Lofty Expectations at Christmastime

Christmas in Texas is a big deal. For me, it’s a three day long affair, and the whole family shows up – grandparents, aunts, uncles, first-second-and-third cousins. And as our families grow, great-grandkids are in the mix.

Potluck, loud laughter, fishing in the pond out back – because the pond is never frozen, y’all. Four wheelers and ping pong and playing with the newest gadget my great-uncle always seems to have. Gathering around the living room, holding hands, as we pray – lifting up family members by name who have gone on to be with Jesus. But my favorite family tradition is syllabub.

Syllabub was a popular English drink in the 17th century. My Mimi’s recipe includes milk, ice cream, vanilla, and sugar – so basically, a milkshake. Originally, it had some adult ingredients, but Mimi modified the recipe so everyone can have some. Thank Baby Jesus for Mimi.

Christmas isn’t Christmas without syllabub. Unless you get your tonsils out three days before.

No talking, laughing, or singing – not even a bite of solid food. My only glimmer of hope was the syllabub. It was all I had left to keep my Christmas cheer. So on Christmas Day, I beelined to the punch bowl and ladled out that Christmas Magic to the brim of my red solo cup. With a smile, I surveyed the wondrous cup and took my first sip.

It it felt like daggers going down my throat.

My expectations for the holidays are pretty lofty. Even the most chaotic Christmas movie finally – in the end – has its picture perfect Christmas morn. Waking up to a blanket of snow, finding that one gift you wanted under the tree, family all together sans meltdown, the perfectly basted turkey – or at least a fun time out at a Chinese restaurant.

But sometimes – I daresay most times – my experiences fall short of my expectations.

The Old Testament prophets told the Christmas story hundreds of years before it happened. The Jewish people waited for centuries for the first Christmas, for the Messiah to be born into the world as God’s presence on earth. Talk about lofty expectations!

And when the Good News arrived that the Messiah was finally here, the reality was completely different than their expectation. God’s presence on earth? Wouldn’t that wipe out all the bad guys? Wouldn’t he come charging in on a horse or something, saving everyone? Wouldn’t everyone know it?

But a poor teenage girl from the middle of nowhere gets pregnant. She’s scared and lonely. How will she tell her fiance? The baby isn’t his, and the second that baby bump starts to show, everyone in her small town will know. She finally musters the courage to tell Joseph. He’s shocked, hurt, betrayed. But he chooses to stick around.

They travel a long way to be counted in a census, and when they get there, there’s nowhere for them to stay as she delivers this baby into the world. They lay him in a trough.

This is the king that’s supposed to save us all?

It turns out that Jesus was nothing like our expectations. He was so much better. This baby – in all his vulnerability and weakness – is the very presence of God on earth, come to show us the full extent of His love. This is what we celebrate during the holidays: God’s mysterious and confusing way of exceeding our expectations in the most mundane of ways.

It’s hard to remember this, especially during the holidays, during the chaos of family, meals, gifts, and packed schedules. It’s easy to look toward the one big event this holiday season, working to get everything just right.

But if I forget the ordinary moments – spending time with my people, laughing, even appreciating the times when things don’t go just-my-way – I miss out on it all.

I’ve learned to expect God in unexpected places, unexpected people, unexpected circumstances because God’s reality is always better than our expectations.

We encounter God everywhere – our experiences, relationships, struggles and joys – it’s all drenched in the divine. In Christ, the mundane somehow becomes holy, and the boring becomes beautiful. That’s what Emmanuel – God with us – means.

And that’s so much better than a milkshake on Christmas Day.

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