By the first of December, my three-year-old had already knocked over the Christmas tree. My oldest refuses to wear the matching pajamas from his grandmother because the pants are tight. I have yet to bake a single Christmas cookie.
After three years living overseas, we’re finally “home” for the holidays. We have one holiday season to enjoy family dinners, Christmas programs with cousins, and familiarity of the lights strung up in our own home town. If the Lord wills, right after the New Year, we will depart for another term of overseas service with our mission organization. Most likely, we won’t celebrate Christmas with our families for another four years.
As you can imagine, it’s been difficult for me not to have high expectations this year. I find it particularly difficult to keep my expectations realistic around the holidays. Advertisements and the media stream are showing us just what fashionable fare would look like on our table for Christmas Eve dinner. Even those “spiritual” expectations of quiet devotionals around the fireside often leave out reality. We actually need the devotionals because we’re a household full of outright sinners. Rarely do my pre-conceived expectations include the tired toddler who is ripping the garland off the mantle or the inter-personal drama that planning family get togethers can involve.
My husband and I frequently have what we call “expectation conversations.” We sit on the couch together and discuss how my expectations of perfect family moments and stunning, yet uncomplicated celebrations are simply unrealistic. Those expectations ruin the real life event because they can never compete. Just speaking it out brings clarity for me. After we bring my expectations down to reality, we give thanks for the life God has given us, and go pick up the Christmas tree someone just knocked over. This is real life, and these are the real moments, full of real beauty.
But there is another use of the word expectation that truly helps define Christmas. It is where the word expectation interchanges with hope.
Merriam-Webster says that to expect “implies a high degree of certainty and usually involves the idea of preparing or envisioning.”
When the Bible speaks of the hope of the Messiah, it is an eager expectation. The prophets wrote about the coming Christ thousands of years before the hope came to fruition. We’re not talking about the same kind of paltry expectations that we so often base our version of a merry Christmas upon. This is a sturdy, deep, abiding expectation that God made a promise to redeem, and He always keeps His promises.
The Christmas celebration is really about a promise fulfilled. It is the culmination of thousands of years of waiting. We are in a line of men and women of faith who expected God to act. Through desert wandering and giant-filled lands, through famine and exile and foreign gods, they hoped. They waited. They expected God to fulfill his promises.
Hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Isaiah wrote,
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
From his roots a branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him-
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirt of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord-
and He will delight in the fear of the Lord.”
The startling beauty of the gospel is magnified in the simplicity of the incarnation. God, the Almighty, Everlasting, Eternal King, came to dwell among us as a baby. Let that reality sink into your soul.
The expectation of most was that he would come to a palace. But He chose to come to a messy stable, meek and lowly. The Father sent His messenger angels to shepherds in a field, proclaiming tidings of good news.
The birth of Christ is the birth of hope. It is not just for kings and rulers or even for the promised people of Israel. It is a good news announcement that reaches all mankind, from the stable to the throne. God literally stepped out of the glory of heaven and into this messy world. He declared tidings of great joy to all who would put their hope in Him alone for salvation.
It is likely that this Christmas may not be all that you expect. Babies get fevers, dinners burn, toddlers throw tantrums and families misunderstand one another. When reality collides with your expectations, remember what you’re really putting your hope in. Christmas is the celebration of a hope we can stake our souls upon. The Messiah has come! Sing the songs and feast with joy, your hope in Him is sure.
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
(Charles Wesley, 1744)
Laura is a Memphis native who's spent nearly a decade living in foreign lands. Her husband teaches the Bible, primarily among South Asians, of whom less than two percent of the population follow Christ. She lived in the land of boy-moms with three rowdy little men for nine years. Recently, their family also welcomed a daughter, whom she invariably dresses in pink and florals. She loves children’s literature, recipes from around the world, and hiking up mountains.