The people of first century Israel needed hope. Under the occupation and oppression of the foreign power of Rome and unable to look to many of their religious leaders for guidance, they were desperate for good news, longing to hear that God was, at long last, bringing to pass his promise of long ago: to begin to put the world to rights in the coming of his Anointed One, his Messiah.
John the Baptist came preaching difficult and harsh words to be sure, but they were also words of hope. They were words of preparation for the coming of that long-awaited one. His preaching struck a hopeful cord, and many came to listen to him. As they listened they began to see a glimmer of hope. Their great expectations, it seemed, were coming true. The words of the prophet Zechariah echoed in their minds: "The Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one." Is it any wonder that many began to consider that John himself might be the Anointed One?
As Christians, what are our great expectations this Christmas? Do we expect what we always get-- more presents, more stuff-- that we do not need or cannot use? Do we expect the family gatherings, important to be sure, but nevertheless, more of the same yearly holiday routine? Or do we also expect to meet God in a way we never have before? Do we expect to see the hand of God at work in our world? Do we expect the growth of God's Kingdom in this world, as so many of us pray each Sunday, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?" Do we expect, do we hope for the final victory of Christ over all things?
God has an investment in us. God did not send his messengers to his people throughout the centuries only to give up on them. God did not wrap himself in the form of flesh, live among us preaching, teaching, and healing, only to abandon us. In that flesh God did not die for us and come out the other side of death, only to leave us to ourselves. Our God is not a deadbeat father bringing us into the world, and then leaving us without any support, any guidance, any love, and any hope.
It seems to me that, as Christians, our expectations are not great enough. We do not expect God to do great things. We do not think God will surprise us. Perhaps we prefer he not. Christmas is about more than generosity and family and giving, although it is all of that. Christmas is about the affirmation in the Book of Revelation, "The kingdoms of the world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever!"
"O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel." We are captives about to be set free. Christmas reminds us of the hope we have and the victory of God we await. Whenever the condition of the world perplexes us, we remember Christmas. When peace and goodwill seem in short supply, we remember Christmas. When loneliness and rejection abound, we remember Christmas. When it seems that the principalities and powers always have the last word, we remember Christmas.
We remember Christmas because the child in the manger comes to fulfill all of our hopes and dreams. This is the season of great expectations!
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)