What to Expect When You’re Expecting[i]
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 2, 2018
First Sunday of Advent
Matthew 1:1-6, Luke 1:26-35
In case you haven’t noticed, Advent has arrived. Advent, which literally means “coming” is a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. While we wait, we listen intently for this story of Christmas to unfold. But Advent is not so much THE story as the preview for coming attractions. It is the time when everyone leans forward in their seats, eager to hear what happens next. But with this most familiar of all biblical stories, how can we possibly hear it afresh? This is a question Dr. Sarah Nave, my clergy friend from Virginia, and I were discussing one day. While we were chatting, she happened to mention a project from her doctoral work entitled “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” Don’t you just love that title? I do—so much so—it will provide the framework for this Advent’s sermon series. So, I want to thank my friend for her early Christmas gift.
Indeed, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” is an interesting title, and we know, titles matter! They’re meant to grab our attention and coax us closer so that our hearts and minds might be opened to a good story. Good stories bear up even when they’re repeated. Ken Burns, famous film-maker and producer, says that the best stories are about “One plus one equals three.” A good story is more than simply a sum of its parts; more than words and data.[ii]
Over the years, Kinney and I have had the opportunity to see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in all its glory. TSO is an American rock band that is known for stretching the boundaries of rock music. They are also known for their wondrous Christmas productions. The last concert we attended was entitled “Lost Christmas Eve.”[iii] It was a musical tale of loss and redemption, with a rundown hotel, an old toy store, a blues bar, a gothic cathedral, and the people who inhabit them on a particular, enchanted evening in New York City. The storyteller, Brian Hicks, with his deep, booming voice, came upon the stage and held the audience in the palm of his hand from beginning to end. But there were many stops along the way. Mr. Hicks would tell a portion of the story, then walk away while incredible music was performed and then re-enter the limelight again. Each time he put thousands of people on the edge of their seats—eager to hear what happened next.
The story started with a teardrop of infinite sorrow falling from the heavens toward a business man whose heart was frozen by grief. God’s youngest angel, sent to earth on a mission, traveled from place to place, and finally stopped by a blues club where the jazz music turned people’s sorrow around. But the brokenhearted man, who happened to be there, left the yule tide cheer behind to drop along the snow-covered streets, a trail of unwept tears that only an angel could see.
The angel learned that the man had not always been like this. He had grown up in a good Christian home where he was taught that all people are created in God’s image. But, during the birth of his child, things went terribly wrong and he was left without a wife. More than that, his newborn son would likely never grow up to function fully. Enraged, the man, unable to recognize anything of God in his child’s image, screamed toward the heavens. Then, he left the child with the nurse; left the child to be put in a state-run facility.
But on this winter night, an encounter with a little girl left him wondering about his son. Eventually, he arrived at the hospital, of all places, where he found his son, now grown. And what was his son doing? He was busy doing what he did most of the time—rocking to sleep babies born to addicted mothers. When the man asked if his son could talk, the nurse said, “No, but he’s a good listener.” After so many years, father and son were reunited.
Truly, good stories fascinate us. They hold us in their power until we reach their end. And Christians hold a treasury of them inside the sacred book we call our Bible. There was a young woman, for example, whose name was Mary, and God sent an angel to her. And what did the angel say? And how did she respond? And what happened next? And how did it all end?
Why do stories capture our imagination so? Because good stories give us a glimpse of life in its fullness. They remind us that life has meaning. Good stories draw us in to see if maybe, just maybe, we can catch a glimpse of ourselves in them. We listen, and we watch for clues.
The story of Christianity claims to provide us more than clues. This story claims to hold the very meaning of life—the meaning of God and God’s enduring love for those God created. In one sense, the story is so simple Hallmark can easily get the whole thing on a Christmas card. In another sense, though, the story is so complex and wonderfully rich, the whole Bible only gets us started.
From the Gospel of Luke, we hear the story of Mary, a young woman, chosen to do a most important task. She will give birth to the Son of God. Mary’s story is our story—it is God’s story of salvation that God planned way back even before, “Once upon a time…”
From the Gospel of Matthew, through a genealogy of Jesus’ family, we are given not so much a story as its background. And what I want us to pay attention to is who is named in the family roll call. Are these folks we would expect to be included? Abraham, Isaac, Jacob? Absolutely! David and Solomon? Of course! But Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba? How unexpected! There must be something more going on here—and in the coming weeks, we will investigate our Sacred Book for clues. But for now, we return to the story of Mary visited by an angel, who tells her about God’s plan. Although Mary is startled at first, once she catches her breath, she gives herself fully to God’s intentions. Then she heads to her cousin Elizabeth’s house to share her news. Elizabeth is glad for the company because it has been awfully quiet around the house since Zachariah had his meeting with Gabriel in the Temple.
A few months later, in the middle of a long, cold journey, the story continues with Mary giving birth to a baby boy. She and Joseph name him Jesus because that is what the angel told them to do. So, Jesus was born, and they all lived happily ever after. Right? Well, we all know that’s not the way the story ends. In fact, Jesus being born isn’t the end of the story at all. It brings us only to the beginning because the good news, that God sent Gabriel to tell Mary, wasn’t just that she would have a baby but that her child was to be the long-expected Messiah. “Once upon a time in Bethlehem,” is where the story begins, but we must never forget, it ends on the cross. Or does it?
Right about now, you may be thinking, “Oh, come on Glenda, don’t be a Grinch! Let us enjoy Christmas. Why talk about the cross now? Can’t that wait until Easter?” But you see, it is the cross that makes Mary’s story our story. Without the cross, the story of Jesus’ birth is just something lovely we look at from afar—like a nativity scene on our neighbor’s lawn. It remains something that happened long, long ago. But when we find the storyteller, Luke, doesn’t stop at the story of Gabriel and Mary—but moves ahead with how Jesus grew up, loved people, died and rose again—then we glimpse the meaning of Jesus’ life, the purpose of his death, and what all that means for us.
Advent is upon us and it is time to reflect on the birth of Jesus once more. It’s no story of fantasy or make-believe. This story of God’s love coming to the earth is more real than anything else we will ever discover. “Once upon a time in the life of a young girl in Nazareth” continues to this day. Because when the angel told Mary of God’s plans, it became her story. When God’s Spirit reveals to us the good news of salvation made possible through Jesus, the Bread of Life, and we accept the offer, it becomes our story.
During this season of preparation, as you lean forward in your seat, eager to hear what happens next, may you be filled with joy knowing that when Christmas comes, it is not the end. It is only the beginning! Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Inspired by a sermon series written by Dr. Sarah Nave during her doctoral studies. Used by permission.
[iii] Details of the storyline adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lost_Christmas_Eve
Cover Art by Stushie Art; used by subscription, Affirmation of Faith by Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison, Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church, Sparks, NV @ https://www.liturgylink.net/2012/11/26/advent-statement-of-faith/