On Friday night last August while we were staying at Chautauqua the scheduled entertainment was a concert by Kenny Rogers. For those of us staying on the grounds, there was no admission charge. I went, Hayden didn't. The amphitheatre was packed. Most of the concert-goers arrived early, some waiting in line for an hour or more before the gates were opened. As is often the case with such concerts, at the time set for the performance to begin there was a warm-up act. In this case it was two Hispanic guys, allegedly brothers, allegedly from California, with a comedy routine that had little or nothing to do with Kenny Rogers and his music. Nonetheless, it was their job to warm-up the audience for what was to follow. Presumably, they were to get us in the mood. Perhaps they were to whet our appetites. Maybe their role was to make us all the more grateful and enthusiastic when Kenny finally appeared on stage.
I know that for many performers it is customary to have a warm-up act. The idea must be that the audience will be more receptive if they are prepared. Whether this actually works most of the time or not, I don't know. I do know, however, that expectations have a lot to do with how we experience events. High expectations sometimes bring disappointment. Low expectations are sometimes met with pleasant surprise. This is most often true when we are observers who are not personally involved in the action. When we are participants, however, high expectations typically yield high results, while low expectations typically yield low results. People most often rise to the occasion when they are presented with an occasion that heightens their expectations and that calls upon them get themselves ready--to prepare.
The Advent season is the church's way of preparing itself for the celebration of Christmas. It is a season of expectation and of preparation. It is not the main event. It is the warm-up act. It is not yet time to start singing Silent Night and Joy to the World, it is time to sing those beautiful and haunting Advent hymns and carols that express the longing, the hope, the expectation, and the promise that Christians see fulfilled in the coming of Jesus the Christ. It is time to begin to put ourselves in a receptive mood, a posture of waiting, an expectant frame of mind.
The biblical story also speaks of expectation and preparation. In none of the Gospels does Jesus appear until after we have heard about John the Baptist. In none of them does he begin his ministry until after we have been introduced to the ministry of the Baptist. John is the herald, forerunner, precursor, preparer of the way.
After a brief introduction, Luke begins his Gospel with this morning's text, in which the birth of John the Baptist is foretold. It is an interesting story in itself, reminiscent of many other birth announcements in the scriptures. A priest named Zechariah is to be the father. His name, in Hebrew, means "Yahweh has remembered again." His wife, Elizabeth, a descendant of Aaron, and therefore also of priestly lineage, is to be the mother, despite that fact that she is barren and getting on in years. This is to be, in other words, an exceptional pregnancy and an exceptional birth. The angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that he is to name the son whom Elizabeth will bear John, "Yohanan," that is, "Yahweh has shown favor." "You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth," says the angel, "for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. . . [E]ven before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit." Among his accomplishments will be "to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
This, according to Luke, is what John will be about. A people needs to be prepared for the Lord. At the heart of John's message, we know, will be a proclamation of judgment and a call to repentance. In this respect, John's task will be to "soften" people up. But he will also heighten their expectations. He will make them receptive to Jesus' proclamation of good news, with its double-edged promise that those who had exalted themselves would be humbled while those who had humbled themselves would be exalted. Historically, this is one of the roles that John seems to have played. His message was not the same as Jesus'. His style was not the same. But his preaching and teaching helped to set the stage for the message of God's coming reign that Jesus proclaimed.
Luke records that John's work will be to make ready a people. He tells us the story foretelling John's birth, however, in order to set the stage for the rest of the story he has to tell. He will move from this story of one unexpected pregnancy to another even more unexpected. He will move from this account of one "who will be great in the sight of the Lord" [1:15] to another who will not only be great but "will be called the Son of the Most High" [1:32]. He will move from this story of a father, Zechariah, who is dumbfounded by the news of his prospective fatherhood, to the story of a mother, Mary, whose "soul magnifies the Lord," and whose "spirit rejoices in God [her] Savior" [1:46-47] at the confirmation of her pregnancy.
The story of Jesus' birth is accompanied by great expectations and great promise. Our task in this season of Advent is to try to understand why.
There is on the stage of history the recurrent hope for a world redeemed, restored, at peace. Most of us now live lives far too secure, for too little troubled by world events, to be able fully to grasp this yearning and this hope. It is the hope of the vanquished. It is a hope born out of suffering and devastation and defeat. In ancient Israel such a hope was expressed by the prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament text. "The people who walked in darkness," says the prophet, "have seen a great light." This is the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel, the light of a promised future, the day when the burdens of oppression and the ravages of war would be ended. For the prophet this hope was embodied in the person of a king who would rule over the people in justice and righteousness and peace. "For a child has been born for us, a son given to us," says Isaiah. "And he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." High hopes! and high expectations!
Jesus was born into a world filled with suffering, to a people who likewise felt themselves to be vanquished and oppressed. Luke begins by telling us it was "in the days of King Herod of Judea." It was when the Romans occupied the land, raised the taxes, controlled the people and the nation. Christians throughout the centuries have found the words of the prophet Isaiah to be a fitting description of the meaning and identity of Jesus the Christ. We only diminish his significance to the world if we fail to view him on the stage of history. For many peoples still today he remains the light and the hope of the world.
It is also true, however, that as individuals we yearn for lives impregnated with greater meaning and purpose and hope. Whatever the state of our world, we ourselves long to be more fully engaged in the business of living. Advent is a season to contemplate what it is that truly gives purpose and direction to our lives. It is a time when perhaps we can open ourselves up to new possibilities, and prepare ourselves for new responsibilities. It is a time to look forward, to become expectantly ready and waiting, that we might receive Jesus when he comes.
Advent is not yet the time for celebration. It is the season of pregnancy, expectancy, gestation, and preparation. It is a time to contemplate the potential significance of the coming of Jesus into our world and into our lives. It is a time to imagine how our lives might be different, and what we might do in preparation. Bobbi McCaughey, the world's only mother of septuplets, says she and her husband wondered if God was punishing them when she first learned that she was pregnant with seven. "First, it was just like, 'God, why have you done this to us?'" she said. Obviously, she needed some time to consider all this, some time to prepare. For Christians, Jesus' coming is no less remarkable, no less challenging, and no less promising. If we are gladly to receive him and what he brings into our world, we likewise need time to get ready. AMEN.