Waiting for Christmas
Sunday, December 2, 2012
When I was a kid, our local newspaper was called The Decatur Daily. The Daily came in the afternoons and so every day when I arrived home on the bus, one of my duties was to get the mail and the newspaper out of the box and have them waiting for mom and dad when they came home from work. Every year in December, the Daily ran a Christmas Countdown. As I recall the countdown usually began on December 1. Each day featured a single framed Charlie Brown Christmas Cartoon with the number of days remaining until Christmas centered in bold numbers underneath. I always enjoyed the cartoons but I generally didn’t care for the countdown. The reason I didn’t like it is that as a child, it usually reminded me of how far away Christmas remained rather than of how close we were getting to that sacred day.
I suspect this morning that all of us could debate the speed with which Christmas arrives. For those of you who are among the younger members of our congregation, I suspect that Christmas feels a long, long way away. At the same time, my hunch is that for the adults in our congregation, Christmas feels closer and closer by the minute. Our sense is that December 25 is hurtling in our direction like a runaway train that cannot be stopped or slowed down.
No matter the speed with which Christmas arrives, I think all of us spend these December days leading up to Christmas doing the same thing. All of us, in some way or another, even this very day, are in the process of creating expectations of what Christmas will be like this year. For most of us, we want Christmas to be perfect. If not perfect, we at least want Christmas to be very, very good.
Our expectation is that everyone in the family will get along, behave themselves and enjoy being together at least for a few hours. Our expectation is that the house will be beautiful and the food will taste great. Our expectation is that we will look great in our new Christmas outfit that we have purchased and that the various parties to give or attend will go off without a hitch. Our expectation is that everyone will like the presents we are in the process of purchasing for them and that the gifts will indeed create that twinkle in the receiver’s eye that we are angling for. And,our expectation is that our new pastor will preach some decent sermons for a change in December and that we will feel a little closer to God because of our presence here over the next few weeks.
Sometimes, these expectations really do come to fruition. At times, Christmas does become that magical occasion that we dream, hope and pray that it will be. We do, on occasion, actually have those experiences when the holidays look and feel remarkably like the Hallmark cards and classic Christmas movies that flood our imaginations.
Many times however this is not the case. Many times, the sad truth is that Christmas fails to meet any of our expectations. The gifts are not quite what everyone had wanted. The food is overcooked. Our holiday sweater is tighter than we had hoped for. And, the family time together includes more hurt feelings and hateful statements than hugs and kisses. Often times, the holidays hold little resemblance to our hopes, dreams and expectations.
I say all of this because the same happens in our relationship with God. We have expectations of God just as we do of Christmas and sometimes those expectations are never, ever met. The same was true of the early Israelites in general and it was also true of the people of God in particular as we meet them in our text for today from Jeremiah 29. The Israelites were in captivity in Babylon and their expectation was that God would deliver them and that their sojourn there would be a brief one. In fact, there were numerous religious leaders among the people who were clearly communicating this exact message.
In the midst of all of their lofty expectations, however, Jeremiah calls the people back to earth. As he does, he says something very valuable and very, very helpful not only to the Israelites but to all of God’s people at all times as we deal with our expectations of God. What Jeremiah says is that things may not always happen as we expect. In turn, Jeremiah warns the people that they need to be careful of developing explicit and narrow expectations of how God will and should work.
At the same time, Jeremiah does not tell the people to completely rid themselves of expectations all together. Instead he calls them to hang their hat on one broad hope and one overarching expectation. That expectation is found in verse 11 and I love the way Eugene Peterson translates it. The first phrase of verse 11 in Peterson’s The Message is this – “God’s knows what God is doing.” This Jeremiah says should be their hope and this should be their only expectation. Jeremiah wanted to people to know that God would take care of them. Everything would eventually be alright and eventually everything would turn out okay. Deliverance was assured though perhaps not in the manner of timing anticipated. But, they could rest assured of one thing. There was one thing they had every right to expect – God knew what God was doing.
Like with the Israelites of Jeremiah’s day, our temptation is to set inappropriate expectations. Our temptation is to expect God to act in our lives by a certain time. Our temptation is to expect God to act in a certain way. Our temptation is to expect God to do certain things. Our expectation is to assume that God will follow a certain set of directions that we ourselves have devised. As a result, when God fails to do things as we had expected our tendency is to jump to the conclusion that God doesn’t care, that God doesn’t love us or that God has no desire to hear our prayers or to be involved in our days.
But, the call of Jeremiah is that we should never create a narrow set of expectations that becomes a litmus test for God’s love or care. Instead Jeremiah calls us to embrace one overarching expectation and that is that God always knows what God is doing even when God’s work and movement seem to go far beyond our wildest hopes and dreams.
The Christmas Story that we celebrate in these days in the classic example of this truth. There really is nothing about the way that Jesus was born that lived up to the expectations of the Jewish people. Jesus was not born in the manner expected and Jesus wasn’t born to the parents expected. As a result, many people walked away from Jesus as the Messiah because their expectations were not met. Yet, everything, everything about Jesus pointed to a fulfillment of the expectation of God that Jeremiah long ago had advocated. The coming of Jesus did signify that God was very much in control and at work in the world albeit in a way far different from what was expected. In Jesus, God proved, that God really did know what he was doing despite unmet expectations of the Jewish people.
I love the movie and the book The Polar Express which centers on a group of children taken to the North Pole for Christmas on a magical train. One of the reasons I like the movie is because the children are able to embrace what they discover there at least in part because no one had dictated to them what they should expect to find there. Instead they were able to embrace what they found just as it was because they had absolutely no preconceived ideas. Things were what they were. It was all a pure and unexpected treat. As a result they were able to embrace it all and to take it all in just as it was.
Quite frankly I think this is an important lesson for us when it comes to Christmas, to God and to life in general. The overarching truth from Jeremiah is just this – we can expect that God knows what God is doing in our lives, in our world and in even in our Christmas this year. We should expect nothing more and we should expect nothing less.
But if we simply embrace that God is at work for our good, we can accept things as they are not as we expected or wanted or demanded them to be. And, if we do, we might just discover again the wonders and the joy of life, of this season and of our Lord at work in our world which rarely live up to our expectations but which regularly have the ability to surpass our dreams…Amen.