December 3rd, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passage: Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37
Expectancy! Take a moment to think about that word. What is your first response to the word ‘expectancy’? Are there memories it stirs up? How have you experienced expectancy in your life? Has expectancy played a role in your spiritual life? In your relationship with God?
Today we begin a new church year (the lectionary readings move from a focus on Matthew’s gospel to a focus on Mark’s gospel); the church year begins with Advent. That is fitting, as Advent means ‘coming’ or ‘coming in.’ There is a sense of expectancy at the start of a new year. What will the coming year hold? What new things will it bring in?
Story about expectancy, by Pamela C. Hawkins in her Advent book titled Behold!:
For eleven months of every year, the small cardboard box was stored on the highest shelf of our hall closet. There it was out of my reach and practically hidden from my view by place mats, folded tablecloths, extra lightbulbs, and other household items in which I had no childhood interest. So that small brown box with its taped-up corners and slightly torn top remained safely out of sight and mind most of the time, collecting dust from January through November.
Then one late autumn day, the box would magically appear on the kitchen table – dust, tape, and all. When I close my eyes, I can still smell the mustiness of that aging cardboard and feel the brittle edges of the old tape that held the well-used box together. And without any effort at all, I recall the flush of excitement that warmed me from head to toe as soon as that little box was taken from the dark upper shelf and placed in front of me.
I could hardly wait to see what was inside – not because I did not know, but because I did. I knew what awaited me. I knew what I was looking forward to, what I was anticipating, what I was expecting. I knew because I had opened this box before and what it held grew no less exciting for me from one year to the next. As a matter of fact, my expectations seemed to increase as I grew older.
So slowly, with gentle hands, my mother would help me pull back the top flaps of the box, and there in all their wonder were little piles of wrapped newspaper, worn dishrags, and tissue paper stacked on top of one another, filling the box from edge to edge. To the untrained eye, it seemed unremarkable, just a box of paper and rags. But I knew better! I knew what I would find there. And one by one, my mother would hand me and my sister and brother a swaddled treasure from that box, letting us unwrap it at our own pace.
A lamb. An angel. Joseph. A donkey. A shepherd. A wise man. Another lamb. Mary. On and on we would discover the beloved characters in our crèche, tossing aside the paper and cloth that had protected them for a year. We had learned what to look for. We had grown familiar with whom to expect. But the excitement and anticipation remained year after year, embedded in our expectancy, especially when one of us would find the small bundle that held baby Jesus, curled up and squirming in the brown cardboard trough fringed in a few pieces of glued straw.
And from that day until sometime after Christmas when my mother would quietly and carefully put the box back on that shelf, we could expect to find them all waiting for us on the coffee table in the living room. We would play with the figures, imagine with them, tell our own versions of the Christmas story; and they would play their part in the formation of our faith. All these years later, I still experience the same warming from head to toe when I bring a similar little brown box down from my attic sometime in late November. I expect to find the Christ child wrapped up in swaddling cloths and tissue paper and to behold the beauty of his birth through the season and, hopefully, beyond.
Our scripture readings today were written with that same sense of expectancy. They both signal a change that is coming; a change we are to be expecting and to be watching for. The Mark passage is often understood to be about expectancy for the end of time and Christ’s return, when Jesus says, “No one knows the day or the hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” But that passage is also about the expectancy for a new experience of God’s presence in the present. That is what Christmas is about – God entered into our time and transformed it forever. God entered into our time so that all time becomes the time that we should be watching for God and expecting God to show up.
In the wider context of that Mark reading, Jesus and the disciples are entering into Jerusalem. The disciples look up at the Temple in wonder, saying, “Oh, how massive these stones are! Oh, what magnificient buildings!” Jesus responds by telling them that they should expect a coming day when those buildings will come falling down, when not one stone will be left upon another. Now the temple was where they expected to find God. But Jesus is inviting them to change their expectations, to look for God in new places – in HIM! Jesus invites them to look for signs of the season, the signs that things are changing. Jesus himself, his earthly body, would soon be torn down like the temple, and the disciples will need to look for His presence in new ways, to find Him in new places.
