By Pastor Glenn Pease
Henry McCushy, of the Texas Employment Commission, said they had a hard time getting men to be department store Santa Clauses one year. The reason was the high percentage of children who were kicking Santa in the shins for not coming through the year before. They expected Santa to live up to his billing, and deliver the goods as they requested.
Bill Adler, in his book, Letters To Santa Claus, reveals the hostility children can develop because of their excessive expectations. One little boy wrote, Dear Santa Claus, "Last year you didn't leave me anything good. The year before you didn't leave me anything good. This year is your last chance."
Excessive expectation is the quickest way to the land of doubt, despair, and the drop out. If you expect God, your parents, your children, or anybody to cater to your every whim, you are setting yourself up for a fall. And if you expect Christmas to meet your every need, you are doing it again. There is no promise in the Bible that Christmas is the way, the truth, and the life, and that by trusting in it, you can have abundant life. It is a form of idolatry to expect Christmas to do for you what only Christ can do. Nobody's birthday-not even Christ's-can meet all of our needs, and it is a major emotional mistake to expect it.
A large portion of the depression associated with Christmas is due to people's unauthorized expectations. They expect milk to stop spilling, and people who haven't spoken to each other all year to be friendly, and the whole world to stop the folly of war, murder, robbery, and every form of evil, and they are shattered when they realize they can't even stop the spilt milk. It is depressing if you expect Christmas to make the world a paradise. The first one didn't do it, and to expect it of the next one is to expect what God does not authorize us to expect.
It is also unrealistic from the point of view of psychiatry. One psychiatrist wrote, "Any celebration that sets up such unrealistic, magical expectations is very unfair to human beings. People are pushed to deny the reality of their lives-their financial situation, their true relationships. There is almost a delusional mood." In other words, people try to live in the realm of myth. They buy things they really can't afford. They pretend to be more loving than they really are, but it doesn't work very long, if at all. Tom Mullen says, "Seldom does reality measure up to the artificial and sentimental vision of Christmas which Hollywood, Hallmark Cards, the Chamber of Commerce, and our bad memories create for us."
He says, if we dream of a white Christmas and it doesn't snow, then we are upset, for even the weather is against us. We go to get out the manger scene with the illusion it is ready to set up. But what we find is a shepherd missing and a three legged camel. Suddenly, it is no longer a manger scene, but a mangy scene. The family sits down to read the Christmas story with the idyllic dream that the children will listen with awe, as if they never heard it before. But one child is sure to say, let's open the presents right now.
The point of all this seeming pessimism is not to convince us that Scrooge was on the right track, but to help us keep our expectations from being excessive. It is not only at Christmas, but all of life can be damaged by excessive expectations. Dr. Howard Henricks of Dallas Theological Seminary, one of the great marriage counselors of our time says, "The greatest reason for failure in marriage is unrealistic expectations." People expect too much of each other, and assume that they could, if they would, make every waking moment of life full of excitement and satisfaction. Nobody wants to put up with the reality of monotony, boredom, and routine. A runaway in Chicago said, "I've done everything-had all the thrills, and I don't want to go on living. There's nothing more to anticipate." This is the pathetic end of those hooked on the emotional drug of excessive expectation. Give me a thrill a minute or Christmas is a bore, and life is not worth living.
Expectation is not foolish in itself. There is much enjoyable expectation that is a vital part of the Christian life. Nowhere is expectation more acceptable than at Christmas. We do not start playing Easter songs weeks before Easter. There is no other holiday like Christmas, where expectation is so much a part of it's celebration. We look forward to Christmas, longer, and with greater anticipation, then all other holidays combined. The expectation is more than half the fun. The day itself may not be that outstanding, but the overall impact of the season is greater than any other period of time in the year. The journey is the joy, and not just the arrival of the day. When we see this, we can escape the myth of living for the day, and enjoy the journey along the way.
Dr. Luke, who no doubt worked with expectant parents, is the one God used to record almost all the expectations surrounding the coming of His Son. He tells us of the expectant parents of John the Baptist, as well as those of Christ. He tells of the expectant angels who announced His coming. He tells of Simeon, the old man in Jerusalem, who lived in expectation every day of the coming Messiah. And Simeon tells us the whole world was expectant of a Savior. Never before was there a period of history so pregnant with expectation. Let's look at just three examples of this expectation.
I. PAGAN EXPECTATION.
This may be a surprise if you did not realize how God prepared the whole world for the gift of His Son. God's Christmas preparation goes back a long way and covers all people. God has built hope into the very heart of man, and so there is a natural expectancy in him. God has never left Himself without a witness, and so men of every nation have expected God to act in history. The prophet Haggai in 2:7, refers to the Messiah as the Desire Of All Nations. This implies that God has put into all people a desire for a deliverer.
As we search the minds of men in all nations before that first Christmas we see this confirmed. They expected a Christmas-like event. The words of the poet are in harmony with the facts of history.
