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Christmas Epiphany (Christmas Eve 7pm)
December 25, 2018

Christmas Epiphany (Christmas Eve 7pm)

Passage: Matthew 1:18-2:15

In this fast-paced modern world, I thank the Good Lord... for emojis... and for their older cousin, the emoticon. It's not professional to say so, but I'm grateful for those stupid little digital faces. Because whenever I receive a text or email, I too often expect the worst. At my old call center job, I get the email “We need to talk” from a supervisor... and I interpret that to mean: “You're going to be fired.” At my campgrounds job, I'd get the text: “There's a problem here. Mind taking a look?” Immediately I know what they really meant to say: “You're going to be fired.” My wife texts me that I need to pick up onions while I'm at the store. I immediately realize: “I'm going to be fired.” Those stupid text faces tell me, “Oh, they want to talk about something happy... or about the copier... or about clowns for some reason.” A pessimist to my bones, when given the chance I tend to expect the worst, and so I often walk through life pleasantly surprised when things go okay. It's a joy having those expectations go wrong.

We all know what it's like to have our expectations subverted, to have the rug pulled out from under our feet. We all imagine life is predictable and under our control, that if we do A we can expect B... right up until we discover we had it all wrong. Sometimes we can make no errors, play a perfect game... and still lose. I do interviews on behalf of my undergrad... and I always have a soft place in my heart for high schoolers I talk to, trying to figure out where they'll go next. I remember having my life plan all laid out... only to be rejected from my first choice college, rejected from my second choice, waitlisted at my third. Yet I also remember that where I ended up was the best place for me, that my expectations were undercut by reality... but that reality was better than all the wishes I had dreamed up. Or when I think of subverted expectations, I think of most every Twilight Zone episode. From the one where the book “How to Serve Man” ended up not being a servant's manual but a cookbook... to the one where the guy saves his library from the apocalypse only to accidentally smash his only pair of reading glasses. Whether our imaginations, our careers, our lives, our world, or our television screens... we all know what it's like to have reality play out differently than how we expect. Heck, I now root for the Detroit Lions: I know disappointed expectations.

In tonight's familiar Bible story, every mortal character brings their own expectations. Joseph discovers Mary pregnant before their wedding day—he knows her child isn't his—and he expects this will bring dishonor on them both, expects morality requires he divorce Mary quietly. The wise men from the East know a new king has been born... and they expect to find him at the royal palace in Jerusalem. King Herod is told of this newborn king... and expects a bloody coup, a revolution, and so plots against the newborn. The chief priests and scribes expect a Savior from Bethlehem... but do not anticipate what kind of Messiah this child will grow up to be. Mary expects to be able to raise her child in peace at home among family... not knowing how King Herod's wrath will drive them into exile as strangers in a strange land.

Every character in Matthew's telling of Christmas walks onto the Biblical stage with their own hopes, dreams, fears, and expectations. Most are wrapped up with their own petty, ordinary worries and concerns—holding onto power, looking respectable in polite society, proving their worth to the king, just trying to get by—that their cares for the little child wrapped up at the heart of this story are almost nil. Only Mary and Joseph and the foreign wise men who come to visit recognize this child for what he is. But in the holiest city? Among the chosen people? Among the religious experts and wealthy elites? The rest of the Bible might lead you to expect these of all people would rightly expect the Messiah. But instead their own daily needs, mundane concerns, ordinary assumptions, and worries take priority. They miss Christmas in their rush to just get by.

The surprise of Christmas—then and now—is not simply that a baby was born. Babies are born all the time, praise the Lord. The true surprise of Christmas is the promise that baby brings. The angel tells Joseph that Mary's child will bear the title Emmanuel, “God with us,” and the new parents name their infant Jesus, “the Lord is salvation.” The message of Christmas is that—in Jesus—the Infinite Creator at last enters our finite creation, the Almighty Lord becomes a helpless child, the Everlasting Father becomes bound by time and space in human flesh. It's absurd to imagine: Deity rewriting the rules and definitions of what it means to be God, tearing down the walls between sacred, pure heaven... and our ordinary, muddy lives.

