A Light Is Dawning – Expecting

Grace Lindvall
(Matthew 1: 18-25)

Will you pray with me? God of advent waiting, of hope, and expectation. Sit with us in this time of waiting and preparing, open our hearts to hear your word and open our hearts to receive your presence with us. Move your spirit through our hearts that we would be encouraged to hear your word fresh and new to us this morning. Amen.

Christmas pageants are always lovely. Who doesn’t love watching the children of the church acting out the birth of Jesus in wonderful homemade costumes? Lydia Mobley shared with Steve and I though a good point, she said she always loves when the Christmas pageant goes wrong. When the perfection of the Christmas pageant isn’t quite because it was mishap free. Take last year’s Christmas pageant at Trinity. My favorite and most memorable moment was watching one lone young sheep slowly sway out from his pasture into the middle of the stage where his stage directions said he should not be. One of the older shepherds recognizing the lost sheep and his responsibility as shepherd took action, using his arm as a shepherd’s crook slowly and gently he pulled the wandering sheep back into the fold.

I love the story my Dad wrote about a Christmas pageant that had a few mishaps itself. Alvina Johnston is the character in the book who is rigid and set in her ways, they call her the “iron butterfly.” She has directed the perfect, mistake free, Christmas pageant at Second Presbyterian Church for “47 years – through ten pastors, 9 US Presidents, and countless Christian Ed committees.” One year, the Christian Ed committee, determined to include more children than the 9 scripted parts called for, overturned Alvina’s Christmas pageant. The one that has been perfectly scripted, that has chosen the most well behaved 9 children to be the actors in the pageant each year. The new Christmas pageant includes 50 plus children in varying degrees of organization and costumes and many sheep grazing across the stage with donuts in hand. And Joseph, Joseph is played this year by the child who has been rejected from Alvina’s Christmas pageant the most times. When the time comes for the narrator to tell about Mary’s situation, the narrator says instead of the old line that no one understood, “Mary was great with child” rather, the narrator says “and Mary was pregnant.” To which Joseph shouts out, “pregnant?!? What do you mean she is PREGNANT?!?”

My Dad closes the story saying, “And so it was perfect, not in the way Alvina’s pageants tried to make things perfect, but perfect in the way God makes things perfect.”

Matthew birth narrative tells us the story of Jesus’ birth through a perhaps unlikely perspective, Jospeh’s. Joseph’s perspective gives us a unique look at the raw and real drama of the story. Like the young Joseph in the Christmas pageant, I imagine that the real Joseph’s reaction was similarly shocked, “pregnant? What do you mean she is PREGNANT?”

A few historical notes to make about the passage Jodi just read for us from Matthew. First, when the text says that Mary was engaged, in 1st century Israel that was a legally binding agreement. Unlike the term’s meaning today which is just a social agreement, engagement, or betrothal as other translations write, was a legal agreement so any relationships outside of the engagement were infidelity. Second thing to note, the punishment for infidelity was harsh, Joseph has two choices for punishment – the first is to hand Mary over to the people of the town where she would be stoned to death for her infidelity. The second is to dismiss her, to end the relationship but also to send her to a certain future of poverty and no future marriage. Joseph chooses the less harsh of the two but a nonetheless daunting punishment.

Matthew tells us that Joseph is a “righteous” man meaning he was a man who lived by the law. So the story goes according to who Joseph is, a righteous man who will follow the law, who will do as he is required or meant to do. He chooses the less harsh of the two options, the more compassionate one. And then God interrupts. Into Joseph’s righteous plan, the Spirit comes hauling in.

God, as God often does, intervened in unexpected ways. Aaron Klink reinterprets the angels words,  he says: “The angel basically said, “I know this is not what you expected, Joseph, but it is going to be OK. God is about to do something wonderful, despite the fact that you are in a rather socially unacceptable position.”

And there Joseph is met with a new question of how he will respond in righteousness? Will he remain righteous in the sight of all those who will look upon him? Will he do as the law has commanded of him or will he do as the angel commands of him?

We know the story of course, Joseph takes a huge, giant leap of faith and does as the angel commands.

And with that we see, what appears to be a moral scandal and absolute outrage, in fact is a holy disruption.