A little child-
A shining star-
A stable rude,
A door ajar.
Yet in that place
So crude, forlorn,
The hope of all
The world is born. Author unknown
Was Jesus really the hope of the world? Was anybody, but a handful of God's people, looking for a coming Savior? Consider the evidence-
1. Plato, the Greek philosopher, said, "We must wait for someone to be a god, or god-inspired man, who will teach us our duties and take away the darkness from our eyes." Here was one of the most brilliant men who ever lived, but he knew he could not deliver men from darkness. He looked for another to be the light of the world. He expected a man to come that was more than any man had ever been.
2. Tacitus, the Roman historian, wrote, "People were generally persuaded in the faith of the ancient prophecies, that the east was to prevail, and that from Judea was to come the Master and Ruler of the world." Suetonius, another Roman wrote, "It was an old and constant belief throughout the East, that by indubitably certain prophecies, the Jews were to attain the highest power." The prophecies of Israel influenced the thinking of other peoples, and filled them with expectation.
3. China also expected a great wise man, but they looked to the West. In the Annals Of The Celestial Empire we read this statement, "In the 24th year of Tchao-Wang of the dynasty of the Tcheou, on the 8th day of the 4th moon, a light appeared in the Southwest which illumined the king's palace. The monarch, struck by it's splendor, interrogated the sages. They showed him books in which this prodigy signified the appearance of the great Saint of the West whose religion was to be introduced into their country."
4. Six centuries before Christ, Aeschylus wrote, "Look not for any end, moreover, to this curse until God appears, to accept upon his Head the pangs of thy owns sins vicarious." This sounds like an expectation, not only of Christ, but of His cross and the atonement for sin.
4. Cicero writes of the ancient oracle which speaks of, "A king whom we must recognize to be saved."
5. Virgil, in his fourth Eclogue recounts the ancient tradition of, "A new order of the ages with a new race to come out of a virgin from the heights of heaven." This child, said Virgil, would cast out fear and make the serpent die. Is any wonder that the early Christians believed these pagan writers were prophesying about Christ?
Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, said that Virgil's poem, written for Augustus Caesar, was really a prophecy about Jesus. Augustine, the great Christian theologian, also said this famous poet was speaking of Christ. They were saying that God had revealed to the Gentiles also, that He was sending His Son into the world. Listen to a portion of Virgil's famous poem, and you can see, in spite of it's pagan perspective, it points to The Desire Of All Nations.
"Dear child of the Gods, great offspring of Jove!
See how it totters-the world's vaulted might.
Earth, and wide ocean, and the depths of heaven
All of them, Look, caught up in joy at the age to come."
Here is a pagan poet saying all heaven and earth are looking to the event of the birth of a special child. There is no escaping the facts, the whole world was filled with expectation before the first Christmas. No wonder the wise men of the Gentile nation were looking for a sign. They not only had the prophecies of Israel, but of the wise men of the world. They were looking because they were expecting.
In Gion-Carlo Menotti's opera, Amahl And The Night Visitors, the wise men stop on their way to Bethlehem at the home of a crippled child. They told the family about the great king whose birth had called them from afar. The mother responded: "For such a king I've been waiting all my life." This gives a true picture of the world into which Jesus came. It was a world of expectation among the Jews and the Gentiles.
Jesus came to be the Savior of all men. There are many lost sinners in the world today who are hoping to find life's meaning. They expect to find light and love. Like the pagans of old, in B. C., they know God must have more than they have found. They will seek by drugs, alcohol, immorality, and a host of follies to find the happiness they know should be. Of course, all of these secular saviors will let them down. They will be disappointed in their excessive expectations. But the fact is, the pagan world does have expectations, and Christians need to build on this today, just as the early Christians did in their day. Pagan expectation is a key factor in sharing the good news of Christmas. Secondly, let's consider:
II. PARENTAL EXPECTATION.
There is no way we can enter into the emotional excitement and expectancy of Joseph and Mary. This was the most unusual birth story of all time. They were not just having a baby, they were having the Messiah-the hope of Israel and the whole world. They were having a child conceived by the Holy Spirit and announced to both parents by angelic revelation. This was not a routine birth, but the only one of it's kind, ever.
They expected the child to be born in Bethlehem, but, it is not likely, they expected the child to be born in a stable. They did not expect to find, no room. This was not, however, as great a problem as we think. They had been travelling for days and probably slept out in the fields. So in comparison, the stable was a cozy shelter, and possibly the best place they had slept all week. These expectant parents did not know what to expect, for they were involved in something that would only happen once in history. How could they know what to expect? Would the midnight sky light up like noon? Would the angels gather around the manger? Would God speak from heaven? What was going to happen?