The passage in the book of Isaiah was written during the time when the exiled Jewish people were beginning to return to Jerusalem from Babylon. Decades earlier, during the battles that had led to their being displaced, there had been so much destruction. Their homes had been destroyed. The Temple had been destroyed. So the exiled people were returning to Jerusalem with mixed emotions – with expectant excitement and also with trepidation. They were being given a new beginning, but it came with reminders of a painful past. They were holding together both hope and dread.
Isn’t that how we often enter into the Christmas season, with mixed emotions: with a blend of expectancy/anticipation, along with some trepidation/reservations. Christmas may elicit good memories as well as reminders of loss and feelings of loneliness. Christmas brings the joy of giving and receiving, but also the pressure of finding the right gift, of financial pressure, the stress of a multitude of preparations. There is the hope that peace will come, in the Middle East, with North Korea; that places devastated by war or disasters, by famine or disease will be healed and restored. But the bitter battles between world leaders goes on, the rhetoric of insults and hatred is fanned, and those in power are exposed for serving themselves at the expense of the vulnerable. Like the Israelites, you may be holding together both hope and dread.
The Isaiah passage is part of a prayer. Isaiah prays with expectancy, that the Lord would come down and make Himself known. He prays, “Oh Lord, that you would rip open the heavens and come down, make the mountains shudder at your presence… Shock your enemies into facing you, make the nations shake in their boots!” he continues, “For you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you… No ear has heard, no eye has seen, a God like you, who works for those who wait for Him.” (The Message)
It is a dread-filled expectancy, for Isaiah then recalls the sinfulness of his own people. It was their waywardness from God that had gotten them into trouble in the first place. Like the waywardness of the world today, seen in the brokenness of families, the senseless acts of violence, the devastation of drugs. And like Isaiah, we wonder at the seeming distance and silence of God. He says to God, “No one prays to you or makes the effort to reach out to you, because you have turned away from us, left us to stew in our sins.” Isaiah uses images that conjure up the dreadful expectancy of a coming disaster – a fire devouring a forest, a pot about the boil over. Like watching the approach of a hurricane on doppler radar. The dreadful expectancy of God’s corrective action against our sin, our failures, our tolerance of lies and injustice. But there is only one option that offers hope, so Isaiah persists and prays for forgiveness, for God to change them and remake them in new and holy ways. “Still, you are our Father. We are the clay; you are the Potter. We are all the work of your hand.”
This Advent season I want to invite you to embrace the expectancy of what will be created by the master potter out of a lump of clay. We are His people, and He is making us into a masterpiece, a thing of beauty, a useful tool… Molding us into the divine image and likeness, just as God shaped His divine self as a poor, displaced, dependent infant on Christmas day. “God became the clay,” I read this week (Corrine Carvalho, workingpreacher.com). There is expectant hope, because God is our Father. There is expectant hope, because God loves us. There is expectant hope, because Jesus has come to be with us.
As you enter the Advent season and prepare for Christmas, how might God hope that you live in expectancy? How might expectancy shape you? Start by praying with expectancy – expecting to be guided by God, to be heard by God, to receive answers from God. Do acts of kindness or service that someone might not be expecting. Extend the love of Immanuel, God-with-us, with someone at the margins of the community, someone who feels left out or lonely or discouraged or in trouble. Challenge yourself to go where you might not usually expect to go. Let Advent be a time of moving and responding beyond expectations, in the Spirit and Love of Christ.
born of fertile wonder,
belabored by narrowed hope;
craning curious lives forward,
drawing in the lonely and longing.
You are imagination’s sister
and brother of holy surprise.
Come, startle awake
our dozing apathy, our complacent dreams,
that we may behold your borning Advent cry.
Amen. Pamela C. Hawkins, Behold!
Closing Song: “Change My Heart, O God”
May God’s gracious presence wrap around and protect you.
May the promise of the holy Christ child forever rest in the curve of your life.
May the sweet, fearless song of the Holy Spirit sing you to sleep and waken you in Advent dawns.
May you, and those you love and serve, expect the Good News, Immanuel, God-with-us.
Amen. Pamela C. Hawkins, Behold!