It has been many years since I read Charles Dicken’s classic Great Expectations, however, as I was thinking about all that we expect out of this season that book kept popping into my mind, not the least because of it’s title. Like the classic we read at this time of year, A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations was written as a serial from Dec 1 1860 to August of 1861. And the opening stage, as I recall, does indeed take place at Christmas. Now, assuming that not all of you have read the book, or it’s been a while for you as well, in brief, it is a coming of age story about a boy named Pip who manages to overcome poverty through a benefactor. The story really begins when Pip steals a pie and brandy that were meant for Christmas dinner. To be honest, not many people had any great expectations of Pip since he was also an orphan, but that is what makes the title relevant to the plot. As the story unfolds some expectations are met and some take totally different turns. At this time of year I always expect to be drawn towards Victorian or Dickensian classics, I didn’t expect this year to be so drawn to re-read Great Expectations. As we hit the middle of December I think we all begin to assess our expectations of the season. I tend to put a lot of weight into Christmas dinner, even when it’s just Mike and I, I expect that this year, like most years we will have kraft dinner and chili around a campfire. But sometimes even that expectation is not always met. Along with joy, today’s theme is really about great expectations.
As we heard last week, Luke often spends time on details about time and place. He likes to situate everyone within a larger historical framework which helps us understand a little better why so many were ready to hear Jesus’ message of hope, peace, love, rebellion and redemption. What Luke is trying to point out is that while these events seem to be taking place on a small world stage they are of global significance. Luke had expectations of Jesus- which is why he writes his Gospel. We hear in this song that Zechariah has expectations too.
Zechariah had some great expectations for his son John- and we know based on last week that many of those expectations are met while others take some turns. For a little refresher it might be handy to remember that Zechariah, a priest of the order A-bi-jah had been married to his wife for quite some time when he receives word that his wife will bear a son. This is not something Zechariah expected for either himself or his wife so late in years. It is so unexpected that he questions the angel Gabriel who then declares that because of Zechariah’s unbelief he will be mute, unable to speak, until his son is born. The angel does tell Zechariah that upon the day of John’s birth, Zechariah will be filled with joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth. Clearly over the nine months Zechariah and Elizabeth have not only come to terms with this pregnancy but are indeed filled with joy! But this joy must have also been filled with expectation and even concern.
When the baby is born, as is expect, Zechariah names him John. The name John is a short form of the term Jehohanan, which means Yahweh (or Jehovah)’s gift or God is gracious. This unexpected baby is indeed a gift from God not only for these elderly parents but for the world at large. We can hear in Zechariah’s song the joy he feels about this gift. But also in this song we discover that Zechariah has caught a glimpse of who he expects his son to become. In the NRSV translation this section is given the title “Zechariah’s Prophecy”. But this song is also a hymn of praise. As we have learned throughout our Advent Bible study, Luke uses hymns throughout his opening chapters to provide commentary on these extraordinary events. This song is most often called the Benedictus because the first word Zechariah says after being mute for 9 months is “Blessed” or Benedictus in Latin. From verses 68 to 75 it truly is a hymn of praise.
Zechariah bursts with joy not only declaring the blessedness of God but also in celebrating God’s faithfulness. Zechariah sees the words of prophets from days gone by as finally coming to fulfilment and he expects his son to be a part of that story. We know from last week that Malachi is really the prophet that highlights the expectation of not only a saviour but a forerunner to the saviour. We heard the verse, “See I am sending a messenger to prepare the way.” A town crier is coming! But it was generally expected, in part because that is how other parts of Malachi are interpreted, that this forerunner would not be someone new but would be Elijah. Through his praise Zechariah, a priest who would have been well informed about the expectations surrounding the arrival of a messiah, we learn that God can not only throwback to prophesies of days gone by but also do something new with them. God can show mercy and keep promises and remember the holy covenant, but God is not just the God of the past but of the present and the days to come. With God we have certain expectations but we also have to expect the unexpected.
The second section of Zechariah’s song really gets to the heart of the prophecy. Zechariah expects that John will be this messenger and will prepare the way for the coming saviour. Every advent, no matter the cycle in the lectionary, we are faced with the theme of being prepared. Yet, I think most of us avoid talk of preparedness when it comes to the messiah. I remember hearing Ben Douglas talk to the Church Breakfast about emergency preparedness and he finished his presentation by stating, “if you don’t get these supplies in the next 72 hrs, you likely will not get those supplies.” Meaning that, we all know we should be prepared for an emergency, many of us, including me, say, “Oh yah, we should get one of those earthquake kits.” But unless we are motivated to do it following a presentation like that, than it always remains a “should have” task rather than get implemented. Until it is, of course, too late. Our talk about preparedness during advent usually boils down to just that, all talk. We spend so much time preparing for Christmas and thus expect much from this season. Yet, how do we prepare to welcome Jesus?
Zechariah sings of knowledge, that this messenger will give the knowledge of salvation. I think the saying is, “knowledge is power.” We celebrate with joy the knowledge of God’s forgiveness. Practising this knowledge, embodying this knowledge, living this knowledge is a way for us to be prepared.
However, I also wonder along with being empowering if knowledge can also be worrying. You see, we know what happens to John because we have read the story. It’s why it is helpful to hear this song following last week’s sermon. We can read the song with hindsight. We know John will garner a following. But we also know that this following will make the authorities uneasy, which will get him arrested and out of fear and selfishness John will end up beheaded, all because of the knowledge he held. Many of you know the popular song, “Mary Did You Know?” it is a beautiful song, but the truth is that yes, yes she knew exactly what would happen to her child because she too sings about it. But I wonder, did Zechariah know what would happen to his song? Based on his song, I’m not sure. He expected his son to speak of repentance, to shine a light on Jesus, to guide people towards peace. Did he expect that the story would end the way it did? Probably.
We all place expectations upon this time of year and not all of them are met and many take strange turns. You probably didn’t expect to hear two sermons about John back to back! It’s not particularly “christmasy” is it? But that is part of the advent experience. John lays the foundation for us so that we can receive Jesus with preparedness, knowledge and joy. We expect to have a season seeped in traditions and the familiar but this is also a story about new beginnings. Zechariah sings that, a light will shine. Tom Gordon, a former hospice chaplain, has an interesting take on this song from Zechariah, he says, “It’s a light-bulb moment that means freedom from darkness and the amazing nature of a new beginning in Christ in our personal acceptance of the peace He brings.” Zechariah’s song is indeed a song of joy about his son John, but like his son, Zechariah points to the incarnational power of Jesus. What more can you expect? Amen