Expecting the Unexpected
A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
"Pastor . . . can I talk with you?" Those words, so familiar to clergy, came this time from a woman who had been waiting for me during our 10:30 Sunday services a few weeks ago. "Sure, let's go over here," I said, and we found two chairs in the Great Hall. "I wonder if you can help me. I think I have a job lined up at Target, but I just need gas and some food for my children, to get me through the rest of the weekend." Now, you probably know that people come to churches all the time, looking for this kind of help. Sometimes, they tell us, they are stranded travelers and they just need some gas money to keep going. Other folks tell us they are behind on their rent or utilities, in which case we have some good news here in Frederick: they can go to the Religious Coalition, one of All Saints' partner Outreach ministries, which we support financially all year long.
But this is a different December. It's the most difficult December many of us have ever seen. People who now come to us for help include folks who were formerly "middle class." Just ask the Religious Coalition and all other kinds of relief agencies across the country. This year, that age-old question "What do you want for Christmas?" is being answered in new ways by Americans across the socio-economic spectrum – rich, middle class and poor.
The people of Haiti, beaten down by the chaotic double whammy of earthquake and cholera, have just completed an election. Based on the furious protests of the people on the streets, things are still not going well there. What do they want for Christmas? Surely the people of Haiti must long for some relief from all that poverty and violence. Here in the United States, the unemployed – especially those out of work "long term," more than a year – they just want a job. Some don't care whether that job is meaningful or even as gainful as they'd like. All they want for Christmas is a livelihood. They want their life back.
Now, I'm going to make a distinction here. There's what I want for Christmas and then, there's what I need. Our wants, and our needs – there's a difference. I'll go one step further with that distinction. I think our wants have to do with our expectations, and our needs are about our hopes. We have wants and expectations that have to do with Christmas or work or our loved ones. And we have needs and hopes about those very same people, places and things. What do we want and expect? What do we need and hope for? What's the difference? Consider the wants and needs of the characters in the Gospel story.
"Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" What did John the Baptist want? What did he expect? John, Jesus' cousin, has moved from last week's wilderness to this week's prison cell. He probably prefers the desert. Surely he wants freedom. Who would want to be a prisoner? Modern translations of this text render John's question of Jesus, asked through his disciples, this way: "Are you the one we've been expecting?" (The Message)
John and the children of Israel truly needed to be free, and they hoped for a Messiah. They expected the Messiah, the savior God promised, would be a king or a priest, maybe a prophet. Jesus, however, fit none of those categories. John the Baptist was the son of a priest and a prophet, so he might have met the people's Messianic expectations. But John makes it clear that he is not a Savior. In the words we heard John speak last week: "One who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matthew 3:11).
Jesus, the fiery Messiah, answers the question "Are you the one?" in a way they didn't expect. He tells John's disciples to go and simply share the obvious evidence with him. The blind see, the lame walk, afflicted people of all kinds, poor and rich, are healed, just like the prophet Isaiah foretold it. "They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away" (35:10).
But while John's disciples are leaving to share Jesus' answer with him, the Savior no one expected turns to the crowds who followed John into the desert. He asks them, "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?" or, in the modern rendering, "What did you expect to see?" They had been waiting a long time. And as they waited, they might have sung – like slaves in every civilization, longing to be freed from their bondage . . . maybe like us, innocently singing a beloved Advent hymn – Come, thou long-expected (savior), born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee. (Hymnal 1982, # 66). A little traveling music for those on a journey to salvation, a journey from expectations to hopes, from wants to needs.
Lately, I've been thinking about my journey to salvation. Maybe that's because twenty-four years ago tomorrow, I was ordained a priest. Like many clergy, I waited a long time for that day to come. (My mother would tell you that God had been waiting on me, all my life, but that's a different story, for another time.) I know a priest who used to say, "The only way God could save me was to send me to seminary." Maybe that's my story, too.
On that ordination day I had wants and expectations about being a priest. I wanted to follow Jesus. To borrow the phrase from the front of our bulletin, I wanted to be part of a "lively, prayerful and welcoming" church. I wanted to be loved, and I wanted to love the people I served and to offer my gifts of teaching, preaching and healing. I wanted to treat others with honor and respect, and I expected to receive the same in return. One day, I expected to be a rector. And I expected to learn a lot. Most of those things have happened the way I expected.
What I didn't expect was that, fourteen years later, I would leave parish ministry, become a chaplain and move back home, where my parents and sisters have lived since 1962 . . . and get married again. As a chaplain I never expected to return to parish ministry, let alone be rector one more time. I never expected that the only meaningful, gainful employment my wife, also a priest, would find would be back in Memphis. When I said I would be rector and moved here I never expected she and I would become part of a growing community of couples across the country, even around the world, who find ourselves in "distance marriages," living apart while, someday, finding a way to live together again. Who knew? Who expected this? Who really wants to be married and live apart?
Many of you also had expectations of me when I arrived. You waited a long time for your new rector to come. But some of you didn't expect I would not live in what was the rectory next door. Some of you expected someone very different from me. A few probably expected something of a savior. I am not the rector you expected! And here's the biggest UN-expectation of all: Who knew that Eyleen would end up working for an interim rector named Philip, the same priest who was the interim rector here, at All Saints', before I arrived? You just can't make this stuff up! Who expected any of this? What did you and I expect?
Our expectations are often about what we want. Our needs, on the other hand, are more about what gives us hope. What do you really need this Christmas? What gives you hope? For the last two Sunday mornings in our Forum of Faith we have been looking at the need for hope. If you go to our parish hall after this service and look at the pages of newsprint that deck the walls there, you'll find some answers to the question, "What gives you hope?"
That woman who asked for help called me recently. "Pastor, I just want to thank you for helping me. I got that job at Target! Thank you again for your help." Now, THAT was not the kind of response I expected! That gave me hope. Here's what else gives me hope: children. Especially when they are singing! Even so, I never expected a friend to release a new CD last month called "An Unexpected Christmas." It's filled with the hopeful songs of a children's choir (www.allsaintsmd.org, go to "Helpful Links" and look for "New/Old Music").
Let me leave you with an image of hope. One way of thinking about the season of Advent, a season of waiting and hope, is that we, like Jesus' mother Mary, are pregnant. Are you expecting? How and what are you expecting? What do you need? What do you need this Christmas? What gives you hope?
My hope for you and me is that, as Christmas approaches, we would learn, more and more, like Mary, to expect the unexpected. The unexpected is where our truest, deepest needs have a chance to get met. The unexpected is where God is, where true hope lies, waiting to come to life, to be born in us.
This Advent, this Christmas, let's take a risk. Let's expect the unexpected.