Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Secret Plan

Matthew 1:18-25

No matter how many times you hear this story, it is worth noting how utterly inconvenient Jesus’ arrival really is. When we set out our nativity sets, the scene looks so peaceful and serene. There’s Mary looking proudly and lovingly down at Jesus, Joseph supportively at her side. We set tentative shepherds off to the side (often with some unsuspecting sheep) with some other miniature animals. Then on the other side, three wise men (of varying skin tone and wearing very colorful Persian looking garb) holding bedecked chests or urns of precious spices. But all have come together in this seemingly perfect moment.
Except that it isn’t. Remember what Mary and Joseph had to do just to get room in a smelly, dirty, itchy barn. This was no surgically clean labor-and-delivery room either. This is after they had traveled many miles for the government’s silly census. (Ladies, you think it was tough riding in the car while eight-months pregnant, imagine being on the back of a donkey for over a hundred miles!) And this is just the logistical difficulty. Our passage this morning (which Katie and Justin have graciously and skillfully shared!) is not as serene and peaceful as it seems. It is utterly inconvenient.
For both Mary and Joseph, so very much was at stake. At this point, I’m not talking about the fact that Jesus was to become the Savior of all humanity (although we’ll get to that). You see, Joseph and Mary, while engaged, were not married yet. And here is Mary, perhaps not much older than her mid-teens, now betrothed to a respectable carpenter with her future shaping up nicely, is just beginning to show.
As a young woman in that day, until a woman was married, she was part of her father’s household. Your greatest hope was to be married (usually arranged) and bear children (sons hopefully at some point for they would carry on the family name and business). Marriage was not about “being in love” so the fact that Mary landed a “godly man” was a bonus! So in that day and age, finding a place to be a faithful wife was a much anticipated thing. This ancient arrangement was not an issue of oppression (although that certainly that took place) but for the sake of survival.
Which meant to be pregnant out of wedlock was disastrous. According to the laws of the day, the groom (in this case, Joseph) could drag the pregnant bride-to-be before the local council and press charges, tarring her and her family with great shame in the community. In extreme cases, the bride’s father could have refused to take the daughter back in. Certainly, it would be next to impossible to find another husband.
Not only would Mary’s life have been over, Joseph also could have been in trouble. His survival depended on his trade and this incident could lead people to boycott his business leaving him with no income or recourse but perhaps to leave home and move to another city and attempt to start all over, competing with other already-established carpenters. But Joseph, being a godly man, wants to do the honorable thing. So despite being the offended party to what looks on the outside to be Mary’s impropriety, he makes plans to end it quietly. That will be best for everyone.
So when the angel appears and says, “Don’t be afraid!”, it’s not hard to imagine Joseph perhaps feeling a little indignation mixed in with the awe and wonder of hosting an angel of the Almighty in his living room! But the angel says this is not as it seems. “There is a plan at work. A big one. The biggest. God is coming. He’s coming down from heaven to be one of us, labor, delivery and all. He’s coming into your life. He’s coming to save the world, so name him “I AM Saves”. And you and Mary are going to raise him.”
Does this really help Joseph or Mary out of their predicament? What if the Almighty came to your house for a visit to announce that some centuries old prophesies were about to be fulfilled in your living room? Now imagine telling your friends what you’d seen. Yeah, they would think you were crazy too. Which makes Joseph and Mary’s surrender to God’s covert operation to save the world all the more remarkable. For they had to give up every dream they ever had about their quiet, peaceful life together, face the potential whispers of gossip of Mary and Joseph’s crazy talk, all to be part of God’s great plan.
Think about it: An all-powerful Almighty God, who can do anything He wants, wants to rescue people from their incarceration to sin; of all the ways He could have done it, this is how He chooses to do it. Jesus isn’t born into a wealthy family, so He could have all the opportunities for success and exposure to the most powerful people of the day. Jesus isn’t born to affluent, big-city Jerusalem folk near the center of Jewish religion, learning, politics and culture. He’s not born to a great rabbi so He could be trained, or surrounded by any of the other symbols what we call “success.” Rather, God chooses to enter our world in a place not unlike Floyd; back water Galilee in a village of blue-collar folks trying to scrape out a living for their families. Of all the possibilities, God chose these humble, highly inconvenient beginnings to inaugurate the turning point of all human history.
For this is where God meets us: not in a picture-perfect story but in messy life, where we’re doing our best to make it. This is where God wants to bring life; right where it is confusing and uncertain and difficult. This is where God wants to dismantle our best laid plans so that we might be a part of His eternal plan to bring all people and all creation back to its good and benevolent intent.
Mary and Joseph are heroes. They are heroes because they were willing to say, “Okay, I surrender to your plan.” They didn’t charge into battle. They didn’t rush into a burning building. But they surrendered their blueprint for an peaceful, ordinary life, risk shame and terrific inconvenience, to allow God to use them for something greater; the greatest! To save the world. Because Jesus’ arrival into our lives is not convenient. Things will have to change. This is where great acts of faith happen: not from pulpits or classrooms but in terrifying moments of trust, where we don’t know what will happen when we let go. But we find that when we do, God can do great things through us and give birth to life right in our living room.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My New Chair

