I recently wrote to our local divinity school to ask if we might host a seminary student here at Grace. I enjoy working with people who are just forming their professional identities and I have found that one of the most difficult and important parts of the job is helping them manage their expectations about their new work. For example, I have a friend who recently told me about trying to hire an Associate Rector.
“So,” she said, “I thought I had found a good candidate – no experience, obviously, but well-educated and quite confident. I asked what starting salary she was looking for. She said, ‘Well, I’m thinking in the neighborhood of about 50 thousand a year, depending on the benefits.’ My friend, never one to miss a beat, said, ‘Well, what would you say to five weeks’ vacation, 14 paid holidays, full medical and dental, company matching retirement fund to 50 percent of your salary, and a company car’? The candidate’s jaw dropped. ‘Are you kidding?!’ she said. ‘Well,’ said my friend, ‘Actually, yes – but you started it.’”
Expectations are tricky things – too low and you have nothing to look forward to; too high and disappointment inevitably results. And holidays, especially Christmas, are buried in impossibly high expectations. All you have to do is peruse social media in the weeks leading up to December 25 and you will see fabulous “traditional” yule log cakes that you too can make in 14 easy steps. Open your mailbox and view the fabulous family photo cards in which everyone, including the dog, has just finished a Master’s degree and looks like the Hemsworth family. This year, you think, your children will actually wear those adorable Christmas outfits you bought and maybe, just maybe, you can avoid talking politics at the dinner table. Now, perhaps some of you have mastered these and other “simple” holiday “traditions,” but I suspect many more of us sitting here have already fallen short of our expectations for a “perfect” Christmas.
What’s interesting is that I bet that none of the things that we adults have been led to believe make a great Christmas matter to the children in our world. Or, for that matter, to those who have no food, or homes, or freedom, or companionship. They may have hopes – whether it’s for a baby shark, a Frozen castle, a warm coat, or a hot meal- but they know better than to expect anything. They know that they are not in control of what happens to them on Christmas morning.
Neither was Mary, who was subject to both earthly and divine forces far beyond her ability to even imagine, much less control. Informed in a vision that she was pregnant with the child of God, she had already narrowly escaped being publicly humiliated and probably executed by the fact that the man she was engaged to also had a some kind of vision; she was now traveling to a town she’d never been with a man she hardly knew, to have a baby she didn’t understand while living under a regime that did everything it could to make life hard for people like her. If she had any expectations, they can’t have been good.
Except that scripture tells she did have expectations and they were, miraculously, good. Luke’s gospel suggests that when Mary met a messenger from God, she not only welcomed him without fear or doubt, but she actually accepted what he told her. Of course, you can argue that she believed because she saw an angel – but you and I both know that most folks these days could find a rational explanation for thinking you saw an angel, and Mary probably could too. But Mary didn’t try – and neither did Joseph – and neither did the shepherds, who were, as housing unstable, underemployed, unwashed, unregistered residents, the least likely to be chosen by God to be the first to hear of the birth of a king – and the most likely not to be believed when they told people they had.
The people who are part of our nativity story lived lives steeped in deep darkness. They were victims of oppression, greed, and hatred, living in a time and place in which those who had much did not feel responsible for those who had nothing. In fact, the wealthy, privileged, citizens of the Roman Empire believed that they did have so much because they deserved it. They were not the first or the last to confuse earthly treasure with divine blessing. That is why the people of those dark times were still seeking a king that would bring light into their world – a king who would be just to all people, a Wonderful Counselor, a Mighty God, a Prince of Peace.
How disappointing then, to be told that this baby, who was as poor and naked and homeless as they were, was the promised majestic and magnificent lord of heaven –the one that could overthrow their oppressors. How hard it would be to believe that the child at the center of this small and humble narrative could be the incarnate God. He did not live up to their expectations.
Few things do – even God seems to disappoint us fairly regularly. “Why, people ask me, “if God is all powerful and all-knowing and all loving, do we still have to suffer”? The answer is simple; we make the choice to suffer by choosing to reject God- by expecting God to fail us, just as we fail one another. We expect God to lie to us because human beings lie to one another about God. But blaming God for human lies, for human misconceptions, and for human selfishness is to blame the victim. When people use the name of God to justify hatred, cruelty, and self-interest, no one suffers more than God. The entire history of humanity is the story of God’s effort to save creation –to bring us back into the light of God’s presence. We are the people who have walked in darkness and we are the people on whom light has shined. We are Mary and Joseph and the shepherds – but only if we believe – only if we truly expect God’s word to be fulfilled.
When I was a child, I went into the sanctuary of my church by myself at night. I don’t remember why. It was a large, old church and very dark – and I was terrified. I remember desperately wanting to run but not being able to move. So I did the only thing I could think of, the thing that I had been taught to do in church. I prayed. I asked God to save me. And immediately, I saw a light – a pure, white light that easily dispelled the darkness around me. I was still afraid, but not of being hurt or lost. I believe now that what I felt was the terror of pure joy, of experiencing something that I had no words for – that I still have no words for. Over the years, I have told myself that the light I saw was probably the headlight of a passing car, or someone outside with a flashlight. I wanted what happened to make sense. I wanted it to fit into my understanding of reality, of my expectations about life. But God does not do what we expect. God defies our expectations – by persisting in loving a creation that has consistently rejected her, by turning a frightened little girl into a preacher of his Word, and by sending Godself into the world in the most unlikely of ways in the most dangerous of times. Our God has sent and will always send light into the darkness of our hearts – whether we expect it or not. AMEN.