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This sermon is based on the outline of the Advent Midweek Sermon series from Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 20, Part 1, Series C
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I was already sixteen years old when my little sister was born. I remember what it was like to try to explain to my peers that my mother was going to have a baby. The first reaction was to see if there was a camera hidden somewhere in the vicinity. They just didn't believe me. My mother was too old to be having more children. At least that was what everyone thought. Perhaps that is one reason that I sort of enjoy reading and studying the Biblical accounts of older women having babies.
My mother was very much unlike these women though. My little sister brought my sibling count to one bother and four sisters. These older women of the Bible like Sarah and Elizabeth had no children when they became pregnant. In each case, the child of promise would be the only child of his mother.
One has to wonder what it was like in a culture that very much valued women on their ability to produce heirs for their husbands. A woman's self concept depended very much on the number and quality of children that she had. In addition to the social stigma, there was no social security system - no pensions or annuities. Children and grandchildren were the safety net upon which aging parents depended for care in their old age. Certainly there was a security and joy that was missing in the lives of these women.
The Holy Spirit inspired Luke to tell us that Zechariah and Elizabeth were both righteous before God. Surely they prayed continuously to God concerning their childless condition. No doubt, over the years, their prayers had changed from petitions to grant them children to petitions to give them contentment in their current condition. They had come to the age where it just wasn't realistic to expect children any longer.
Then the day came when Zechariah had his encounter with Gabriel in the temple. What kind of adjustments did Elizabeth have to make when Zechariah came home and could not talk? Undoubtedly, they found some way to communicate. I wonder what kind of adjustments Elizabeth had to make when she figured out that she was pregnant.
The Bible tells us that Elizabeth went into seclusion for five months after she became pregnant. Perhaps there were health issues related to having a child at an older age. Maybe she was just sick and tired of telling people about her pregnancy.
Whatever the reason, Elizabeth broke her seclusion when another pregnant woman appeared. When her relative Mary came to stay with her, both Elizabeth and the baby in her womb were filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth prophesied that Mary and her baby were blessed and proclaimed the truth that Mary was the mother of the Lord—the Messiah.
From the account of Elizabeth, we can learn that people can have all kinds of expectations, but it is God's plans that come to reality.
All of us have expectations. Our expectations can get very unrealistic - especially at this time of year. Advertisers spend a lot of money to raise our expectations so that we will buy their stuff. Then, after we buy it, it doesn't perform according to our expectations. Things can disappoint us.
People can be the same way. We may have plans to get together and we hope the relatives behave themselves. We all hope that we will have that one fairytale gathering. Then we actually get together and people don't live up to our expectations. People often disappoint us.
Or perhaps you are expecting something different from yourself. This Christmas I'll do better. I'll stay within my budget. I'll keep my diet. I won't give in to those temptations this year. How will those expectations turn out?
We all have this tremendous need for things to make sense. We also want things to improve. If we can just do the right thing or bring together the right circumstances, then things ought to get better. If we just work hard enough and long enough - if we just practice enough or study enough - we ought to be able to live up to our own expectations.
Only … no matter how hard we try, it doesn't work that way. The world is a disappointing place. Things very rarely turn out the way we envision them. This world doesn't live up to our expectations.
We try to do the same thing with God. We figure that if we can just try harder - if we can learn that one special secret - if we can just be a little more disciplined, we can make God happy with us - we can get God to be on our side. Somehow, if we just put together the right combination of spirituality and discipline and good old hard work that God will be happy with us and bless us and make things work our way.
This would be all well and good if we could pull it off, but we can't. God's requirement of us boils down to one word … perfection. Perfection is all it takes to get on God's good side and perfection is one thing we can never attain. The world is a sinful place and we are sinful people. No wonder our expectations often go unfulfilled. In fact, given our sinful nature, it is surprising that things aren't much worse than they are.
Sometimes, we engage in self-deception and compare ourselves with other sinners. We try to pretend that others are worse sinners than we are and so vainly attempt to improve our status. But when we compare ourselves to God's standards, we see what we truly are: sinners. We don't deserve any blessings or favor.
And yet we do find the greatest blessings and favor from our heavenly Father. Not because of who we are or what we have done, but because of who He is. When we know him, we find something far greater than we could ever expect. Elizabeth had resigned herself to what she thought was her fate: she would not have a child. But the God of grace and blessings caused her to conceive. Despite her age and the age of her husband, she became pregnant and bore John the Baptizer. Her own body testified to her that God could work miracles. She was proof that He exceeds human expectations. But God did not stop there. When Mary came to her, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth was one of the first people to recognize and greet the incarnate Messiah—even while He was in his mother's womb.
The Christmas account is full of all kinds of miracles. A barren woman, who was well beyond the age of child-bearing, conceives and brings a healthy son into the world. A young woman, who had never had a physical relationship with a man, also conceives and becomes the mother of our God. These miracles are certainly beyond our expectations, but the greatest miracle is the one that we have all experienced.
The miracle of creating faith in the human heart is the greatest miracle of all. Our study of God's law tells us that we should receive the worst of God's wrath. Instead, we receive gifts beyond our expectations. Instead of wrath, we find grace. Instead of rejection, we find love and acceptance. Instead of punishment, we receive Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. Jesus is God-with-us and that God-with-us becomes our Savior. He took our sin and suffering and death to the cross. There He faced them all in our place. Then, beyond the expectations of both His enemies and His friends, He came back to life after He died. Talk about exceeding expectations. Now, He gives us his life and holiness. The greatest miracle of all is that God, for Christ's sake makes us members of His family and gives us the gift of eternal life.
What are you expecting this Christmas? I'd love to tell you that all your hopes and dreams will be met, but that really depends on what they are and in whom you put your trust. We may find disappointments in this life in the actions of others and even in ourselves. But when it comes to our Lord, we find something different. He is faithful. He gives the greatest gifts. He gives Himself. That is a gift that exceeds our expectations. Amen
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