It was an embarrassment, according to the session; my old chair. Even my mother conferred privately at the state of it. It sat here when I arrived seven years ago in all its black faux-leather glory. It was quite cozy. However, the armrest was tattered and spilling its spongy innards. Years of sitting compressed the stuffing so that it afforded an intimate connection with the metal strut supporting the seat. There was no question: lest I start buying stock in Preparation-H or driving my guests to squeaky insanity , it was time for the chair to go.

Excitedly, I strode through the front-door of "major office supply chain" and strode to the furniture section. I made a to-do of sitting in all kinds of chairs. I thought it would be something like dating: I would know which one was "the one" the moment our bodies were entwined. Unlike dating, however, I went from one to the next, all in the name of discovering my next ministry partner.

Memory-foam: check. Black leather: check. Lumbar support: check. Imposing visage that says "I'm god of the corporation": check. This was the one that came to the office with me. (see picture above)

Having unceremoniously shoved the old wreck out the door, I wrestled the large box into the study and set to work, like a kid at Christmas putting together the coolest toy he's ever seen. I even relished that "I'm a man and know how to put together complicated machinery" feeling (it required the twisting of 12 hex-screws!) and it was finished: my new chair was assembled, inviting me to enjoy.

But it wasn't the blissful derrière nirvana I had anticipated. But there was a sizable nick in one of the armrest supports. The black padding on another arm had a careless dab of silver paint. As I landed for the first time, it didn't feel quite like it did at the store; firmer and less welcoming. The seat didn't lower to accommodate my stubby legs as much as I thought nor did it seem as limber to my fidgeting. Sure, it's nice but it's covered in "different." To my surprise, I found myself missing the shabby familiarity of my old chair.

The tension between old and new is timeless. The old has a costly familiarity and the new, a foreign and irritating scratchiness (like falling in love with a pair of jeans in the store but then having them not fit the same at home). We know what to expect with the old and love knowing it, even if it's hemorrhoids. We don't like not knowing what's going to happen when faced with something new, especially if it promised to be so shiny and revolutionary at first. The questions that accompany the new are not comfortable, wondering whether it will ever get broken-in to our life, molding itself beneficially into place (like a new pair of boots), or whether it will be an irritating regret that we'll have to learn to live with.

And yet this is the place Christians are called to live: the tension between the comfortable old and the challenging new. Paul talks about removing our old ways and clothing ourselves in Christ. But it is a faithful place to be. We've been made to feel that faithfulness comes only with certainty. But it takes greater faith to trust in the midst of uncertainty and instability, believing that somehow all will come to its right conclusion.

The new chair is going to take some getting used to. But while the other chair might have been comfortably familiar, I know it is a healthier option to have a chair that will help me sit straighter and cushion the tush. And the adjustment will be worth it.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A prayer for you

God of life,
there are days when the burdens we carry
are heavy on our shoulders and weigh us down,
when the road seems dreary and endless,
the skies gray and threatening,
when our lives have no music in them,
and our hearts are lonely,
and our souls have lost their courage.
Flood the path with light,
turn our eyes to where the skies are full of promise;
tune our hearts to brave music;
give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age;
and so quicken our spirits
that we may be able to encourage
the souls of all who journey with us on the road of life,
to your honor and glory. Amen.

