Sermon by Rev. David R. Collins
This Advent here at Maitland Pres, we’re thinking about Wonder, about what it means to have child-like faith. Jesus taught that in order to enter the kingdom of God, you have to have faith like a child. Which has a lot to do with how we believe what we believe, and how we are able to play because we know that we are safe and secure with God.
Today, we're looking at one of the aspects of child-like faith that you may have intentionally chosen to leave behind. You may have even been relieved to be rid of it.
If you’ve made an effort to get rid of your own expectations, it was probably because they weren’t doing you any favors. Learning to lower your sights a little, and expect things that were within the realm of possibility might have been a really healthy step for you.
Unhealthy expectations may have even wrecked a few relationships for you, especially if they were unconscious, unrealistic, unspoken, and not agreed upon. So learning how to have grown-up and healthy expectations may be a big reason that you’re in a healthy relationship now.
But…remember what it was like to want something as a kid? It was amazing, wasn’t it? I mean, it was overwhelming, too. Kids that want something and expect that they may get it soon can get a littttlle bit focused on it, can’t they? I know I did. I remember in 1991, I think, I was in sixth grade, and wanted a Super Nintendo for my birthday. I don’t think I talked about anything else for like…3 months? It was my Red Rider BB gun. I woke up in the morning, and went to bed at night thinking about it. I probably dreamed about it too. I remember I had a friend who was so relieved when I got it just so I would stop talking about it! And boy was I happy to get it. 16 bit graphics!
But thirty years later, what I remember most fondly was the wanting, the expectation. Now if you’re lucky like I am, you probably have fond memories of that too, because you got what you wanted! If you were unlucky, you probably learned at an earlier age than I did that expectations can be dangerous. Expectations can lead to disappointment. Especially if what you wanted, what you expected, what you prayed for, was much more important than a video game.
Maybe it was a healing, a cure, a job, a restored relationship, and when it didn’t happen, a little part of you died. And that part was the child in you. The part of you that can truly have child-like faith.
I think we need to revisit expectations, and see if there isn’t something to holding some of our expectations like we did when we were children, when we were innocent. Because two of our biggest role models about this in the Bible aren’t children at all! They are very elderly. They are named Simeon and Anna and they lived a good deal of their lives in expectation of the first Christmas.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
So here is man who is righteous and devout, that means that not only does he do the right things, but he does them for the right reasons. Both his theology and his praxis were top notch. Luke also writes that the Holy Spirit rested on him, which is the essential ingredient in being righteous and devout. God was near to Simeon and spoke to him. God even told him the secret meaning of his life, the reason that he would be remembered for hundreds of generations. He would meet the Messiah before he died. And since he was very old, that meant the clock was ticking. Which is the first way that Simeon and Anna (who we haven’t met yet) embody what it means to expect like a child.
Both of these people were aware of their own limits, or their finitude and frailty, and their inability to change that. That’s the way that they were waiting, the context from which they were expecting. They were reaching the end of themselves. And that’s when God tends to show up.
Simeon and Anna, and children everywhere, expect things that they have no ability to bring about. They are entirely dependent on the giver for the gift. There is no lay-away when waiting on God. Our waiting is not a small daily payment we make, so that when we get it, we somehow earned it. It’s always grace. Entirely grace. Undeserved, unearned.
This one phrase that Luke uses to describe it is powerful. He says that Simeon was looking forward to the consolation of Israel.
Some translations say “waiting” instead of looking forward, other’s say “expecting”. The most wooden translation from the greek would be “ready to receive to oneself”. There is an eagerness to welcome, in this kind of waiting. It’s not the kind of waiting you can do impatiently. It’s the kind you do when you wake up in the morning thinking, “Maybe today will be the day!” And go to bed at night hoping, “Maybe it will be tomorrow!” What he was looking forward to was the consolation of Israel.
Consolation means exactly what it sounds like. You console someone who is suffering. You comfort someone who is in pain. Israel had been suffering for hundreds of years, and God had promised consolation.
But it was coming, not in the way that many wanted, with a reversal through war, where the victims get their turn on top, and get to give their tormentors a taste of their own medicine. This consolation was coming to them in their powerlessness. You don’t bring consolation about through 10 year plans. You welcome it when God sends it.
That’s what Simeon did.
27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms
Simeon is the only person in the Bible who we are explicitly told held baby Jesus in his arms. It’s just assumed for Mary and Joseph, but we’re told it explicitly about Simeon. I’m so glad that we are. Simeon doesn’t just meet Jesus, or see him…he receives him unto himself, what he had been waiting for, expecting, for the most important part of his long life.
As Simeon peered into the brand-new eyes of the Ancient of Days, Christ went from being “God with us” to “God with me.” He felt in his old bones that the consolation of Israel was not an event, or a change, but a person. A new kind of person.
Nothing dramatic changed about Simeon’s life, or about the life of his nation and people, but everything changed.
28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’
Simeon welcomed what he had been expecting for so long. It happened! God came through. But it wasn’t just about him. He wasn’t the only one God was with. He wasn’t the only one that God had made promises to.
36 There was also a prophet, Anna Now I wish we got more of Anna’s story here. Luke tells us almost in passing that she was one of six named woman prophets in the Bible, and then just keeps going. But prophets are a big deal in the Bible. They’re the ones that spoke the truth no matter who was listening, who got into the faces of kings and queens and told them things they didn’t want to hear, who revealed God’s plan about Jesus hundreds of years before he was born. It is so fitting that one of them was there that day in the Temple. It’s like it’s the way that God wanted it to be.
