The little boy quickly reached for the Christmas package. It was from his grandmother. He was excited about opening it and seeing what was inside. Grandma always came up with such great things. He tossed aside the bow and, using a well-practiced two-handed method that seems to come instinctively to all children, he tore away the bright red and green Christmas wrapping.
There was a white box. The boy took hold of the top. It stuck a little. He finally got the top off, tossed it aside, wadded up the tissue that was underneath it, and dumped out the contents.
“What a beautiful sweater,” remarked mom.
“That looks just great,” said dad.
“I wish I had one like that,” said grandpa.
“I hope you like it,” beamed grandma.
“Oh yuk! Clothes!” moaned the little boy. He started to cry. He could not be consoled.
Have you been in that family? I guess he wanted some toys. What we expect has a lot to do with how we respond to life. Expectations and life go together somehow.
Some would say: “Reach for the stars or you’ll be settling for less than you can be. Expect the most.”
Yet others would say: “Don’t expect too much and then you’ll never be disappointed.”
Whose advice should we take this Christmas? What kind of expectations should we have: ones that reach for the stars, or ones that settle for whatever might happen to come along? Should we be filled with expectations that marvel at all that might be possible in our lives and in our world, or should we calm our expectations and simply hope beyond hope that nothing too awful comes our way? How should we see things this Christmas?
These questions, of our expectations and how we see things, are central to this morning’s Scripture lesson. In the gospel we meet two women, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. Both women are pregnant and just amazed that they are. Neither had anticipated that they would conceive at this point in their lives. Pregnancy was far from their minds, the last thing they would have expected.
Elizabeth was an old, old woman. She had never conceived before. She never thought she would. She had quit thinking about it. All of a sudden, here she was in her later years — pregnant. When this news became apparent to her she heard these words: “Nothing is impossible with God.”
And Mary was young, just a child really, engaged but not married. She wasn’t thinking about getting pregnant or worried about it, certainly not expecting it. But she was pregnant, too. When this news became apparent to her she heard these words: “Do not be afraid.”
Both of these women were confused and bewildered by these experiences, unsure what to make of them, how to feel, how to respond. They didn’t know how these events would affect their lives. They wondered what to expect.
Yet, in their own ways, both women opened themselves to the possibilities that this turn of events might offer in their lives. They did not merely expect the worst; rather, they clung to much higher aspirations, reaching for a star.
They saw possibilities where others might only see problems.
They saw hope where others might only experience helplessness.
They saw marvelous responsibilities, where others might have seen miserable realities.
Mary makes the long journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth. The journey probably took several days. Mary stays with Elizabeth during the last months of her pregnancy. And these two women — one older and filled with the wisdom of life, one younger and filled with hope for the future –these two women become good friends as they talk and wonder and worry and reflect on the unusual things that are happening to them. They spend long hours talking about what all this must mean. In the end, they are filled with a sense that something powerful and wonderful is in the offing, something that will affect everything; nothing will ever be the same.
The scene was crowded, busy, hectic, frantic, rushed, pressured. You guessed it: I was in the mall. And I had prayed to God that I would never ever have to make another trip to the mall the week before Christmas.
Our three-year-old daughter Elizabeth was with me and with the press of people I thought it best to rent one of those mall strollers so I could keep her nearby. I went to the information area and waited to pay my dollar and take a stroller. It was some wait there too: crowded, crowded, crowded.
As Elizabeth and I waited, more or less patiently, we heard this loud crying. It went on and on. It was a shrill and panicked cry. We had to look around to see where the crying was coming from. Soon my eyes focused on a lost child and my heart hurt. There she was: sobbing, screaming, terrified. The child didn’t know where her parents were. Friendly folks near the child bent down to speak to her. She cried all the harder. Someone tried to take her hand, but she fearfully jerked her hand away and cried harder still.
One of the mall employees noticed what was going on and paged mall security. Another employee went to the child, tried to talk to her — got nowhere; tried to take her hand — got nowhere; and then began asking everyone and no one in particular this question: “Whose child is this? Whose child is this?”
Within moments the child’s dad appeared on the scene — just in the nick of time, for the girl looked like she was about to fall apart. And then she recognized dad and rushed to him. Dad knelt to scoop his daughter in his arms and gave her a long reassuring hug and a kiss on the neck. We knew then “whose child this was.” Both dad and child had tears drifting down their cheeks.
In that wild scene in the mall — crowds of people, some interested in this child, others giving quick glances and rushing by, others with absolutely no idea that anything out of the ordinary was happening — it struck me that the question of Christmas had been lifted up: “Whose child is this?” It is the question Elizabeth and Mary struggled with and resolved in their own minds with such high expectations. It is a question we are invited to struggle with also.
Whose Child is this? This is the child who transformed all life and will transform our lives if we let Him.
Whose Child is this? This is God’s child. The child who lets us know that God cares in a powerful way; the child who whispers to us the things that are really important, things that matter and things that we can trust, now and forever; the child who declares God’s wondrous presence, if only we stop long enough and quiet ourselves enough to see and to hear that presence.
Whose Child is this? This is our child, the child of our hopes and of our dreams, the child of our fondest imaginings, the child who can bring those things that we so deeply want to this tumultuous world and to our troubled lives. This is the child who bears the peace that passes all understanding, that invites us to meanings that go far beyond the external trappings of life, that go far beyond the pains or disappointments we may encounter in life.
Whose Child is this? This is the world’s child, the one who can direct us to what is important, the one who can focus on what deeply matters, the one who can become the center of meaning and purpose in life.
What are our expectations this Christmas? What are our hopes? Whose Child is this?