(Attributed to Augustine of Hippo)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

...but I still haven't found what I'm lookin' for...

I came to the "conservative versus liberal" contest late in the game. It was not until I was several years into seminary before I begun to truly understand the differences. In college, I remember a conversation over the lunch table where I confessed to a friend that I didn't know "what" I was. She asked me several "yes-or-no" questions about various hot button issues (i.e., "Are you pro-life or pro-choice? Do you believe in capital punishment?") and, as if I was filling out a teen magazine quiz, she informed me of my results. Even then, allegiance to once side or the other didn't seem all that important. I wanted to be on Jesus' side and I'm pretty sure he's not Democratic or Republican.

But today, you cannot identify yourself without the expectation of eventually being pigeonholed into one camp or the other. It's how we know how to deal with each other; how comfortable we'll be around you. It doesn't matter what sphere of life: political, theological, economic, you WILL be one or the other in their eyes. Otherwise, it is concluded you do not have the courage or backbone to have convictions.

Both sides seem to take delight in vilifying the other. Take healthcare, for example: Conservatives label liberals as touchy-feely sentimentalists who care nothing for God, right stewardship or historic liberty. Liberals label conservatives as simple-minded racist-bigots who care nothing for God, or the poor and are more interested in preserving their bank account than helping others. I've got friends on both "sides" and they seem to have the temerity not to fit into their respective caricatures; the caricatures media pundits keep insisting are true.

Having received the honor of being commissioner to General Assembly this July (meaning I will be one of six voting representatives from our area in the bi-annual national meeting of the highest governing body in the Presbyterian Church), I'm more than a little concerned about the partisanship. Church media is not much different than political: each camp lobbing theological bombs at faceless editorial writers.

Sometimes you hear pleasant accounts of folks reaching across the aisle to practice the godly principle of friendship and overcome differences. But these rare instances seem unlikely to happen elsewhere in a room crowded with champions for each cause, righteously fighting for the truth that the other side is so wildly obtuse to not see.

It's hard to know where to stand. I don't trust the rhetoric of "let's just all get along" or "celebrate diversity." I've heard it to much to think it does any good. I want to get along. I appreciate diversity. But I'm tired of the games, the parry and thrust of endless circular debate, the vilifying and the caricatures. I'm looking for some sincere unity, some sweaty, hard-fought prayers, and to-the-marrow salvation in Christ's Body that scripture has called us to all along. Not a contrived mission statement or empty handshakes and smiles.

But I'm pretty certain that requires relationship: the one thing the Lord persistently has been striving to get out his people from the beginning of time. And relationship is much harder; much more messy, much more sacrificial than self-righteous certainty. It sounds an awful lot like work. I'm too busy as it is. I can't even muster sincerity, prayer and redemption in my own life some days.

I'm still not that fussed about which side anyone thinks I'm on (on a good day, anyway). I'm most interested in being on Jesus' side. But I don't see him standing on either side of the aisle. And when he's turning over tables in the temple, or chewing out the Pharisees (conservatives of the day) or Sadducees (liberals of the day), I don't seem him in the middle either.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

“Which Hill?” – 1st Corinthians 15:1-11

“What is the hill that you are willing to die on?” This is a question leaders might ask themselves when facing a contentious issue or resistance to a new idea. It’s a question of perspective – is the issue at hand significant enough to stake everything on? Is the principle behind it all worth sacrificing my career, my reputation, my future? Or spin it another way: are there things upon which there can be no compromise? Politicians ask this when considering whether to tackle a hot-button issue. Managers and CEOs ask this when attempting to implement a new program. And pastors ask this when wanting to try something new: is this hill worth dying on? Think about: What hill, cause, or ideal would you die for? What, for you, is there simply no room for compromise?

Paul’s hill is the Gospel of Jesus, particularly the news of the cross and resurrection. Paul is writing to brand-new believers in a Greek city. The predominant Greek notion about human bodies and death was this: that the soul was a truest essence of a person and the body was merely a physical incarceration of the soul, inferior and corrupt. Everything physical was merely a crude veil to the true spirit of things. At death, the soul would be liberated from its prison, blissfully never to return. This was the prevailing notion of most Greeks of the day.
So when Paul comes to town and starts talking about a Messiah that comes back to life, in the flesh, it turns more than a couple of heads. When Paul preaches the resurrection from the dead in nearby Athens, Acts 17 reports: When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” The sneering hasn’t stopped, even today, for those who find talk about resurrected bodies superstitious and highly unscientific.

