Setting Expectations

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Holy Family
December 26, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Holidays, celebrations and traditions set our expectations for who we are and what we will experience. If we can pause and ask ourselves what we need, perhaps we can see ourselves and the season in new ways.

New babies, with their unfocused eyes, soft and delicate skin and vulnerable little bodies elicit a quietude from almost anyone who holds them. The potential wrapped into a tightly bundled blanket is palpable, a new journey, a new life with exponential possibilities. Who will this person be? What will bring them joy?

Although new parents usually disagree, the first few months of life are often the simplest. The needs of infants are predictable and easy to meet. Clean diapers, milk and warm cuddles to sleep can solve almost any issue a newborn presents. Soon after the first few months of life, while the neurons in a baby's brain are doubling every month, babies become more complex people. Suddenly they have preferences. Their adults learn that there are certain ways they like to be held, certain foods they prefer, some colors they find more soothing than others, special music that they like best.

After that, everything becomes more complex. In real time, children and the adults who care for them are learning who they are, anticipating and reacting to the identities they assume. The single mother of a toddler once said, in a moment of sudden anxiety nearing panic, "How will I know what she is good at? How will I know if she needs piano lessons or a basketball team? When will I know if she excels at math or needs help with reading? How will I know how to support her?"

A kaleidoscope of factors define and shape our identity: family relationships, personal dreams, ideals, vocation and so much more. It can be tempting to think we know who we are, or that we understand the identity of the people closest to us. However, affirming identity is a lifelong endeavor requiring much searching. It is a constant quest for truth, knowledge, love and the God who formed us before anyone else knew us.

Identity of the boy Jesus

It seems like Jesus' parents thought they knew who their son was. After more than a decade of raising the young boy, it's reasonable to think they had some idea of what to expect from him. Moreover, the Passover referenced in today's passage was not their first Passover, and not Jesus's first Passover either. A certain amount of rote, muscle-memory becomes part of the tradition of the celebration. Mary and Joseph can't be blamed for assuming their son, a young man, would know how things go by now.

When they realized that Jesus was not with the travelers returning from the Passover celebration, the anxiety-ridden parents searched for their son, carefully retracing their steps on their way back to Jerusalem, caught in a space between knowing and unknowing. They were surprised to find him in the temple, learning among the teachers. They thought they knew their son. They had not anticipated this. They thought they knew who he was.

When we hear this scripture, we often think about the usual parenting patterns. We remember how we were once young people who surprised the adults in our lives by our career choices, school preferences, friends or romantic partners. We think about how parents come to understand and appreciate the identities in their children that they hadn't anticipated, the surprise of how the potential of that tiny infant explodes into adulthood.

Do we ever wonder at how the identities of Jesus' parents changed in the moment that they found their 12-year-old son in the temple? Operating on autopilot, they had completed their traditional Passover celebration, and probably expected to go back to their everyday lives after returning to their home, but those plans were upended by the surprise that Jesus was not exactly the boy they thought he was. Did they grieve the loss of the son they thought they had? Did they celebrate the son they found in the temple? Did they praise him for his understanding? Did they scold him for the scare? Did they know their lives would never be quite the same again?

Expectations: Who are we?

We punctuate our lives with feast days and celebrations, gently rocking our adult sensibilities to sleep with the worn patterns of ritual and tradition. Christmas comes and then we clean up the decorations, recycle the wrapping paper, finish the leftovers and limp our way through January and February. Some of us know to expect a post-holiday slump. Others anticipate a new year, not unlike the ones we've experienced year-after-year.

We think we know what to expect this time of year, but what if we approached this season with a search for something - or someone - we thought we'd lost? What if we followed our anxiety to wonder at what we really needed? Who would we learn that we are? What would we find?

There are many ways to approach a life in Christ. Some people define themselves around the things they will or will not do. They set boundaries around a list of rules about the kinds of behaviors they will or will not engage, the types of people with which they will or will not associate. That is one way to approach life, but it does not define goals or dreams. Rules do not help us understand who we are or who we were created to be.

There are certain things we know we must do because they are innate to who we are and to the unique individuals God made us to be. Musicians come alive when they make music. Painters must paint. Computer programmers must code. There are things that bring us to life and awaken us to who we are and whose we are. The pursuit of this type of experience is an active participation in God's creative and redemptive work.

Awake to ourselves

Recently, a clergyperson announced that there were rules in her denomination that excluded some people from full participation in the community and she could no longer abide by those rules. She articulated that her understanding of her baptism was at odds with the way the church had organized itself and she couldn't live with the dissonance any longer. The result of her public announcement was her removal from leadership positions within her denomination. She remains clergy, but no longer will sit on committees where decisions are made.

There are moments in our lives when we emerge from the slumber of "going through the motions" to realize we thought we knew what to expect for so long that we forgot to stop and wonder at what started our search. When we look up, we realize we're not in the place we thought we'd be, and we've lost track of the people we thought we were with. We become anxious, and when we trace the root of our anxiety, we renew the search for the truth we need. We come a little closer to knowing who we are. We come a little closer to knowing God.

Christmastide sometimes brings a melancholy about the holiday that has passed, what it was, what we expected it to be, or what we have experienced in the past. The melancholy is real, and if we acknowledge it, maybe we can trace it back to its origin. We can buck our own expectations of the season and set aside what we anticipated and ask ourselves, "What am I searching for?" or "What have I found?"

Do you remember who you are? Do you know whose you are? Tugging on these threads is like pulling on the heartstrings that lead to God, who gave you the spark that brought you to life and has known what would bring you joy before anyone else knew who you were. Trace that line. Find that song. Go on that journey. Be that person.