What are you expecting for Christmas this year? The question isn’t exactly the same as, “what do you want for Christmas?”
You see, in my family growing up, I might have wanted a Nintendo Gameboy or a cool toy. But I didn’t get what I wanted. Instead, I often got a book to read or a new sweater to wear, and eventually I came to expect those presents after recognizing the pattern year after year.
So, what are you expecting for Christmas this year? What are you looking forward to?
Maybe you want a white Christmas, but with climate change you’ll be happy with just a little dusting of snow.
Maybe you want a year-end bonus, but your expectations are lower, and you are just looking forward to a few days off work, which is barely enough.
Maybe you want all your family reunited for the holidays, but you are bracing yourself for the awkward conversations and you are expecting the regular bickering and nitpicking over how to carve the turkey.
Or maybe you want to celebrate a quiet Christmas, but you expect that it will be especially harder this year as you feel the gaping hole left by a missing loved one.
We are almost at the end of the four weeks of Advent. Christmas is only 2 days away. We have been preparing ourselves for Christmas to arrive, for all the parties and get-togethers. And we have also been preparing ourselves for Christ to arrive.
Our waiting in expectation, our anticipation is almost over.
This morning, as we look at our Gospel text, let’s ask Mary and Elizabeth that same question: What were they expecting? What were they looking forward to?
This is usually the part of the Christmas story that everyone knows well. They were literally expecting baby boys: baby John, who becomes John the Baptist, and baby Jesus born in a manger.
But Mary and Elizabeth were also expecting something more than just cute and cuddly baby boys. As faithful Israelites, they knew the words of their prophets, and they were looking forward to a child that would fulfill what the prophet Micah had foretold. They were expecting one who would rule in Israel. They were looking forward to someone who would “stand and feed his flock.”
The situation of Israel was very similar for Micah as it was for Mary and Elizabeth. In both of their situations, the people of Israel were attacked, defeated and oppressed. They were under the thumb of their oppressive occupiers: Assyria and Rome.
But God had sent prophets to Israel who foretold of a rescuer, a saviour. So that’s what they were expecting. That’s who they were expecting: a rescuer, a saviour, who would eventually rescue and save their nation. Someone who would throw off their evil oppressors and restore Israel. Someone who would stand up against their occupiers and provide for the people, someone who would feed the flock.
Mary and Elizabeth were expecting a shepherd king. This shepherd king would cast down the mighty from their thrones, he would lift up the lowly, the humiliated, he would fill the hungry with good things, and he would send the rich away empty.
That is what Mary and Elizabeth, and all the nation of Israel, were expecting from God. They knew the prophecies that God had given them. This was God’s promise and they were waiting and expecting God’s promise to come true.
God’s promise is the background to what is recorded in Luke’s Gospel as Mary’s Song of Praise. In the bulletin it starts on page 5 from “Mary said” or better “Mary sang” until the end of the reading. And some of you will know it by another name: the Magnificat, a well-known song in our prayer books. The title of Mary’s song, “the Magnificat,” comes from the first word in Latin: “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” or “my soul magnifies the Lord”.
This song is used over and over in Anglican prayers and in churches around the world, because it is Mary’s great song of praise to God: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”
She continues to sing about God’s mercy to all generations. She sings about God’s strength, scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending away the rich empty. These are all things that God should be praised for. And this is what Mary sings, because this is God fulfilling his promises to Abraham and to his descendants Israel.
But here is the odd thing about Mary’s Song: she sang it before Jesus was born. If we lay out the timeline in Luke’s Gospel, Mary is barely pregnant. Baby John isn’t born yet, and baby Jesus is still several months away.
It’s odd that Mary doesn’t sing, “I know my God will do these things.” Instead she sings with such certainty that she proclaims God’s work in the past tense, as if these things have already happened: “God has done these things.”
How can Mary have such certain confidence about God’s world-changing work? She is an unmarried peasant girl from the small town of Nazareth, and she surely doesn’t have a clue about the international geopolitics that are needed to cast down the powerful Roman oppressors from their thrones.
Mary is only able to speak with certainty about God’s promises for Israel because of her personal experience with God. She believes in God’s world-changing promises because of what God has already done in her life, in her womb.
Through the Holy Spirit, God didn’t just conceive the baby Jesus in Mary’s womb. God also changed Mary’s expectations of the world, and God changed Mary’s view of the world.
The same thing happens to Elizabeth. Filled by Holy Spirit, she is also able to see things differently. Elizabeth is able to perceive things that no one else could. Mary is barely pregnant, but Elizabeth knows she is with child, and she even knows that the child Mary is carrying is her Lord, the Lord of the universe.
As God acts in Mary’s life, he starts to overturn her expectations. Mary starts to see those promises differently.
He changes her expectations about the powerful and the rich. Usually the powerful and rich stay powerful and rich, but Mary saw a different outcome: the powerful brought down from their thrones and the rich sent away empty. And the common expectations of poverty, passed down from generation to generation were also overturned: the lowly would be lifted up and the hungry filled with good things.
The people of Israel, the whole nation, also had expectations of God’s promises. Israel waited and expected a saviour, a rescuer. The nation was looking for a new king, someone to be born in a palace, someone with the money, the influence, the army to defeat Rome. But God didn’t play according to those expectations. Instead Micah proclaims that this saviour will be born in Bethlehem of Ephrathah, the smallest little clan in Israel.
Yes, Bethlehem is David’s city. And Israel’s expectations would have been for a king like King David. Someone who would fight a bloody war against Rome, using a strong military force to fight the Roman centurions. But God didn’t play according those expectations either. Because God’s arm of strength is actually one of peace, just as Micah says: their saviour, their shepherd king, would be “the one of peace.”
Mary’s expectations of this promised child were overturned because God had done the unexpected in her life, in her womb. God transformed her virgin womb to bring Jesus, and God also transformed her eyes to see and expect things differently.
God is working the same way today, in our lives.
When God comes into our hearts, when he lives within us, God transforms our perceptions, He transforms our expectations. He overturns the ways that we see the world.
As we look out into the world, we as Christians have many expectations of how God will fulfill his promises, how those promises will come true. Maybe we are expecting peace in the Middle East, and we are still waiting. Maybe we are expecting Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of racial reconciliation to come true, and we are still waiting. Maybe we are expecting the nations of the world to cooperate to finally solve hunger and poverty, but instead powerful strongmen are sitting on their thrones. And maybe slowly by slowly our expectations, our hopes of God’s world-changing promises are starting to fade.
Our God, our God of love is the only one who can sustain our hope. On our own, we cannot sustain our hope for God’s world-changing promises. We need a personal encounter with God, we need God within us like Mary to be able to sing of God’s promises with confidence.
We need Jesus in our lives to transform our perceptions, and we need Jesus in our world to fulfill God’s promises. We need a God of love who works in the way of peace and not the way of worldly violence to scatter the proud and cast down the powerful. We need a God of love who looks with favour on our lowly status. We need a God of love who not only looks with favour, but also came in human form to be the source of our joy.
So, what are you expecting for Christmas? What are you expecting for Christ’s arrival? What are you looking forward to when Christ arrives?
Jesus came once as baby, and he overturned expectations.
Jesus will come again in glory to fulfill God’s promises.
So, I pray this Christmas, that Jesus Christ would also come into each of our hearts. I pray that as we personally experience Jesus Christ active and working in our life, that we will have the confident expectation of God’s world-changing promises.
Let us wait with eager anticipation, with eager expectation for Jesus Christ to arrive… Amen.