One of my favorite Christmas traditions is singing “Silent Night” by candlelight at the end of the Christmas Eve service. Not only is Silent Night one of the most theologically rich hymns of the Christian tradition. Not only does it sound beautiful on organ or guitar or with no accompaniment at all. At a very young age it was a symbol that the service was almost over, and the family was about to go home and open presents. I’m just a sucker for anticipation. My breath quickens. My heart rate goes up. A smile spreads across my face. I remember the first Christmas Eve Christie and I shared together. We were singing Silent Night at University Methodist in Baton Rouge and I held her close with a big smile across my face. We walked to the car and I told her that I loved her, and how excited I was that we were about to go home and open presents. Then my soul was crushed when she said, “We don’t open presents until Christmas Day.” “Say what?” It was a tragedy of unmet expectations.
Anticipation and expectation are fundamental to the Christmas experience. It’s why we wrap presents and put them under the tree for all to see (It’s a bit cruel if you think about it). There’s the anticipation of resolved mystery. What could it be? There’s also the expectation of fulfilled desire. I hope it’s what I want. The thing about Christmas presents is, yes they are wrapped to conceal what it is, but the box tends to give you a clue for what’s inside.
During the exile, Israel began to anticipate a Messiah. They held the expectation of an earthly king who would restore the old kingdom in righteousness and truth. The book of Isaiah records:
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.”
They anticipated that God would eventually bring his people out of exile and send them a king. Even though Paul is writing about the completion of resurrection, Paul echoes this hope in his letter to the Romans saying:
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we are saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
The anticipation is palpable. Can you not almost taste it? It’s like Israel is a small child sitting at the foot of a Christmas tree just begging to open their presents. The problem is their anticipation came with a misplaced expectation. In other words they were sitting at the foot of the tree looking at the wrapped boxes expecting their gift to match the box, all the while missing the tree. Simon Tugwell in his book, Prayer says it well: “If we keep clamoring for things we want from God, we may often find ourselves disappointed, because we have forgotten the weakness of God and what we may call the poverty of God. We had thought of God as the dispenser of all good things we would possibly desire; but in a very real sense, God has nothing to give at all except himself.”
The messiah in the person of Jesus was not what Israel expected. He is a king, but not a king who sits on a palatial throne. He is full of power, but it is power born through weakness and suffering. He saves us with a salvation greater than political independence. Isaiah 53 says, “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him of no account. He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole and by his bruises we are healed.” When you are looking at a wrapped gift, your imagination is limited to the size of the box. Israel is sitting at the foot of the tree and their idea of the messiah was limited to the gifts they saw under the tree, when God was trying to tell them that the tree is the symbol that should capture their imagination. The tree is an evergreen symbolizing God as everlasting, but the tree also represents the cross, the tree that would be fashioned into an instrument of crucifixion. So the tree is a symbol of life, death, and life everlasting. Their messianic expectation was both too small and too large. Their expectation was too small in the sense that Christ came not to usher in an earthly kingdom, but to offer everlasting life. Their expectation was too big in the sense that salvation is offered through suffering.
Our Christmas expectations can miss the mark at times. At times our imaginations look like boxes rather than meditations on the tree. The Christmas story is the story about a miracle. The infinite and almighty God entered into the world as a helpless baby, born into poverty in an occupied land. God decided to put on human flesh so that we could inherit the eternal, a kingdom full of life, built by grace on a foundation of love and justice. What are you expecting this Advent and Christmas season. Are you expecting a miracle? Here is the mystery. God offered a miracle, but the miracle happened through humanity, through Mary. We should expect a miracle when we meditate on the Christmas story, and we should remember that God chooses us through whom miracles happen. In other words, God did not fall out of the sky as a baby, God was born through the womb. With the church being the body of Christ, it is through our hands and the hands of Christ through which miracles occur. In other words, as you look over your naughty and nice list, instead of thinking about what to get him or her, we should be thinking about what we can be for him or her. What miracle will you offer for someone in need? What glimpse of God will you offer to someone who is hungry for more that what the boxes of the world can offer?
I pray that you are filled with excitement and anticipation for this Advent season, resting in the truth that God has chosen you to offer someone a miracle. What are you expecting this holiday season. Are you expecting a miracle? You should! [silence] In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.