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On Expectations

A sermon on Luke 1:26-38, 46-55.

[for the audio recording click here. Photo by Bradon Collum on Unsplash]

A Lutheran pastor I admire, Linnea Clark, wrote beautifully about the group of readings that we just heard that they, “speak of hope and promise to people who have been waiting for a long time – waiting for freedom, for new life, for a new beginning, for peace and prosperity.”[1]

She points to the prophecy in 2 Samuel about David’s future dynasty as the kind of “house” God truly values, and she cites the Psalmist’s praise of God in anticipation of all future generations.

She sees in the passage from Romans a celebration of realized promises, and draws a line between the near-future promises of the angel Gabriel in the first part of the gospel reading to Mary’s triumphant celebration in her song that makes up the second half.

I agree with Linnea about the throughline of hope and promise in these 4 readings, although I might have framed the observation a little bit differently: I see in the various reflections of waiting communities something slightly more complex than hope. I see experiences of expectation.

Expectation is a reflection of hope, certainly. But whereas the emotional undertone that I associated with hope is one of patience and peace about the future, expectation has a bit more angst to it.

Expectation holds within it the anxious energy of people who have skin in the game, and very decided opinions about how a promise is supposed to come to fruition.

Expectation is both less pious and less passive… and that’s why I like it more as a description of human responses to God’s promises. It feels a bit more realistic to me.

I think I have a similar reason for my feelings about the two parts of our gospel reading today.

The assigned lectionary reading is the story of the annunciation: the startling appearance of the angel Gabriel to a teenage girl, declaring to her that she has God’s favor, and that God wants her to play a pivotal role in answering God’s promise to her people by bearing the child who will restore the house of David.  

There is a lot to celebrate in this story:

God’s expression of the value of a young woman whom the powerful and important in her world would never have noticed.

The reminder of God’s faithfulness in keeping promises, and the lesson that those promises are not always fulfilled in the ways that we expect.

And – not to be overlooked – the fact that Mary gives consent for her part in the plan. The angel announces the plan as a fact, but does not depart until Mary has said, “Here I am,… let it be with me according to your word.”

It’s a meaningful story. It’s a hope-giving story. And Mary is not passive in this story… but it doesn’t exactly challenge the “meek and mild” Mary that Christmas Carols evoke.

It doesn’t dive into the pathos of one of the most powerless figures in her society suddenly shouldered with an impossible responsibility to literally bear the promise of God for her people.

It gives us a depiction of hope that is all divine declaration and quiet consent… with maybe a hint of confusion about “how can this be?”… but with not a single hint of angst.

And… I’m just not sure I can believe that!

Now, for me personally, it’s not the idea of the virgin birth that’s a problem (although, if it is for you, that’s OK. You’re still welcome here. I can understand why that might be a bit boggling for a scientific mind).

But for me, what’s unbelievable is the apparent lack of any anxiety!

An ANGEL, an unearthly being suddenly appears, with a MESSAGE FROM GOD… and that message is that a young, unmarried teenage girl is going to have a BABY (in a context where that could legally get her stoned to death), and that baby is the FULFILLMENT OF PROPHECY for the hope of her people!

And her response is to ask a question about the physical logistics of conception and then say “OK, I’m in!”

I mean… good on Mary but I just don’t know how to relate to that!

It feels like the narrative embodiment of those supremely unhelpful exhortations to “just have hope” in the moments when I feel lost, or overwhelmed, or – frankly – hopeless.

There’s nothing theologically wrong with it. In fact, it feels like I’m failing in faith if I want to respond with a “yeah, but…”

BUT… it doesn’t give me anything to grip onto to help me believe that such hope is accessible for me. To believe that Mary’s kind of “yes” to God’s plan is something that could honestly come out of my mouth.

It feels too pious. It feels too passively trusting.

I know that for me to keep MY grip on a hope that can pull me out of an experience of overwhelm or fear, I need some expectation.

By expectation, I mean I need a gut-level conviction about what I KNOW to be true that I am COMMITTED to hanging onto.

I need more than someone else’s word that everything is going to work out to make hope feel real.

And that’s why I prefer the second half of today’s gospel reading – the song of Mary, known as the Magnificat, which the lectionary suggested be used as a psalm for today but that we included with the gospel instead because we need to hear it in context.

And that context – importantly – involves a time skip between verse 38, when the angel Gabriel departs from her, and verse 46 when Mary begins her proclamation.

For reasons of flow our reading cuts out – probably – several months of time.

And during this season of Advent when we are exploring the different ways that we experience time, I think that missing time matters.

Mary had time to think.

She – let’s be realistic – probably had time to freak out a bit about what she had said yes to in all the awe and overwhelm of a heavenly visitor.

And she had time to move from a pious “let it be with me according to your word” into an expression of enthusiastic expectation about what her pregnancy really meant.

Because the Magnificat is an expression of expectation. It is an assertive and powerful claim about exactly what God is doing in and through Mary:

God is not just using Mary to fulfill God’s plan,;God is blessing her.

God is continuing a consistent pattern of intervention down through history that ensures mercy for those who trust God.

God is reorienting the twisted power structures of the world, casting down those who seek to control others and lifting up the marginalized; ensuring the needs of the deprived are met while those with excess are left wanting.

God is keeping God’s promise… and Mary knows that this is what God is doing because she knows who God is.

Mary doesn’t just have hope. She has expectation.

Linnea Clark offers this perspective of the declarations in the Magnificat:

“Mary’s song reminds Christians that God’s love has always been relentless. God has been deeply concerned for the poor, the powerless, and the stranger since the days of creation. God has always chosen ordinary people like Mary to become prophets, judges, rulers, and bearers of God’s word, and God has always expressed God’s faithfulness through covenant and deliverance.”[2]

Mary response to her part in God’s plan could grow from pious hope to praise-filled expectation because it was rooted in the specifics of who God is and how God acts.

Which both makes it more “real” for me, more like something I can actually grip onto and trust, and also makes it a relevant lesson for us when we are looking for hope.

It’s a lesson to look back at how we have experienced God in the past, and to mine the stories of God’s faithfulness that are shared in our community.

It’s a lesson to not just tell ourselves to have hope but to let ourselves lean into expectations that God is going to act for mercy and salvation.

Of course, expectations can be dangerous.

We shouldn’t get too attached to ONE particular imagination of how God is going to act.

When Nathan prophesied that God would make David’s house and kingdom sure forever, I’m sure neither he nor any of those who trusted this promise imagined that it would be realized through David’s descendent hanging on a cross.

But this doesn’t mean hope should be blind. Mary moved from “let it be so” to “my soul proclaims the greatness of God” by leaning into what she knew about who God is and how God acts. And we can too.

Today, after worship, we will have a chance to do some expectation-building as a congregation.

We will be diving into the history of God’s faithfulness to our community to look for lessons about how God has led us and provided for us in the past.

I encourage you to stay for that conversation if you are able.

But beyond the hopes and promises of our church community, I encourage you to do your own reflection about what it is that you expect from God in your life.

And to ask yourself what can lead your soul to sing “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

In different ways than Mary, we are all called to bear the word of hope and promise… and expectation into the world.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Sermon notes for December 24 from Out of Time Advent Resource, produced by Barn Geese Worship © 2023. Permission for use granted.

[2] Ibid.


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