Based on Micah 5:2-5a, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:30-55
In 1860, to save the periodical he was producing, Charles Dickens wrote and published the story “Great Expectations”. The story ran in installments from December 1860 through August 1861 and generated so much interest that the publication remained solvent through the last 10 years of his life. You might remember that “Great Expectations” tells the story of Philip Pirrip, whose nickname throughout the book is “Pip”. The story is narrated by Pip and is about his life, beginning as a child in the marshes of Kent and rising to the high society of London in Victorian England. Though Pip was an orphan and therefore had few resources, he maintained a view on moving up in life and making a name for himself (primarily to win the love of Estella). Pip’s “great expectations” for his life come up against the reality of being a common laborer apprenticed to a blacksmith shop run by his brother-in-law. Pip hates the back breaking work and still holds out that his dreams of becoming a gentleman might just come true.
The season of Advent is a time of great expectations, isn’t it?! After all, we end the season of Advent on Saturday with Christmas day – which begins our season of Christmastide. Christmastide marks the 12 days between the birth of Jesus and the coming of the Magi on January 6th. Christmas Eve services or Christmas vigil services are the highlight of the season for many as they gather to hear the story of the birth of Jesus and many of the events that led up to that transformational event. They sing the beloved songs of the season and end the service in darkness, illuminated by handheld candles while singing “Silent Night”. Yet, that should not be the great expectation – celebrating the 2025th birthday of Jesus. Our great expectation is that he is coming again!
Our scriptures today speak to us of the great expectations of little Bethlehem from whose midst will come the one who is to rule with God’s peace over all of Israel. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds all believers that the Christ abolished the needs for animal sacrifices through his sacrifice and that our great expectation is that we are sanctified by this act of love. Mary and her cousin Elizabeth are marveling that they are both expecting, and that Elizabeth knows that Mary is the “Theotokos” the God-bearer. Before we go farther, let us go to God in prayer, expecting greatly that God will fulfill all of God’s promises with the glorious return of Jesus the Christ…
The minor prophet, Micah, is telling of the great expectation that the Messiah will come from a tiny and inconsequential village by the name of Bethlehem. This Messiah will bring peace and will gather all of Israel back unto himself. The origin of the Messiah we are told “is from of old, from ancient days”. He shall secure the future of Israel and he shall be without peer to the ends of the earth.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews is teaching about how the Christ’s sacrifice for all ended the practice of sacrificing animals to earn God’s favor. Thus, the great expectation of all who believe in the Christ is that our sin debts have been paid for all time. No longer do we need an intermediary priest to sacrifice for us to God, we have a perfect and divine priest in Jesus the Christ who mediates on our behalf. In this way, we who are lowly and without ability to make ourselves presentable to God have been transformed. As our scripture today reminds us, “…we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all….” Our great expectation should be that this is true.
In the Gospel of Luke, we are at the very beginning of the story of Jesus’ conception and growth in utero. We have both the Annunciation and Mary’s song of joy and great expectation over what this event means – not just to her, but to the whole world. Mary has said yes to God to bear God’s Son into the world – to be the mother of one who is destined to transform the world. In the words of her song, “…God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty….” All this God will be doing – Jesus hasn’t even been born as Mary is singing to Elizabeth and to us all. Mary is filled with great expectations over what God is doing and will continue to do in remembrance of God’s great promises to Abraham.
It strikes me that Pip and Mary are really two of a kind. Both are living in lowly estate without a very high probability of changing their place in society. Both are the recipients of a gift which lifts them up and transforms their lives. Pip is suddenly given a large fortune from an unknown benefactor and must leave the blacksmith shop to begin his education as a gentleman. Mary says yes to the invitation from the Almighty God to bear into the world the “Son of the Most High” who will ascend to the throne of King David. Mary’s statement that “…surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;…” is true and accurate.
The remainder of the story for both Mary and Pip contains many ups and downs, many trials and tribulations. Mary is told by Simeon at his Temple presentation that, “…This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too….” A hard thing to hear when your only child is but 40 days old! Pip finds out that his fortune came not from the mother of Estella, but from a convict named Magwitch whom Pip had helped when he was younger. Magwitch dedicated his life to securing a fortune for Pip to repay for the help. Pip is initially aghast that his fortune comes from a former prisoner, but as he gets to know Magwitch, he begins to see his fine qualities. Ultimately, Magwitch is returned to jail and Pip loses his fortune. Ultimately, Mary will live to watch her grown son convicted in a mock trial, tortured and killed.
When asked what the great expectation is of most Christian believers, the answer is that they want to live a good life and then go to heaven to be with Jesus and to be reunited with loved ones who have transitioned before them. Very few believers in this time mention that their greatest expectation of their Christian faith is the return of Jesus in glory. It’s no wonder, when so much time, money and effort of the Church and Society has been to create creches and other mementos of a manger scene. For more than 500 years, the Christmas imagery has been about a baby in a manger and not that the Christ will come again! However, the celebration of a birthday is over and done with in a day – a week tops…that’s nowhere close to a great or God-sized expectation.
The Bible speaks in extravagant terms about the coming of the Messiah – focused on a full grown and capable Messiah, not fixated on an infant. Prophets from Isaiah onward spoke of a Messiah who would reset the world to where it was before the sin of Adam and Eve. A mighty and complete reset that no baby could accomplish. The prophets, the Gospels, the letters of Paul and others and Mary herself speak of the coming of Emmanuel (God-with-us) as nothing less than a turn the world on its head event. The writings of Paul clearly state that the Christ is coming soon to finalize what began with his birth. The Gospels anticipate the return of Jesus – half do not even mention his birth. Yet, we spend inordinate amounts of time focused on the past instead of expecting, planning and working toward our glorious future.
Pip and Mary both found their way in the world after their respective traumas. They are focused on the promise of the future and not on the events of the past. Our focus as disciples cannot only be that 2025 years ago Jesus was born. No, our great expectation must be focused on how we grow to be like the Christ; to get to work with the God that is and is to come, so that we have prepared ourselves for the return of the Christ in full glory and majesty. Births are nice events that bring joy to people all over the world. However, the great expectation for the family is not in the birth, it is in what the child will grow to be and to do. Similarly, our great expectation cannot just be pinned on a birth two millennia ago, but on how to ready ourselves for His glorious return. May God give us patience and focus while we wait with great expectation the return of the Christ…amen!