Many times it is true that our expectations determine our level of emotional and spiritual health. Unmet expectations that we have can put us in, at best, a funk, and, at worst, into a profound period of disillusionment. Yet, there is another option when what we expect does not look like it will materialize for us – we go back to see if what we were expecting is really accurate or true, whether it is really from God or not.
In John the Baptist’s case, he was expecting the Messiah, the Deliverer, to come (which was true); he expected that the Messiah would come and execute justice and establish his kingdom on earth (which was also true). But what John expected to take place immediately that did not materialize in his lifetime was when God’s judgment and wrath was going to take place. What John did not see is that the Messiah would not come once, but twice – that there would be two Advents of the Christ.
John was experiencing the first coming of Christ, while expecting that this first Advent would be like the second. Christ will come again, and shall judge all things. Yet in this first coming, there would not be judgment, but healing. Christ came in his first Advent in order to give the blind sight, to make the lame walk, to cure, raise, and preach good news to the powerless of the gracious coming of God.
What, or whom, are we expecting? Is Jesus the one we anticipate, or are we expecting someone or something else? And, if Jesus is the One we are expecting, what is it we presume he will do? Like John, do we suppose that the Messiah will beat up our enemies, have everything go our way, and establish a godly government? Or are we looking forward to Christ coming and healing that which is broken?
It is quite possible that, even though we might not admit it to another person, we are rather disappointed with Jesus. He just has not come through for us in ways that we think he should have. It is not hard to imagine why people would have their doubts. I have heard my share of wonderings about God from others. Listening to a woman wonder where God was when she was attacked and raped; hearing the person with chronic pain wonder why God has not answered prayer; remembering with another person a past of abuse and neglect – these and many other scenarios of brokenness are real, and the doubts about God just as real.
John ended up in prison (Matthew 11:1-13). He did not volunteer for it. “Okay”, John thought, “I’m in prison – I’ll deal with it. If Jesus is really the Messiah, he will spring me from the joint!” But day after day, the deliverance did not come. Eventually, John was beheaded in prison. He ended up dying and never seeing his expectation realized. John’s understanding was that the Messiah, the Deliverer, would come and take charge, beat up the Roman occupation, and establish his firm and strong rule on the earth. Prison just did not fit the equation; it was not part of the plan.
If God is so all-powerful and loving, why doesn’t he rescue me? That is an important question, and one that should not be dismissed by those who have not experienced the terrible evil of this fallen world. If you are in any way disillusioned this holiday season, you are in good company with John the Baptist. Yet, at the same time, we all need to examine our expectations.
God often works in ways that we do not expect. Sometimes we expect God to rescue us from harm, but instead he sends someone to walk alongside us in our time of need. Sometimes we expect a miracle to be performed, but instead God gives us the ability to face the painful trial in front of us. Sometimes we expect God to execute his judgment on those who have hurt us, but instead God gives us the grace to forgive.
If we are honest, at some time or another, we all have been disappointed by a Messiah that did not live up to our expectations. We want Jesus to come and to come right now. We want clear and helpful answers to our questions. We want to be relieved of the burden of waking up every day without knowing what the next step is. We want the Christian life to be like a simple math equation, where if we do our part, God will do his. We want to put our hand under the pillow and find the answer there, like a quarter from the tooth fairy – but morning after morning all you feel is the sheet. There was a particular time in my life some years ago when, every morning in the shower I would ask God to take me home – I was so disillusioned with my life and what was going on that I was just looking for heaven.
I want to put a thought in your head that maybe you have not considered: missed expectations are a gift. When we don’t receive what we expect, we discover that God does not always conform to our agenda. When we experience a missed expectation, we begin to see our own selfish desires. When we don’t get our expectations met, it causes us to seek and trust God in new and fresh ways. And, instead of trying to make sense of everything, we are free to discover God, who he really is and what he is really all about. Every letdown becomes an opportunity to know God, and knowing God is our highest calling in life.
Did God fail to come when you called? Then maybe God isn’t a divine Santa Claus. Did God fail to punish, or at least correct, the people who hurt me? Then just maybe God is not a policeman who exists to give out tickets to lawbreakers. Did God fail to make all my plans run smoothly? Then maybe God isn’t some cosmic mechanic who always fixes every problem. If God isn’t any of those things, then Who is God?
We need to follow the trail of grace that points us to the Savior, Jesus Christ. Instead of coming and erasing suffering, God is next to us in our pain. Instead of making us successful and on top of the world, God humbles us and helps us to identify with those on the bottom. Instead of always making us strong, God teaches us to trust him in our weakness. Instead of destroying our enemies, God calls us to love and pray for them. Instead of doing something spectacular, God came in a lowly manger and lived a life of self-sacrificial love. Instead of taking us home in order to avoid hard circumstances, God asks us to be patient and do the work of reaching all kinds of people with the good news of Jesus.
The message of Advent is this: in the person of Jesus Christ, God is with us. God is not going to let us simply run on cruise control; he wants us to think deeply about who he is, and what his followers are to be and to do. So, Jesus was purposely cryptic, speaking in parables and alluding to things without coming outright and saying things plainly. It is actually important, maybe even necessary, to question God, because God wants us, more than anything, to discover him, know him, and trust him. Maybe we need to ask the question this year: what does God want for Christmas? Blessed is the person who does not fall away on account of Jesus, but who comes to terms with the true and living Christ. Just as John came as a lowly messenger seeking to prepare the way for the Lord to come, so the person who identifies with Jesus in the lowly manger is the person who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. God wants us to want him above all else – to rely on him and walk with him. Will you give your life to him this Christmas?