December 25, 2012

Expecting the Unexpected


Text:  Luke 2:7: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Okay, i’ll confess it: I love this day. I love it. Yes, I complain like everyone else that the Christmas decorations go up too early in the stores; but I love seeing them. And yes I grouse about hearing Christmas carols in the stores in late October; but I love hearing them. None of it really bothers me, because I know I’m going to end up doing all my shopping on the last day anyway. And you know, I even made a Pandora channel for “classic Christmas music” back around Veterans’ Day. I love this day, I love it that we have this day, and I love it that you are here.

Maybe you read the essay by Professor Worthen in yesterday’s New York Times. She starts out with some pretty unkind comments about the congregations that come to church on Christmas and Easter. And then she goes on to make the pretty straightforward point that now that something like a fifth of all Americans claim no religious affiliation at all, even the large crowds at the two great Christian feasts are going to get smaller.

Well, maybe. You know, I’m not so sure that’s all that important. When you’re in my line of work, at some point you’d better give up counting the number of people who are sitting in front of you and being more interested in the reasons why they came in the first place.

And so I’ve been looking forward to seeing you wondering about this question. What is it you’re expecting tonight? What are you looking forward to? Why are you here? What expectations do you have for all this?

Where you expecting to hear yuletide carols being sung by a choir? Okay, got that. Were you expecting to see a beautiful church lit in candlelight? You know, we may be small, but this truly is a beautiful space, and with the Christmas candles and the greenery it’s almost a kind of archetype of a church at Christmas.

We live in a moment of history when what we expect of most things is a simple, straightforward transaction. I do my work, I get my check. I pay my tuition, I get a degree. I give you this gift, I get something of equal or greater value in return. Our expectations shape what we’re willing to give of ourselves. We want a balanced transaction. We don’t want to be made a fool of, putting in more than we get out.

Michael Sandel at Harvard has coined a wonderful word for this central idea in our culture. He calls it “economism”—economics as a kind of religion. It’s the idea that everything, our work, our relationships, our social participation, everything is something we approach as a gamble, an investment. Everything gets shaped by our expectations; we calibrate our willingness to give anything of ourselves based on the expected return. Remember that Scrooge’s profession was to be a man who kept ledgers.

So what are you expecting right now? What are you expecting... out of Christmas? What are you expecting out of ... church? What are you expecting out of this ancient story about the poor family, and the pitiless innkeeper, and the three wise men coming to visit King Herod, and the shepherds and the angels, and the little baby wrapped up in linen against the harshness of a barn?

You’ve heard it all before. You know how it goes. What do you expect from it?

The wise men expect this star to lead them to a great palace, and a magnificent scene. No wonder they show up at Herod’s house. That’s where they expect all of this to be happening. And when Herod turns up to be completely clueless, they move on—not knowing what to expect.

The shepherds are sort of in the story to give us the opposite end of the social spectrum from the wise men. If the wise men are the tenured professors or the hedge-fund managers of our story, the shepherds are the truck drivers or the NASCAR fans. They don’t really expect much out of the world. But then comes this bizarre message from the angels, and they don’t quite know what to expect, either.

And then at the very center of the story are two people who, right this moment, are becoming parents for the first time. And like any first-time parents, they are bewildered, they are scared to death, they are filled with hope—and they have no idea what to expect.

None the principals in this story really know what to expect. But all of them know one thing: Something about what is happening means that change is coming. There is something to be on the lookout for.

The wise men know it and they show it by bringing gifts fit for a king to a baby born in a barn. Something must be going to change. The shepherds know it because they leave flocks and field and any last chance they had at a reputation for responsibility to come and see what the angels told them about. Mary and Joseph know it because—well, because now they are parents, and if parents know anything, they know that change is coming around every next corner.

So here’s the question again—what are you expecting out of all this?

If you have calibrated your expectations so as to avoid being disappointed in the hour you’re going to spend in this little church hearing the old familiar songs, well, then, you will probably get what you expect—but it may not amount to much.

You see, the great gift of this night is exactly that it can’t be captured in a transaction. You can’t measure out your expectations just right when it comes to God. Because God doesn’t want a contract with you. God doesn’t want a careful, mutual, balanced exchange with you.

God wants—well, God wants a relationship with you. And that is why the baby is shivering in the cold barn. In that child a gracious God who believes we’re worth living with—and dying for—does something so completely outside our expectations that it might just finally get our attention.

That is the gift of Christmas. It is the gift of giving you freedom from the world of transactions and accounts. It is the gift of daring to have expectations of something more than just an exchange of gifts with God.

We can’t expect God to dance to our tune; we can’t expect God to change the rules that give us free will and the power of conscience and somehow take all the darkness away, end all the suffering that comes with our foolishness and our frailty.

But there is not just darkness. What becomes true tonight is light in the darkness, light that the darkness, no darkness, can overcome.

These weeks of December have seemed like dark times indeed. There is a circus in Washington, there is a catastrophe in Connecticut. There is war and want, there is terror and tears. We are still capable of the worst that is in us.

And if that is all you expect, then that will be all you get.

So here is the Christmas gift. Here is the Christmas gift you can take with you from this little church and keep in your heart all year long.

It’s the gift of giving yourself permission to live in expectation. It’s the gift of giving yourself the right to be like the wise ones and the shephers and the parents—to expect something coming to you from God.

Too many people around us have given up on God because God did not fulfill their expectations. And maybe you’ve been tempted to, too.

But the wise people, and the shepherds, and the parents, they all knew better. They didn’t know what to expect. They simply trusted that the light had come, and change was coming. They put aside their own expectations, and because of that they could finally see the signs of what God was doing.

And then they, and we, could become part of that change-.

Here in this place we do not always have all the answers and we cannot solve all the problems. But there is always light here; every day of the year the light of this night, the light that no darkness can overcome. It is the light that we give each other courage to dare looking for; and when you live in expectation of that, then that will be what you get. The light has come, the child has been born, the gift has been given; new life is born in us. Thanks be to God. Amen.