Some have called 1st Corinthians 15 the most important passage in the entire Bible, for it encapsulates so succinctly the bedrock of Christian faith. While no bit of scripture is more holy than the other (don’t be fooled by the red ink!), there is something to this claim. Because Paul climbs the one hill upon which we, Christians, can have no compromise: the Gospel of Christ’s saving death on the cross that redeems us from sin and his defeat of death in the resurrection. All other opinions about the nature of the Christian life and faith orbits this central gravitational truth. Without this center, we cannot call ourselves “Christian”.

Why is this the hill we must die to defend? Because without the cross and resurrection, there’s nothing left but a really great guy and some morality tales. But Paul says without faith in Christ’s central deed, “you have believed in vain.” The Greek word for “vain” (eike) literally means “with no result” or “without reason”. That is, belief without the death and resurrection of Jesus has nothing to show for it. There is no ultimate good or happy conclusion to show from it. There is no reason to do it other than to amuse ourselves.

Instead, Paul reminds the young Corinthian believers, “What I received I passed on to you as of first importance” (vs. 3). Have you ever tried to share your hobby or passion of a particular subject with a child? Take something you love to do and imagine yourself teaching them about the basics. In the movie, “A River Runs Through It”, the father-figure is a Presbyterian pastor who teaches his kids how to fly fish. He starts them off by practicing the basics in the front yard, before he even gets them to the river. When learning an instrument, you have to get some basic rudiments of the instrument down (how to hold your hands properly, how to shape your lips just right, how to strum correctly). They are the “first things”. Until you do so, your fingers, lips and arms won’t be able to do the more complex things. You cannot knit a sweater until you’ve learned the basics of how to hold the needles or to do simple knots. These are the things of “first importance”.

So it is with the life of faith: unless one’s house isn’t built on the rock, it will only become so big. Paul tells us the thing of “first importance” is this core affirmation: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared…” Let’s break this down :

The first word is loaded: “Christ”. We say it so often, throw it at the end of prayers, we can just assume it was Jesus’ last name! It is actually a title. It is the Greek word for a more important Hebrew word, “messiah”, which means “Anointed One.” To anoint something is to set it aside for a special purpose. We anoint our elders with oil, recognizing that they are called by the Spirit to particular duties within the church. With Christ, he comes to enact a very particular task that no one else could do.

The task? “die for our sins.” We need to be careful here as this is a phrase that we’ve heard so much, that we might gloss over what is at stake. So often, we think of sins as bad behavior; lying or using foul language, cheating or stealing, murder or adultery. If sins were simply an issue of behavior, we wouldn’t really need someone else. It would be simply be a matter of self-discipline, conditioning our wills until we mastered good behavior. But sin is more like cancer, something that we cannot fix on our own. Our souls have a disease that keep us centered on ourselves. It doesn’t get better by itself. Jesus’s “anointed” task is to come and cure the disease.

But to kill off sin, it has to die. This is what makes Jesus’ dying so crucial. Without his death, sin cannot die. However, as someone who was not diseased with sin (unlike the rest of us), he was free to do something about it. Paul emphasizes this point by saying that not only did Jesus die, he was buried. Jesus was really dead. Not a coma or a deep sleep. It wasn’t some kind of heavenly hoax that looked, sounded and smelled like death. No, Jesus died. Really died. Like, what we face at the funeral home, died. We see that Jesus would go to ultimate lengths to free the world from the sin disease and restore it to full health, the way God wanted it to be from the beginning!

But that’s not all. Paul continues, “…that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” This is the other side of the same coin. The work of the cross is incomplete without the resurrection. So often we lift up the grizzly suffering and crucifixion of Jesus as central and the resurrection as the happy epilogue. But if Jesus had simply stayed in the grave, death would win. There would be no future. Jesus’ sacrifice would have also been in vain. The resurrection is not merely the defeat of sin but the defeat of death itself, the restoration of life and relationship with God and each other. It is one event in two-parts: crucifixion and resurrection. You cannot have one without the other. With resurrection, we have a future. We have a reason to believe.

