that is loaded with expectations, some of which are obvious, and some that are unspoken. We all feel the expectation of gift buying, house decorating, baking or big meal prep, attending parties, Christmas cards (an expectation I dropped about 14 years ago), and other trappings of the season. And then there are the underlying expectations: no tension in family relationships, people will get along, we will feel festive and happy, everything will be exactly how we planned it and joy will abound.
And it’s not just the expectations that I have for myself or others around me, this season also reminds me of the expectations that I have of God and my relationship with God. After all, this is the season where we talk about the coming of Christ, of hope, peace, love and joy. It’s the season where we have to come face to face with our expectations that aren’t met and how we cope with and negotiate that reality. If I’m honest, I have some very specific expectations of what God should be doing in my life and in the world. Expectations of injustices being righted, expectations of people caring for one another in whole and loving relationships, expectations of miracles, and the list goes on-I have a lot of expectations! And if I continue to be honest, most of them aren’t met and it can leave me wondering what to think or do. How can I be joyful when what I’ve expected for my life and of those I love, hasn’t worked out?
Our Bible passages today are filled with expectations and the question of are they being met. Isaiah lays out a vision of the expectation of deserts blooming with flowers and lush vegetation, miraculous healings and a holy, sacred path so obvious that even a fool can’t miss it! This is an expectation of God’s presence in the midst of Israelite exile and uncertainty about the future. Is God going to rescue them as they expect?
In Mary’s song-the Magnificat-we hear the young woman’s expectation of what God is up to in her life and in the world. And it’s some fairly high expectations. The powerful and rich overthrown, the lowly, the poor, the hungry lifted up and exalted, and an unmarried, pregnant, poor teenager will be remembered forever as blessed. Idealistic to say the least. But she sings this song of expectation with all her heart and soul, with confidence that God will indeed do these mighty things for God keeps God’s promises.
John has high expectations for the Messiah and God’s redemptive work in the world too. But John is struggling to see it. John is in prison for speaking truth to power when Herod wanted to marry his own brother’s wife and John condemned him. From behind bars, John is beginning to wonder if his calling as a prophet has been for nothing. Herod still seems to be able to do whatever he wants with no real consequences (which for John ends very badly when he is beheaded at the whim of Herod’s wife), the rich are getting richer, the Roman Empire is still calling all the shots, the people without voice and power are still getting kicked around and life is still very dangerous. John begins to doubt his own prophecy and expectations for God’s Messiah. So he sends his disciples to ask Jesus, are you really the one? Are you the real Messiah or are we still in a holding pattern as we’ve been for about 1000 years.
John’s proclamation and confidence in what he thought was coming was shifting to despair. What if he had been wrong? What if his work didn’t matter? The hope of the Jewish people for a Messiah, a savior, was very much one of a mighty king who would take over, enter the ring like Hulk Hogan and start tossing aside anyone in their path to make way for God’s Kingdom where the descendants of Abraham will never live in fear, will have all that they need, with prosperity and safety forever. If we’re honest this is what we expect of God in our lives too. God who uses power and might for our personal expectations. We look for God to do grandiose and unilateral acts.
Jesus’ response to John’s question is loving and gentle. John, I know that this isn’t what you expected. But the lame are walking, the blind can see, the deaf can hear, and the poor have good news. No, it’s not a complete overthrow from the center of power, it’s not a complete coup d’état. What else would you expect? Jesus asks. God’s justice and redemption are not blooming from where the worlds center of power. God’s work gestates in the weak, from the margins, from the edges, from the darkness, from the ignored. God’s at work in places were few dare to tread, in wombs and tombs.
God’s greatest work isn’t always seen but it matters. God’s kingdom comes from underground to bloom in dry, desolate places. Joy bubbles up in helpless babies, in country stables, in deserts, and bursts from darkness into the light.
When we can shift our expectations, of ourselves, of those around us, of events, and yes, even of God, we can see this joy. It’s difficult, I’ll grant you, as it’s easier to see the despair, the unmet expectations of people, family, organizations, and government, to see the harm being done and sometimes, like John, the joy is held in the promises of God that are given not in this life but in the next. But also like John, we can turn that kaleidoscope, get a different picture, and we can see what God sees. God at work underground, God percolating transformation in people and places that most consider ignoble or don’t notice at all. In the homeless shelters, in the food pantries, in underfunded classrooms, in crisis centers, in assisted living facilities, God’s joy abounds, in the people who refuse to let despair, isolation, and hopelessness prevail. Joy shines so that we will see the world as it could be, with God’s expectations of life, love and community. Joy shines to hold our doubts and our faith together and we are freed from our prisons that hold us back from exuding that same joy and shifting the expectations of the whole world. We can see, hear and walk in God’s joy that shines on us in Jesus who is the one to fulfill all expectations. Joy to the world indeed. Amen.