Joseph expected God's goodness would demand he send away his bride-to-be, pregnant with a child not his own. But an angel of the Lord reveals that God is breaking down the walls: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” The wise men from the East expect a royal baby, not a peasant's child, but as the priests and scribes point out to the magi, God calls forth the Messiah from the small and lowly places of the world. Herod expects a king seeking earthly power and political intrigue. But the prophet Isaiah reminds us that God sends—not another tyrant—but “the Prince of Peace... [who rules] with justice and righteousness, from this day onward and forevermore.” The priests and scribes expect a Messiah who will neatly fit into their prescribed roles and definitions... not realizing that the God whose name is “I AM WHAT I AM” will do what he will do, is not captive or bound to our whims or understanding but is sovereign over all things. Mary and Joseph expect to live out their days in Bethlehem, only to flee as political refugees into Egypt. But their exile is not what we'd expect either, for it they are watched over by God until they can return home in safety. And their exile gives hope to all exiles and refugees forevermore, for in their flight Joseph and Mary fulfill the promise of the prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Jerusalem is filled with fear at the news of a newborn king—expecting only the lashing out of a despot—but ultimately receives the good news that the light of the world now dawns. All mortal expectations and regulations in this story are dashed, as the plans of the Almighty at last come into fruition, quelling the tumult and the fears that so often dominate our lives with news that we could never expect or anticipate.

So many beloved Christmas stories are all about surprises like that. Ebeneezer Scrooge is surprised by ghosts. Children are surprised when Frosty the Snowman comes to life. George Bailey is surprised to learn it really is a wonderful life. Ralphie is surprised—after countless warnings that he'll shoot his eye out—to find a Red Rider BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing that tell times. The Grinch too is surprised to discover: “What if Christmas doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas—perhaps—means a little bit more.” In every case, the characters trudge along through life—trying to get the prize, doing what they can, struggling and often failing, finding disappointment—and the Christmas message of those films is the wonderful surprise—aha!—that there is more to this life than living and dying, that there is beauty and purpose and meaning and hope, that there is good news for the downtrodden and mercy for the sinner and strength for the weak.

This life can be hard. So far, no one's gotten out of it alive. We celebrate hope at Christmas because in the bleak midwinters of the year and of our lives... hope can be hard to come by. We celebrate peace at Christmas because every year—from that first Christmas until today—true peace often feels like only a dream. We celebrate joy at Christmas because life too often drags us down into the muddy routine of day-in, day-out of just scraping by. We celebrate love at Christmas because in a “me first” world where the ends justify the means... we forget that love is why we were created. Most of all, we celebrate these things at Christmas... because the child born in the manger, cradled by Mary, honored by wise men, praised by shepherds... because Jesus the Messiah brings hope, peace, love, and joy to a world that has lost its way. Because when we are about to give up on ever receiving those things, when our expectations are downcast and our dreams in decay, when we are held captive by sin and death and evil... God demonstrates once again that the Lord is in the business of surprising us, that God's ways are above our own. But as the angel tells Joseph all of this is so that God “will save his people from their sins,” that at last we might rejoice that truly “God is with us.

That first Christmas was a surprise: to Joseph, King Herod, the wise men, the priests and scribes, the people of Jerusalem. Imagine Mary's surprise at being pregnant! And in the heavenly surprise of Christmas, our old ways don't work anymore, for God makes all things new. So my hope and prayer for me—and for you as well—this Christmas... is that God surprises us once more. Where we have given up on hope, may God spark new light. Where guilt has sunk us down to the depths of the sea, may God's grace set us free. Where faith is dead and buried, may new life blossom in your spirit. Where grief overwhelms, may God's promise of new life surprise us with new trust. May we as ones touched by the child born on Christmas... may we ourselves be like children. Infants are joyfully surprised by the tiniest things: a cloud, the existence of animals, mom's face returning from behind her hands. May we—like those of old—be gleefully surprised by God's saving us from all this world's evils. Amen.


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