The truth is that we have heard this story so many times – in songs, in scripture, in Christmas pageant form, that it no longer surprises us as it should. It no longer shocks us as it would if we heard it for the very first time. It no longer alters our expectations. Our expectation has come to be that Jesus would be born by a carpenter and his virgin wife, Mary. But my friends, that is shocking, that is NOT what was expected. This story tells a story of the very unexpected.

When we read this text, the way Matthew has written it he intends to inject into it every ounce of tension and scandal that would have been present at the time. An almost soap opera-esque scandal for the time, an unmarried woman was pregnant and her fiancé, who is not the father, will be claiming the child as his own.  

Joseph had plans the text tells us, Joseph was resolved in his decisions. Joseph perhaps had expectations of what his life would look like, of what salvation would look like or how the messiah would come. But Joseph shows us the way. Most scholars agree that Joseph is set up here as the prototypical disciple by the writer of Matthew. Because Joseph’s next step is to allow himself to be surprised. Joseph allows God to surprise him in a dream, Joseph allows God to surprise him in the coming of a savior, Joseph allows his expectations to alter so that he can be surprised with the good news.

This season of advent, we do a lot of expecting. Actually, most seasons we do a lot of expecting. Expecting things of ourselves, expecting things of others, expecting things of God.

It is imperative that we as a people of God do not let our expectations get in the way of our experiences of God.

I wonder, do you have any expectations of where or how you are supposed to meet God? Many of us expect to meet God in certain places and in certain ways – in prayer in church while we are solemnly focused on meditating. But is that expectation getting in the way of us experiencing God when we are a harried mess in the line at the grocery store rushing to get home and start dinner.

Can we hear the angel say, as she did to Joseph: “ I know this is not what you expected, but it is going to be OK. God is about to do something wonderful.”

Perhaps this advent expectation is calling for a perfect family Christmas experience. A well decorated tree, a smiling family in matching Christmas sweaters, a magical Christmas Eve service that returns all our hope and joy in the midst of a broken world. But these expectations may get in the way of our finding Christ in new ways. Could this expectation keep us from finding Christ in the midst of sadness or loneliness and finding instead the gentle hope that Christ gives?

Can we hear the angel say: “ I know this is not what you expected, but it is going to be OK. God is about to do something wonderful.”

Or maybe our expectations have taught us to expect something of ourselves, maybe some level of perfection or the expectation of some kind of life, some sort job, or a certain relationship status, or a certain amount of health. And maybe those expectations have gotten in the way of allowing us to be surprised and amazed by ourselves and what God is doing in us – maybe a new sense of call to serve God rather than a certain job that would be more reputable.

Can we hear the angel say: “ I know this is not what you expected, but it is going to be OK. God is about to do something wonderful.”

Sometimes our expectations get in the way of our getting to know our neighbor. Expecting someone to be or behave in a way that makes you comfortable or expecting someone to do things that make sense to you. Perhaps that is getting in the way of the surprises that our neighbors have in store for us, the ways they may help us see what God is doing in the world.

Can we hear the angel say,: “ I know this is not what you expected, but it is going to be OK. God is about to do something wonderful.”

Perhaps your expectations of how Christ would come have become so normalized that we would expect him to be born in a hospital as is everyone. But would you be willing to accept Jesus born to an undocumented young woman awaiting asylum into the United States? Would our expectations of Jesus keep us from experiencing Jesus in the various unexpected ways he may come.

Can we hear the angel say: “ I know this is not what you expected, but it is going to be OK. God is about to do something wonderful.”

Expectation has this way of getting in the way, our job is to not let it. To be open instead to what God might be doing. Our job is not to remove our expectations but to let ourselves be surprised. To be surprised by God’s unexpected action in the world because the birth of a savior by an unmarried virgin is just the beginning.

God goes on to surprise us in the midst of our expectations:

-God surprises us by responding to the law with compassion

-God surprises us by assigning a group of ragtag disciples to be the ones to deliver the good news

-God surprises us by bringing about salvation through forgiveness and grace, not power and authority

-Christ shatters our expectations of perfection and brings about a new kind of perfection.

My friends, The one who is to be born is indeed the one we have been waiting for but perhaps not the one we have been expecting.

And so it is, perfect, perfect in the way God makes things perfect.