This is the season of Great Expectations.
I’ve spent a lot of time in our schools in the past couple of weeks, and of course excitement is running high. Already we've had the Infants' Nativity and a trip to the pantomime and pretty much any conversation with the children veers round to a discussion of Christmas within seconds. Even while many of their parents are struggling to find money for the essential treats, the children are confident that all will be well.
Against this, let me set the expectations of the families for whom I have conducted funerals in the past weeks, those whose worlds have been shaken, almost blown apart, Death is no respecter of the season so there are many whose current hopes are focussed on the sheer need to survive…to get through this period which clamours for celebration in such a way that the memories won’t scar all future Christmas times.
Our expectations of the Christmas season can be painfully unrealistic
This is, notoriously, a time when family breakdowns are most common, when the suicide rate mounts disturbingly – and surely part of the reason for this is the gulf between expectations and fulfilment.
It’s a gap that it’s all too easy to fall into…and very hard to climb out of.
But of course, we usually have a pretty clear idea of what we’re expecting…
a happy time spent with friends and family, a bit of church, lots of singing, candles in all directions, and almost certainly more food than we really need. There may be additions and subtractions from this list, but I’d guess it’s not that far from what we imagine will happen to most of us.
Contrast this with the great expectations of our Scripture passages this morning. The writer of Isaiah's prophecies, like James, is sure of one thing – a day of salvation and glorious restoration will come to pass.
But there's no calendar with little doors to open, to help the count down. Instead there's a long wait in the dark, clinging to the hope that things will not always be this way, that there are good times ahead.
Isaiah paints clear pictures of this restoration – images of new life springing forth unlooked for in the dryest, most barren places…healing for those who most need it…consolation for all.
He is clear that we can look for this with the same confidence that we look for the growth of a plant once we have sown the seed...
The Lord WILL come, bringing with Him judgement, healing, reconciliation, restoration – as essential to God’s DNA as the growth of a crocus flower from its bulb, or a wheat stalk from a grain planted carefully in the earth,
This will come to pass. Never doubt it.
John the Baptist recognised the first shoots of the kingdom when his cousin Jesus came to him for baptism – but then began to doubt his own confident proclamation. His expectations were great, sure enough, but the reality he was living looked pretty much like disappointment. Cast into prison, seeing no signs that the Roman occupation might be lifted, he began to panic. Had he got it wrong? Was Jesus the One they had been waiting for? He just didn’t seem to be behaving as a Messiah should.
But, of course, the clues are all there in Isaiah…in that key text for Jesus’s ministry, the passage he read once in the synagogue, but lived out each and every day
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring the gospel to the poor…he has sent me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.”
Listen, he says to John….these are the things that have been happening.
Maybe not exactly as you expected, - but here’s the evidence.
The Messiah is here.
So…expectations fulfilled, but in subversive, surprising ways.
In fact, there should have been, as it were, no surprise in the surprises.
God has consistently worked to subvert our expectations.
It’s there in the Isaiah passage, where the lame leap and the dumb burst into triumphant song…it’s there in the song of Mary
He has scattered the proud in their conceit
Casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly
Our God will never let matters rest.
Wherever there is injustice, wherever the weak are disadvantaged, the vulnerable oppressed, there God is at work, intent on turning things upside down, on launching a revolution that is Good News for the poor.
Small wonder, then, that these words, a manifesto of the Kingdom, come from the mouth of an unmarried teenage mother, - poor, disgraced and a woman! The least of the least, but told that she will give birth to the child who will change everything but for the whole world.
And so Mary's hopes flower into the song that we call Magnificat - a song of justice for all people, the justice of a God who just won't play according to our rules.
Our God won't stay at a safe distance, suitably remote and divine.
Our God rolls up his sleeves and gets involved...
Our God becomes one of us by laying aside his power, his glory..and arriving where he might least be looked for...A small overcrowded town in an occupied country in an unimportant corner of the Roman Empire...
His people thought they were ready. Through the ages they had been more or less alert, - expecting some act of dramatic intervention to restore their fortunes, some decisive action that would lead to the fulfillment of all those wonderful prophecies. But when the time came, they were all looking in the wrong direction, and so God crept in among them as baby born not in a palace but in poverty, a baby soon to be a refugee, a baby destined to disturb the very people who had expected the Messiah to bring comfort to Jerusalem.
Great expectations dumbfounded!
And now we too wait.
We wait with joyful excitement for our celebrations of that baby's birth. We open the windows of our Advent calendars, wrap our presents, send our cards...but do we really expect God's active involvement in our here and now?
And, if we do, are we ready to join in?
We may be brimming over with our own Great Expectations, but for God's sake we need to cling tightly to our knowledge that the season of Christmas is not for the victorious but for the struggling.
So these weeks of Advent are not an invitation to excess but a proclamation of hope in a dry land. Yes, we can have great expectations indeed - but they must involve giving as much as getting, as we explore what it means to reflect God's kingdom in our thoughts, words and actions.
In a world where poverty and despair seem to have the upper hand, where and how should we search for the breaking of Good News?
Will we look for it just here in Church, or dare we expect it in those places that might seem unlikely...in the traffic queues that stress us as we rush into town for "one last thing", in the Big Issue seller standing outside Subway, in the contents of yet another Christmas letter..
We may not be expecting it, but if we look there will be Good News, - never doubt it - Good News beyond our most extravagant hopes and dreams...but we need to participate in the work of God that will bring it about.
Don't forget, the God for whom we wait is the God of Magnificat...the God who loves to subvert our expectations...and who invites us to join with him in turning the world upside down.