They could never guess that shepherds would come to worship the child. They could not dream they would have to flee into Egypt. Their lives were filled with the unexpected. No doubt, God choose these two people to be the parents of His Son, because they were flexible and could adapt to the unexpected. It is a paradox, but people who expect the unexpected are better able to deal with it. There is not one hint of complaint that they had no room in the inn, that they had to flee their land, that they had to give up their family back home. They were ready to put up with radial changes to be partners with God in fulfilling His purpose in the world. They were ready to respond to the unexpected with obedience to God.
As parents and grandparents, we need to approach Christmas with this spirit of expecting the unexpected. It is nearly impossible to predict the responses of children today. I read of one grandmother who spent a lot of time making slippers for her granddaughter for Christmas. When the granddaughter opened them she just said, "Oh slippers," and threw them aside. The grandmother was expecting something more for her labor of love, and she was hurt. A wiser approach is to expect the unexpected, and not pretend children are programmed the way we would like them to be. We need to take the time to set them in our laps and explain the value of a gift. We need to give them a chance to respond properly with gratitude. Grace is not only the key to the God-man relationship, but to the human to human relationship.
We need to expect less than the ideal. God did, and that is why He was prepared to send His Son into the world to reconcile men to Himself. God expected, as a heavenly Father, that His children would disobey and make Him angry. But He anticipated that negative reality by providing a positive reality that would offset it. That is what Grace is all about, and what Christmas is all about-God and sinners reconciled because God is ready to deal with what you would expect He should never have to deal with-ungrateful children. There would be no need for grace if their was no sin and ingratitude. We need to expect it and be prepared to respond to it with grace in the lives of our children and grandchildren.
If we are dependent upon all things going just right, in order to be happy, then we are slaves to a dream that can never come true. Things do not go just right for anybody all the time. Even Joseph and Mary had to do their parenting in a fallen world, and be ready for the unexpected. A pastor wanted to use a visual aid for his Christmas sermon, so he got 4 children to help him. They were to march out at the appropriate time carrying the 4 letters that spelled out STAR. But they got turned around and came out with the letters backward and they spelled out RATS. The congregation nearly fell out of the pews with laughter. The pastor made the best of it by explaining that there were rats in the first Christmas. Herod was one who made part of the Christmas story a tragedy for many mothers. The pastor's little plan went wrong and developed a snag, but so did the plan of God on that first Christmas. The spirit of Christmas is not, everything must go perfect or I will be miserable, but rather, no matter what the complications, I know that God works in all things for the good of those who love Him. I will rejoice in His grace which gave the Gift that can never be taken away. I will live in joyful expectation as a child of God and as a parent. Thirdly, note:
III. Personal Expectation.
Simeon was an old man ready to die because his expectations were now fulfilled. He saw with his own eyes the Christ-child, the promised Messiah. He did not see this as an end, but as a new beginning. He could die in peace because he knew the best was yet to be. This child would be a light to the Gentiles, and for the glory of Israel.
Simeon represents the ideal of balanced personal expectations. He does not look at life with rose colored glasses. He says in verse 34, this child will cause the rise and fall of many in Israel. He will be opposed and a sword will pierce Mary's soul. He faced the realism of a fallen world and had no illusions about this Christmas child bringing paradise to earth. He was a realist, but still ready to die in peace, for he knew the child would bring salvation to the whole lost world. He did not expect everything to be just great, but he did expect that man would now have God's best in history and eternity, because of this child.
As we approach another Christmas, we need this same balance in our personal expectations. Christmas will not make evil go away. But the good news is the bad news is not all there is. The Light of the World has come, and there is now hope for all men to enter into a relationship with God that will be eternal. But the best of time is also potential in the Gift of God. Berton Braley conveys this hope in poetry.
"With doubt and dismay you are smitten,
You think there's no chance for you, son?
Why, the best books haven't been
The best race hasn't been run;
The best score hasn't been made yet;
The best song hasn't been sung;
The best tune hasn't been played yet;
Cheer up, for the world is young!
No chance? Why, the world is just eager
for things that you ought to create;
Its store of true wealth is still meager,
Its needs are incessant and great;
Don't worry and fret, fainthearted,
The chances have just begun;
For the best jobs haven't been started;
The best work hasn't been done."
The best is yet to come-that is the gift of hope the Christian has a right to expect at Christmas. It is not promised that there will be no spilt milk or tough times, but it is promised that the worst can never rob us of God's best in Christ. We can, like Simeon, die in peace knowing the best is always yet to be.
We have no promise of a white Christmas from nature, but God does promise us a personal white Christmas within. God says in Isa. 1:18, "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow." Here is the white Christmas we should all be dreaming about and anticipating. We can be made clean from all sin and have peace with God. What a gift! The best is already ours in Christ. We need to make Christmas a time of thankfulness and a time of expecting to grow in our grasp of all we have in Christ. In Him, we have all that the world has expected from God. Let us never be satisfied with just a part, but ever live in expectation of the more that can be ours in Christ. Let this be our Christmas expectation.