36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.
Anna had planted herself in God’s presence for decades. She had turned the grief of a young widow into a lifelong prayer. Waiting on God became her daily practice. Expectation was her way of life.
She never grew out of it. She never had enough. She must have wrestled with disappointment like everyone does, but she never called it quits on the expectations God had given her. She must have never said, “I’d rather be pleasantly surprised than disappointed.” Or if she did, she got over it.
And here’s why, I think.
38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
As soon as she saw that God had done what God had promised to do, she began to speak to everyone about it, to all who like Simeon, had been waiting, looking forward to, expecting consolation. I think the reason she immediately began to speak is because that’s what she had been doing all along.
She had been speaking about her expectations, about the expectations God had given her, the way that someone with faith like a child tends to do. It was her first thought when she got up in the morning, her last thought when she went to bed, and what she dreamed about all night, and what she talked about with anyone who would listen.
Simeon and Anna show us that expectations aren’t just for children. They show us that disappointment is not the worst thing that can happen…giving up on the dreams God gives us is much worse.
So how can we tell the difference between the expectations God gives us that we should hold on to no matter what, like Simeon and Anna, and the desires and expectations that we came up with ourselves, that will ultimately lead to disappointment? Because we’re not one of those churches that teaches if you want something bad enough, and pray hard enough using the right phrases, that God is going to do what you want God to do.
And yet…here are Simeon and Anna. And here are we with good memories of expectations and the glimmering hope that we should have them again.
So where do you go from here? It depends on where you’re starting from.
I’ll bet that there are quite a few people here today who don’t want to have expectations on the future, and on God, because you’re afraid of being disappointed. You’ve been there, and felt burned and don’t want to touch the stove again. And I get that.
Disappointment hurts because it catches us when we are expecting something good, and knocks the wind out of us instead. It’s a gut punch, but it’s temporary, or at least it can be if you talk about it.
But the kind of life that comes from protecting yourself from disappointment is permanent. A faith produced by low expectations is much worse than disappointment. And worst of all, you’ll never know what you’re missing.
Or maybe you don’t fear disappointment, so you have a new expectation every month, and if it doesn’t work out, you drop it, and go find a new one. You’re like a serial entrepreneur, or a kid who finds a new obsession every season. Nothing wrong with that either.
But look at Simeon. It says that Simeon found his expectation in the middle of his relationship with God. The Holy Spirit revealed something to him, just for him, out of God’s great love for the unique person that he was.
What if God has a unique expectation for you to carry, just like Simeon? How would you know? Or maybe your expectation isn’t the wide eyed hope of a child waking up on Christmas morning, so much as it is the day in day out habit of Anna, who was in the temple every day because that’s where she expected to be, because that was the way that she survived. Maybe your expectation is to get through today, and then see about tomorrow, not because you’re afraid, but because even with God’s help, that’s the best you’ve got. If that’s you, keep it up. And one day soon, you’ll be seeing a week, and then a month, and even a year out. But for now, today is enough.
Or maybe you have no expectations because you’re going with the flow, and living in the moment. That’s fine too. But the flow isn’t always that great. And the world isn’t what God wants it to be yet, so maybe don’t take your cues from it.
In fact, that leads me to one expectation I think we all should have. One that the fear of disappointment could scare us away from, and keep us from being a part of God’s kingdom.
We should expect that God is making a better world.
We should expect it the way that Simeon expected that he would not die before he saw what the Lord would do. Not that we’ll see it finished in the next century, but that we will see signs of life, glimpses of progress.
Like Anna, we should talk about it when we see it. We should tell everyone who is also looking forward to consolation. We should talk about it without fear of looking foolish when one step forward is followed by two steps back.
We have every reason to expect that God is indeed making a better world, because of Christmas.
God became a part of his own creation, even though it had fallen into sin and suffering. God took on our flesh and shares it even today. God didn’t just do it so that he could snap a pic and say “Yeah, I’ve been there.” He died to save the whole world, and rose again, beginning the restoration of everything. Even he didn’t know when it would all be complete, only his Father does. But he left his church, he left us, as his presence here, to tell his story and love like he loves, and to work on all the problems in the world, big and small, arm in arm with people who follow other religions or no religion at all.
God is making a better world, and we should expect that God will continuing doing exactly that. We should wake up in the morning thinking about it, and go to sleep at night dreaming about it, and talk about it with anyone who will listen, and even a few who won’t. We should talk and talk and talk about it. Because what if that’s how it happens?
What if our talking, and dreaming, and scheming is all a part of it? What if that’s a part of why Jesus told us that we had to have faith like a child to enter the kingdom of God? The path and process of restoration is full of disappointment, so maybe God needs children who aren’t afraid of it to dream it into being.
What if Wonder is our secret weapon? What else can turn an enemy into a friend? Every person in the world, no matter how jaded or cynical, was once a child. Maybe wonder is what can turn antagonists into allies in our expectation of a better world?
Deep down, everyone wants one. Everyone wants a better world. It’s even better than a Super Nintendo. Some people got too disappointed and no longer believe it’s possible, but even they still want it, deep down.