Paul says not simply to take his word for it either. There are two things that corroborate this central claim to faith. One, that the Gospel (the saving hope of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection) did not happen in a vacuum. The good news didn’t pop out of no-where. These things happened “according to Scripture.” Paul here is referring to the Old Testament (the New not having been compiled yet). For generations, people had been looking forward to this one that God would lift up to rescue his people. God has had a plan all along. As one author has said, “Jesus is God’s way of refusing to give up on his dream for the world.” Jesus is the culmination of God’s master-plan for human history.

But Paul not only points to Jesus’ place in the history of salvation, but also encourages them to take note of all the other accounts of his resurrection. Peter and the disciples, a gathering of 500 believers, James and all the apostles, even including Paul himself, who saw the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. It’s as if Paul says “If you don’t believe me, ask any of these other folks.” It is critical for Paul to hit this home because Jesus’ resurrection is historic fact. It wasn’t metaphorical or a well-orchestrated scam on the part of the disciples. Somewhere in the sequence of our space and time, Jesus entered reality, actually died and actually rose from the dead.

Paul talks about the Gospel as the place (the hill) that we take our stand. Many of the apostles (like many that Paul has listed here) were martyred for what they believed. Now, a group of people don’t get together, fabricate an extraordinary story around a wise teacher and his generally unpopular teaching and then be willing to hand-over their lives to preserve the lie. There was no fame or money in it. Some disciples (like Matthew the tax collector) left behind lucrative careers. The most reasonable explanation is that these people experienced something unlike anything else they’d ever heard or seen; something so fantastic that it changed their lives forever, giving them something that they would be willing to pay the ultimate price to defend. For Paul, there was no question: the foundation of the Gospel, the death and resurrection of Christ, was historic fact and in no way would he yield.
Sometimes, the idea of “taking a stand” can come off as arrogant or an “I’m better than you” attitude. We have good reason to be cautious for many well-meaning people (plenty of Christians!) having given the Gospel a bad name for “taking a stand” in the wrong spirit. But we must be equally cautious about the pendulum going too far the other way.

In our culture today, we are made to feel guilty about sharing our beliefs. Faith is a private matter. “What if I offend someone?” The problem here is that we are asked to become something less than ourselves as followers of Jesus in order to allow someone else to be who they are. Faith in Jesus isn’t about helping to prop up a religion. We believe in Jesus because in Him, we see the reality of the world around us and the activity of a loving God. We experienced the greatest hope and love of the world but we keep it to ourselves. Being a follower of Jesus isn’t about having something to do on Sunday morning but it is the way we see and interact with the people and the world around us. Our faith in Jesus speaks to the core of who we are. And to somehow diminish who we are in the name of “comfort” is not a holy endeavor.
It is the excuse we come up with to keep ourselves safe.

But let’s take Paul’s lead on this. Here is the most prolific author of the New Testament; a dedicated missionary who gave up his very successful, upwardly mobile career in the Temple in order to spread something the Good News of Jesus. Notice his attitude in the midst of it all: “But I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle for I persecuted the church of God.” Paul actively sought to crush the Christian movement, even sanctioning the wrongful execution of the earliest apostles. But now something is different. He says, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”
For Paul, he doesn’t stand up arrogantly and talk about how great he is or how he’s got his life together. He gives all credit to “the grace of God.” Grace is the packaging that the Gospel arrives in. Grace means “gift”. God gifts us his saving death and resurrection. There is no tab for us to pick up and we certainly haven’t earned it, no matter how good we think we’ve behaved.

So to “take a stand” out of the feeling like “I’m right, you’re wrong” is to miss the point. But if we receive the Gospel as the precious gift, our response can only be humble gratitude. This does not mean we don’t speak openly about our faith, but it definitely informs the attitude by which we do it. We too are called to be gracious and loving, just as Christ’s death and resurrection bring grace and love to us. We remain true to who God has made us to be while extending love and grace in our tone of voice and language.

Paul says that the grace affected him. His encounter with the Risen Christ and the Gospel that he brings changed him. Are you changed? Do you feel like things are different since you’ve heard the news of Jesus’ saving faith? Do you feel a sense of humble gratitude at the gift God wants to give you?

