A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, December 4, 2011
Are you expecting? Now, that could be a delicate, even inappropriate, question couldn’t it? Some of us may have asked that question, or one very similar—When are you expecting?—only to realize that we had committed a big faux pas. There was no pregnancy, no expecting at all. Such makes for quite an awkward encounter, doesn’t it?
Today when I ask the question, Are you expecting? I am asking an Advent question. Are you expecting spiritually speaking in the Advent sense of the term? For, you see, expectation is one of the key themes of Advent. And as we consider the story of Mary, the theme of expecting becomes even more appropriate. When we take time to think about it, we realize that expecting is a most appropriate topic for this season.
When Mary discovered that she was expecting, what kind of thoughts, feelings, and emotions do you think she might have been experiencing? We tend to look back on those events romantically. But for Mary and her family, it was real life. I have noted in sermons in years past how that for a teenage girl to become pregnant out of wedlock in that day and time was a scandal of the highest order. Joseph, the one to whom she was engaged, had legal rights. He could have caused a big scene. According to the law at that time, her very life could have been in danger. So we can just imagine some of the feelings and emotions that Mary was experiencing—fear, confusion, insecurity. Perhaps these are some of the reasons, when Mary learned she was pregnant, that she left her home village Nazareth—“went with haste” as the text says—and headed for the hill country to stay with her relative Elizabeth for three months. What was Mary’s purpose in going off to the hill country? What was Mary thinking during those three months? What kind of conversations did she and Elizabeth have? Mary must have questioned herself, as most expectant parents do, about her ability and fitness to mother the child she was going to have. Was she up to the task? Was she prepared for what lay ahead of her?
On the other side of the issue, we want to believe that Mary experienced the positive feelings and emotions of expecting as well. For instance, there is the anticipation that comes with expecting a baby. The wondering. When you are expecting, you have a general idea of what you’re expecting. But your expectation is somewhat vague and there are a lot of unknowns. Will the baby be a girl or a boy (remember, there were no ultrasounds in those days). What will he or she look like? How big will he or she be? Will he favor his mother or his father? Will she be a happy baby?
There is also the feeling of joy because of this baby to come and the joy that it will bring to the home. There is no more joyous blessing in the world than to see a baby smile or hear a baby laugh.
There is expectation excitement as the time draws near for the baby to be born. The it’s-almost-time jitters. When will it actually happen? Will the baby decide to come in the daytime or the middle of the night? Will we make it to the hospital in time? Or will the doctor or midwife make it to us in time?
And expecting a baby leads one to behave in certain ways. The mother eats healthy foods, visits the doctor regularly, takes pre-natal vitamins, reads baby books, buys baby clothes and furnishings, studies books of baby names, and so on. In expecting something to come to pass, we align our behavior in certain ways to enable it to happen.
Well, the season of Advent holds similar kinds of expectations. Advent invites us to be in an expectation frame of mind. The seasons of Advent and Christmas call us to expect something good to happen. Advent offers renewed expectation that something wonderful could happen. Of all seasons of the year, Advent is the one season that holds out the most promise that things can be different in our lives and things can be different in the world. Advent holds out hope that love can triumph. That peace can prevail. That old grudges can be put aside. That the plight of the less fortunate can be addressed and lives can be made better. Advent invites us to expect hearts to be softened as we all ponder the birth of the Bethlehem Child and what promise that holds, if we would but follow the teachings he grew up to share.
Advent expectation is accompanied by a sense of joy. We have something to learn from children at this point. Young children get very excited and joyous in the days before Christmas. They believe that something good is going to happen. Our culture teaches children to expect the impossible, so children believe in the magic of Christmas. Our culture conditions children to believe that Santa Claus can fly all the way from the North Pole and visit every house in America in one night with a bag of toys. You can see the joy in their eyes. But it should also be that way with us adults. At the same time that children are conditioned to expect Christmas magic, we adults may be conditioned to not expect anything wonderful or magical or out of the ordinary at all. We get to where we don’t really expect any radical change to occur. We don’t believe we can change the status quo. But Advent calls us to not listen to the negative voices that would tell us we cannot make a difference, that we cannot bring about change, and that we should not expect Christmas miracles. Advent says there is something in this season and its message that we should be expectantly joyous about.
Consequently, Advent expectations should influence our behavior in practical ways. Just as expecting a baby causes expectant parents to modify their behavior, the expectation that Advent invites from us can lead us to behave in ways that will bring to pass those ideals we celebrate—the triumph of love, the increase of the reign of peace, the making of a better world, especially for the needy and lowly, the reconciliation of those who are apart. Advent encourages us to live, to behave, in certain ways so that our Advent hopes and dreams might actually become reality. The hope for such a better world seems much closer during Advent than any other time of the year.
I am reminded of those words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that evolved into that beautiful Christmas hymn. Written during the Civil War, Longfellow reflected on how the bells on Christmas Day rang out the message “Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.” Then he says,
And in despair I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead: nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
But we all know, and Longfellow would have agreed, I believe, that if the wrong does fail, and if the right does prevail, and if there is greater peace on earth, it will only happen because humans like you and I help make it so.
The Advent question for each of us to consider is what are our personal Advent expectations, and in what ways might our expectations influence or change our behavior during these coming days? Do we expect more love? More joy? Greater peace? A better world? Whatever our expectations, what can we do to help make our expectations become reality? I also am reminded of that famous quote by Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” As I read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, and especially the Beatitudes, I think he said the same thing; that was his message through and through. We must be the positive change we want to see in the world. If we want greater peace, we need to be peacemakers. If we want to see more forgiveness, we need to forgive. If we want to receive, we need to give.
So, during this Advent season, are we expecting? If so, what are we expecting? And how will our expectations alter our behavior and lead to positive change in our own lives and in the world? Amen.