Paula Northwood December 24, 2018
Five times I remember my family of origin sitting around the dinner table when either my mother or father would casually work into the conversation the words, “We’re expecting.” The first few times, it was exciting! A new brother or sister was somehow going to be added to the family. We anticipated it. We watched our mother grow larger. We marveled at this possibility that there was a baby in our mother’s body. Remarkable! And then it would happen; my brother and I would go stay with cousins for a few days, and our mother and father went to the hospital and came home with a baby. And it was quite amazing to be expecting! Each and every time!
On Halloween twelve years ago, my daughter’s costume included a chef’s hat and oven mitts. She had created an oven out of a box which she wore in front of her. It had a door that opened. It was very cute. But the most interesting feature was the oven door. When you opened it you could see a “bun in the oven.” That was the way she and her husband announced, “We’re expecting!”
We are expecting. This time of year is full of expectations. We expect to spend money on gifts, we expect families to get together, we expect to receive some holiday cards and gifts, we expect to host and attend holiday parties, we expect some colder weather and maybe some snow, we expect to sing some carols and light some candles, we expect the sun to shine a few more minutes each day and some of us expect to feel depressed or at the very least stressed and grouchy. I know a few women who are literally expecting a baby, but most of us simply expect to hear the story about Jesus’ birth. Some of us expect that maybe this year we will feel a bit more joyful, a bit more in tune with the Christmas spirit. We hold in our hearts a great deal of expectations!
We might imagine what Mary felt when she realized that she was expecting. Fear? Surprise? Joy? We don’t really know the circumstances of her pregnancy. According to our scripture, she wasn’t married. She was engaged to Joseph, but there are some indications that he wasn’t the father. In the Luke text, Joseph contemplates divorcing her quietly. I have wondered why divorce someone if you are not married? Or why consider divorce if you are the father? We know the scripture story says she was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. We also understand that the early gospel writers were trying to make the case that Jesus was the son of God through virgin birth. Alexander the Great and the many of the Caesars of the Roman Empire were said to have been “virgin-born.” Anyone who was “somebody” was born of a virgin. People expected a great person to be born of a virgin, but no one expected a great person to be illegitimately born in a stable to a young couple who would become refugees and forced to flee to Egypt.
Despite what we may think is true or not, it’s a story of expectation. It’s a familiar story; once upon a time a young couple found they were expecting a baby. The beauty of this age-old story is its archetypal nature. It starts with a problem. A young woman outside of traditional expectations is pregnant. A young man chooses not to betray but stay loyal. This young, expectant couple embarks on a journey to a different city to be counted in a census. The story includes anxiety; the young woman could deliver at any time. While traveling, they may have wondered, Do we have the correct documents for the census? Will we need proof of our citizenship? Will it cost money? Will we be preyed upon by thieves or bandits? Will bribery be involved? They arrive at the destination only to find another obstacle: There is no place to stay in the whole city—no rooms, only a barn.
The other characters in the story are lowly sheep herders. Sheep herders are usually poor, often foreigners, trying to eke out a living. They have expectations, too. They dream of a better life. They dream of a messiah. They hope for a new kind of leader who would lift them out of poverty and persecution into freedom.
And then we have the climax of the story. The one they have been waiting for has arrived. The baby is born . . . maybe not in the best conditions, but he is alive and healthy. At this moment, it’s not about expectations but mystery. A baby is born. In that liminal moment on the threshold of birth, we ache with wonder. There is nothing like a little baby to bring us to our knees, this miracle of new life, the tiny nose and puckered lips, miniscule toes and fingers, hair like silk and soft skin so pure. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
But the story does not end here. All the shepherds and later the sages (those wise guys) who visit the child come away with the same questions we all ask: What does this mean? Did this little baby fulfill all his parents’ expectations? Is this what the shepherds were expecting? Was this the future ruler the sages followed a star to find? Is he who we expected?
This evening, what are you expecting? A nostalgic feeling? A glimmer of hope in a darkened world? A transformative experience to lift your soul? A star to guide you this next year? We can expect many things for the coming year, but really we cannot know what the year ahead will bring, in our own life or our shared life or in the life of this whole world. We could not have known a year ago what these past 12 months would bring, what unexpected blessings, what unimaginable losses. And yet, we persist, for we live in the expectation that God is with us and we are not alone.
This year I expect that our world leaders will continue to act like the innkeeper saying there is no room and shutting the door, but we, as children of God, will find ways to open our hearts and our homes and welcome the stranger.
I expect that our weather will continue to be unpredictable and people will suffer from fires, floods and tsunamis, but we as children of God will respond to the suffering and continue to respond to climate change in responsible, sustainable and creative ways.
I expect that there will be children and people of color who will be shot down in our schools, churches and streets, but we, as people of God, will draft legislation, write letters and protest until we create a safer world.
I expect that we as a church, full of fallible humans, will have some conflicts and hurt each other, but we, as people of God, will forgive each other and keep making our space, our language and our hearts anti-racist and radically welcoming and hospitable.
Before Mary hands Jesus over to the future—a future she never imagines, one that will make a God of her child; a future where wars will be carried out in his name; a future where people will suffer torture in his name—she holds close her baby of promise. And before Mary becomes the Virgin Mary, the mother of God, there is the power in this simple story of expectation, and it’s the same as ours: to be born and live and love and die and bless the world between the birthing and the dying. Every child born, every one of us, is here to fill the world with love and light and bring to bear our own most ordinary and wondrous incarnation. We’re expecting. We are expecting you! Amen.