It’s important to note that Paul says in verse 2 that “By this gospel you are saved…” A more accurate translation is that “By this gospel, you are being saved…” emphasizing the ongoing nature of this Gospel. In other words, God’s grace is still working. We are still a work in progress, therefore we have no right to think we are better than anyone else, regardless of their ideas about life. The news of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection continues to shape and grow us more into His likeness. Are you still changing and growing?

There are a lot of opinions about what the Christian life looks like. But this is the one thing that we all must affirm without compromise: the saving death and victorious resurrection. And affirming these without compromise does not mean we demand something from others. It simply means with both the humility of a sick person made well and the resolve of someone, we are not afraid to be who God has created us to be. As Paul says, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”

Friday, January 8, 2010

20 Random Thoughts for the Day

1. I think part of a best friend's job should be to immediately clear your computer history if you die.

2. Nothing sucks more than that moment during an argument when you realize you're wrong.

3. I totally take back all those times I didn't want to nap when I was younger.

4. There is great need for a sarcasm font.

5. How the hell are you supposed to fold a fitted sheet?

6.. Was learning cursive really necessary?

7. Map Quest really needs to start their directions on #5. I'm pretty sure I know how to get out of my neighborhood.

8. Obituaries would be a lot more interesting if they told you how the person died.

9. I can't remember the last time I wasn't at least KIND OF tired.

10. Bad decisions make good stories.

11. You never know when it will strike, but there comes a moment at work when you know that you just aren't going to do anything productive for the rest of the day.

12. Can we all just agree to ignore whatever comes after Blue Ray? I don't want to have to restart my collection...again.

13. I'm always slightly terrified when I exit out of Word and it asks me if I want to save any changes to my ten-page research paper that I swear I did not make any changes to.

14. "Do not machine wash or tumble dry" means I will never wash this -- ever.

15. I hate when I just miss a call by the last ring (Hello? Hello? Damn it!), but when I immediately call back, it rings nine times and goes to voice-mail. What did you do after I didn't answer? Drop the phone and run away?

16. I hate leaving my house confident and looking good and then not seeing anyone of importance the entire day. What a waste..

17. I keep some people's phone numbers in my phone just so I know not to answer when they call.

18. My 4-year old son asked me in the car the other day "Mom what would happen if you ran over a ninja?" How the hell do I respond to that?

19. I think the freezer deserves a light as well.

20. I disagree with Kay Jewelers. I would bet on any given Friday or Saturday night more kisses begin with Miller Lites than Kay.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


December 20, 2009 - 4th Sunday in Advent

"Expecting" - Luke 1:39-45

Ginger and I sit and wonder sometimes at the bundle that we hold in our hands. We were saying just the other day that, a year ago, we weren’t even daring to imagine that the following Christmas would include this gift of life. I mean, weren’t we just on the couch, watching Ginger’s belly roll and move just the other day, watching and waiting for this?

And not just us, but our family and you, our church family, also waited in excitement and joy-filled anticipating the miracle that God was knitting together. For many, expecting a child is a beautiful, exciting, wonder-filled thing.

But it’s not so for everyone.

Having a healthy child makes one keenly aware of those who, for whatever reason, do not get the opportunity. For others, inconvenience or shame covers up the joy of expecting life. Tragically, others choose to rid themselves of it at all costs, like the woman in Campbell County last week.

Believe it or not, Mary was part of this latter category. We like to think that expecting a baby is always a beautiful thing, but sometimes, it’s the beginning of a difficult season. Essentially, Mary finds out that she, an unwed teenager, is pregnant.

Mary’s obedience to God’s plan (as laid out by the angel) is a tremendous demonstration of raw, unfettered faith and trust in the Lord, to be sure! She is an example of godly trust that we should all aspire to live up to.

But can you imagine going to your mother and telling her, “No really, Mom, it’s the Holy Spirit that got me pregnant!”? Who’s going to buy that? Mary’s faithfulness doesn’t change what other people are bound to think about "her and that Joseph boy". “She was always so sweet, that Mary. A shame she threw it away in a reckless moment of passion.” No one else saw or heard the angel! And they’re supposed to take the word of a young woman, whose gender wasn’t allowed to testify in a court hearing.

