12/14/03, A3C

“Great Expectations”

“As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
(Luke 3: 15-16, NRSV)

harles Dickens had more influence in the way we celebrate Christmas than any other person, except one. His 1843 masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, more than any other factor at the beginning of the Victorian revival of romanticism and beauty, re-visioned our customs and created many new traditions in Britain and America. His description of the season set a higher tone that recaptured the spiritual elements of the Grand Miracle. “It is a good time: a kind and forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passenger to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

None of us want to be seen as the grumpy, stingy, frightening “Old Scrooge.” It is really a book about redemption as God comes and shows Ebenezer just what a jerk he has become. His whole life is transformed and through it our celebration reaches down to transform us too. He is totally altered on the inside and begins to express his newfound faith outwardly by sharing his wealth with his employee’s family and provides for the medical treatment of their son Tiny Tim. It is a wonderful story for children and adults who need to know that a person can be changed by the power of the Spirit at any age.

Other people also influenced the revival of our Merry Christmas celebration. Prince Albert brought the German custom of decorating the Yuletide Tree to Britain and we Americans adapted it. Christmas cards were invented for people who had new jobs due to the Industrial Revolution. The singing of Christmas Carols developed as ordinary people formed a market for songs that could be harmonized. Also, a freeing up of celebration was rediscovered in Christian homes due to the wearing thin of the Puritans and Oliver Cromwell’s severity. And we need to point out that the mighty influence of the Wesleyan Revival brought about a more Scripturally based and celebratory expectancy in the many new believers’ hearts as the days toward Christmas came close. Christmas became a time when the Spirit of God could bring new life to the many would be Scrooges. A sense of great expectation has become a real part of our Merry Little Christmas Time.

Great Expectations are an integral part of our New Testament story of the coming of Christ. There had not been a prophet of Israel for hundreds of years and the people longed for a fulfillment of the Old Testament’s apocalyptic vision of a Messiah. Just as we are expecting the second coming of Christ, the people of Palestine were expecting the Christ. They first had hopes that John the Baptist was the Messiah, but although he was a charismatic and popular preacher who was well received, he made a quick disclaimer that one much greater than him was coming soon as the Messiah. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with power.” (v.16) Would God have planted within our hearts such a longing for spiritual things without providing a way for the fulfillment?

Another Dickens novel, Great Expectations, tells the story of the young man Pep who longs to someday rise up out of poverty and become an English Gentleman. You know the story, which has been made into several movies, in which Pep finally receives a large sum from a will and is able to realize his longed for dream. Dickens captures the experience of longing, expectation, eager anticipation, intense desire and hope that is such a great aspect of our Advent/Christmas spirit of soon to be fulfilled promises. Pep’s great expectations are presented by Dickens as another aspect of the Christian process of redemption. We have to see our need for, and desire salvation before we can have it. Likewise, Ebenezer Scrooge came to realize that his sin was separating him from his fellow human beings, and his God, and was given a life changing desire for new life and redemption. The Christmas season is a time of heightened awareness of just how much we need God in our lives and a reminder of how He has sent His Son to save us. The Christmas story is the story upon which all other stories hang.

What greater way to begin the greatest story ever told than with a baby? Everybody loves a baby! Many people have shared with me this week how they were spiritually moved at the close of last Sunday’s “Christmas Musical” when the real live baby Jesus (Charlie Batch) was brought down the isle in his mother Mary’s arms (Charlie’s sister Caroline). I could feel a rush through the crowd as we whispered to each other, “Look it’s a real baby!” Suddenly we remembered the reason for the season.

My little mind likes to think that God used a baby as a way of showing us that new life begets new life. The old miser Scrooge was given new life through the new life that Jesus brought into our realm. And what greater expectancy do we experience than during the nine months that we await the arrival of a little bundle from heaven? Marilyn and I remember the great excitement and expectancy that we had as we painted the spare bedroom and carefully selected just the right crib. We bought the best baby bed, a Jenny Lind, which later cradled our nieces and their cousins and is possibly occupied somewhere today after these many years. There is no telling how many precious infants that old crib has had the high honor of cuddling. And so do we have the noble honor of embracing the baby Jesus in our arms as we join with billions in kneeling at the manger today, after these many years.

I will never forget the first time we knelt at the manger site of Jesus’ below The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. As our tour group waited in a long for our turn to kneel and pray I was overwhelmed by the question, “What if He had not been born?

a sermon synopsis by C. Robert Allred, Th.D., Pastor
12/14/03, A3C