THE LONG-EXPECTED SURPRISE
TEXT: Luke 2:1-20
Somewhere in my childhood, I got some bad information. I can’t tell you exactly where it came from, since I don’t remember anyone ever saying it out loud. But somewhere along the way I got the impression that I could plan my life, and life would cooperate with those plans. I mean, I really thought that careful planning and right living could make things come out the way I intended. What a joke!
Someone has said that “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” That has certainly been true for me, and I suspect it strikes a chord with many of you. I invite you to think about your life so far. For some of you that is a lot of years, for others not so many. But think about the twists and turns life has taken for you.
Some of you, like me, expected children and got none. Others of you expected healthy, untroubled children and things went terribly wrong. Some of you are in jobs and careers very different from what you trained for; others expected to be able to support a family with your job and have found that impossible. We expect marriages to last and they don’t, or we think they’ll never last a week and they last 50 years. That’s life. Some plans go bust, others come to fruition in very different ways than we expect, and a whole lot happens that was never in the plan at all.
I mention this on Christmas Eve because I think our tendency to think we know how life will behave is part of the reason that we struggle with and misunderstand the life of Jesus. The first Christmas was missed by everybody except some local shepherds and a few alert astrologers, but that wasn’t because it was unexpected. The birth of the Messiah was long-expected by the Jews, although they didn’t know exactly when it would happen. Since the time of Moses, somewhere around 1200 BC, the Jews had clung to the promise that another deliverer like Moses would rise up to save them.
And I think it’s fair to say that the plan was for a baby, because the Jews were expecting a human being, and that’s the way human beings start out...as babies. Even the special ones like Moses and Elijah started as babies. The events surrounding the Christmas story were not the stumbling block for the Jews of Jesus’ day; and for all the talk of people questioning the virgin birth, the star, and all of that stuff, I don’t think the Christmas story is what keeps anybody away from faith.
The problem for most people comes in who that baby is and what that baby does and doesn’t do when he gets a bit older. You see, those expecting a Messiah were expecting someone like Moses...someone who would stand up and challenge political oppression and injustice and lead the people in doing something about it. I think this expectation lies at the root of all our issues with Jesus...not just the Jews, but all of us.
My take on the life of Jesus is that the Jews of his day would not accept him as their long-expected Messiah because he refused to take up arms and overthrow the Romans. I may be wrong, but I see the core issue as Jesus refusing to be and do what Jews across the millennia had planned for the Messiah to be and do. Their expectation was that the Messiah would be a political and military leader. What Jesus actually brought was spiritual liberation through love. The crowds were with him, Messiah on their lips, until the point that he let himself be captured and crucified. That wasn’t in the plan, as they saw it, and even his nearest and dearest turned and fled. The disciples on the road to Emmaus after Jesus’ death said it best, “But we had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel!”
Now before we start congratulating ourselves for understanding what the Jews of the time did not, just hold your horses. We who sit here tonight are no better. We can come safely tonight because we have no issues with newborn babies. They are not a threat. In most cases we can sit at the cradle and still keep all the expectations we have for the child’s life. So it is with us at Christmas...the newborn Jesus cannot yet speak and tell us anything uncomfortable.
Back at the time of Christ’s birth, wise men gave gifts to the baby king. Too often Christians come to the manger of the baby servant to imagine what he will give to us. What is it we are expecting from this baby tonight? Are we expecting that if we pay the right kind of respect, he will clean up our finances, fix our relationships, or cure our diseases? Are we expecting that what he says will be a comfortable fit with our political and social agendas? Do we rely on Jesus to see to it that we are comfortable, free from stress, and have all our needs met? Do we expect Jesus to be the divine concierge in the hotel of life?
That doesn’t seem to be the witness of the Gospels or of the early church we see described in the book of Acts. Jesus starts by calling together those who will be his closest friends and co-workers. Each one is asked to leave their jobs, their families, and all that they have to wander around Palestine with a man who doesn’t seem concerned if there’s no shelter for the night, too little food to go round, or thousands of people demanding attention all at once. He sends out his closest buddies on a mission saying, “I am sending you as sheep among wolves.” Instead of standing up to the oppressing Roman army, he tells his followers to let them take even more--
‘If a soldier stops you on the street and forces you to carry his pack for a mile, do it twice as far. If someone demands your shirt, give your coat, too.”
Instead of tips for increasing income, or even calling for the simple duty of giving ten percent of a person’s income to religious work, Jesus tells people to sell all they have and give it to the poor. Jesus and the Disciples both engaged in the work of healing disease of all sorts, but that was not their primary mission. Many who lived in Israel during Jesus’ day remained sick and many died. Healings showed the compassion of God and were signs that God’s full authority and power had been given to Jesus, but freedom from physical affliction was not a guarantee. St. Paul had a physical problem tormenting him and God specifically told him he would have to live with it. And as for physical protection, only one of the original twelve Disciples lived out a natural life.
Jesus did not say “Take up your pillow and follow me.” He said “Take up your cross and follow me.” Those who think that’s an indicator of an easy road don’t know much about crosses. This baby was not born in easy conditions. Just try giving birth in a barn after a 73-mile donkey ride. There were signs even there that those who embraced the child would need courage. You would think that God would have blessed Bethlehem for being the place where Jesus was born. That’s how it was with the old ark of the covenant. Whatever town held the ark was blessed beyond measure. But in Bethlehem all the babies under 2 years old get slaughtered. There are signs if you know where to look.
I have been committed to following Christ for all of my 45 years. That has not spared me the ravages of life, and in some cases it has made some of those ravages harder. I couldn’t just consider my own needs. I had to take into account the needs of others. I couldn’t repay wrongs with satisfying vengeance or better myself at the expense of someone else. In choosing Christ I chose limits for my behavior that make a lot of things harder to pull off. This baby we worship tonight will demand your entire life and will direct your efforts away from everything that the world considers important.
What we gain through those sacrifices, however, is meaning...purpose...a direction in life that is bigger than ourselves. By choosing the baby, you are choosing to become part of the work of God on earth...to help be part of a global effort to make life better for all rather than better for you. In a sense, the expectation that Jesus will make life better is a true one. It’s just not true in the way we expected. Jesus calls us to be his body in the world...even if that means our bodies, like his, must be broken and our blood, like his, shed.
The baby brings us the tough message that Christians should be the one volunteering for the pain, not begging to be free from it. If there’s a tough mission, we should be the ones stepping up to the plate, because we are the ones equipped for it. We are the ones who know that what happens to us here is insignificant in the face of eternity. We know that Jesus walks the tough road with us, and while we know it leads up to a hill covered in crosses, we also know that death is not the winner in the end.
We expected a Messiah to come and save us, and he has. What came as a surprise was that God wants us to be part of the solution. God becoming human was God’s way of saying, “we’re in this salvation thing together.” God works in human flesh and through human history to save a world from itself. God showed us in Jesus how to do that...love everybody–even your enemies. Return good for evil; make the sacrifice yourself so that others don’t have to; do the hard work yourself so it can be easier for the weak; give up your right to keep your income so that others have enough.
The baby we worship tonight is not for the faint of heart. The Christian life will demand more than you ever thought you could give and will challenge what you expect of it at every turn. But, like with life, the surprises it brings will not be all bad...in fact, what the baby does promise is that every bad surprise can be worked into something that will help to make the world a better place-- if we will swallow hard, look it full in the face, and offer it up to God.
Only a handful were brave enough to come to the manger that first Christmas night. Fewer still were able to stand at the cross. Will you have the courage to come? Amen.
Sermon (c)2004 Anne Robertson
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