There was no joyful expectation here. No dreaming up names (esp. since the Holy Spirit already gave her one!) No playful wondering who he’ll look like more. She’s been faithful, yes! And we know she’ll be rewarded for it. But still, bewilderment, fear and a maelstrom of other emotions are sure to have been at work in this young woman. The only thing she could expect in her "expecting" was criticism, shame and disappointment from her community.

Today's Gospel story says she got her stuff together and “hurried” off to hide with her family out in the country-side of Judah. Indeed, she needed to get out of the way of prying eyes before the baby-bump becomes visible and the gossip chain gets going. Perhaps this is as much to protect Joseph’s reputation as anything.

And yet, something very UN-expected happens. Upon meeting Elizabeth (also pregnant in her advanced years by divine intervention) is flooded with the Holy Spirit. And John (who is to become the Baptist), jumps in recognition of the Savior of the World (just as he'll jump for joy when he sees Jesus while preaching in the wilderness).

In the last situation either would have expected, these two women share a moment of pure joy. It says:

“In a loud voice she exclaimed,
‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!’”

This was no small “yippee”. This was an indecent, eye-turning overflow of celebration, with jumping and shouting and glee!

Elizabeth, overcome, is surprised herself at this amazing event:

“But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

In other words, “Why am I the lucky one?”

A season of uncertainty and fear are turned to joy and dancing. Mary did not get what she expected.

We should look to these women for an important lesson for joy in these holy days. For Advent and Christmas is meant to be a time of joyful expectation at the arrival of Life, Jesus our Savior.

But for many, we've come to expect something else: perhaps the same old family arguments, the same old stress and weariness at the holiday schedule of events and shopping. Some people (even folks who do not believe in God) expect Christmas to have a magical quality to transform hearts and minds. But maybe you've seen one too many Christmases come and go to believe that any real transformation could take place. You know better than to expect much at all.

An expectation is an expression of "how things are supposed to be." Disappointment comes when we expect something to happen but it doesn’t. Marriages are sabotaged because one person expects things from another (“You’re supposed to do this for me! You're supposed to make me happy!”). Christmases get ruined because it is "supposed to be family time" without open hostility. And when things are not "how they're supposed to be", we get hurt and disappointment. Mary, worried and uncertain, finds no joy in God's plan (although she makes faithfulness more important than her feelings, which is the crucial first step toward joy!)

The problem is, certain expectations can cut-off joy before it has a chance to bloom. However, joy is always found when we are part of God's plan for the world. But even when we act faithfully, we can cut ourselves off from the joy He has for us by our expectations about how He is supposed to act ("God, why didn't you do it more quickly!) or in what form that joy is supposed to come ("God, why didn't you give me with what I asked for!). But there is no ultimate joy apart from participating in God's plan and having the humility to receive the joy in whatever form it comes. For Mary and Elizabeth,being part of God's plan began with some uncertainty, but suddenly, the Holy Spirit explodes on the scene and transforms the situation into a moment of unrestrained joy. Mary even breaks into song upon hearing Elizabeth's cry of joy! For the community around Mary, there would certainly have been severe disapproval at her situation. However, we know that it was all a glorious and beautiful part of God’s plan to bring salvation to the world.

What if we let go of our expectations? Of how we think people need to treat us? Of what we think we're owed by others? Of the kind of gift we deserve? What if we let go of our idea of “how things are supposed to be”, in our relationship with God, in our marriages, in our Christmas season and simply strive to live as God has called us to live; to invite the Holy Spirit to guide us to the will of God and be surprised by joy when it comes? (Because it will come!)

In the search for joy, we can sabotage the joy God has for us by expecting something else. The believers of Jesus' day were expecting a glorious king to free them from Roman tyranny. What they got was a baby boy, born to back-woods Galileans; born to an unwed teenage mother; who is revealed to far-off Magi and smelly shepherds instead of the religious establishment; a humble carpenter who doesn't stir up a revolution but tells people to repent and dedicate themselves to serving the poor, naked, hungry and each other. And because Jesus wasn't what they expected, they killed him. And in so doing, they cut themselves off from God's plan and God's joy.

Friends, God wants joy for you. Real, explosive, unrestrained joy! And it comes when we align ourselves to God's plan in Jesus Christ. And it comes when we stop expecting it to look a certain way and let it come as it comes.