Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Expectations: Great and Not-So-Great

Have you ever noticed the way anticipation and expectation differ from the actual things we experience?

When I was a kid I would approach each new school year with a mental picture of what it would be like, and every year, though the reality would be a lot like what I expected, there would be differences. Some would be pleasant, as when I became interested in a course I didn’t think I would enjoy. There would also be unpleasant surprises, as when a teacher I expected to like did or said things that showed lack of respect for students.

Sometimes the contrast between expectation and actuality can be funny.  New Englanders may remember Robert J. Lurtzema, for many years the host of the Public Radio program Morning Pro Musica. “Robert J,” as virtually all his listeners called him, had what some of us called “The Voice,” a deep, rich rolling bass, that suggested an elegant man of the world, one who was interested in an incredible variety of musical styles, and could explain each one in a way that left even the most musically illiterate feeling smart and informed. He also delivered the morning news. Over the years more than a few people said that if the end of the world was imminent, they’d want to hear about it from Robert J.

The thing about Robert J was that though he was a strong radio personality, not many of his listeners knew what he looked like. One year he put together a fund-raiser for the Huntington’s Disease Foundation, assembling a diverse and talented array of folk musicians to sing the songs of Woody Guthrie, who had died of the disease. The night of the concert we gathered in the auditorium of Brookline High School, the lights dimmed, and a representative of the Foundation came on stage to introduce Robert J. There was a pause, and the owner of The Voice walked on stage, a man of medium height and round frame, with thinning hair somewhat reminiscent of J.S. Bach.

My wife and I were surprised, but our reaction was nothing compared to the woman sitting in front of us. “No!” she gasped. “It can’t be. Lurtzema’s voice…. he’s tall and thin, with dark thick hair… not this…this…Wonton.” 

Then he spoke, and The Voice left no possible doubt. Practically shaking, the woman gathered her things, shoved her way down the aisle, and left. Clearly she had expectations that were not met by the reality.

The morning gospel for the third Sunday in Advent is also about expectations and fulfillment, though of a more serious and important kind. In the 11th Chapter of Matthew we meet John the Baptist, imprisoned by the King, Herod Antipas. Herod had married his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. John confronted Herod, declaring the marriage unlawful. Arrest followed and John knew that his end would be soon. 

Now, before he was arrested John pointed to Jesus as the Messiah, whose coming God called him to announce. That declaration marked the moment when Jesus began his ministry. However, he did not do the things John expected him to. The Messiah was widely expected to be a military and political figure, one who would raise an army, and lead the Jews in a rebellion that would get rid of the Romans once and for all.  Completing the military action, the Messiah would then reestablish the kingdom David had ruled, and would become the New David. This was what John expected, and what the people hoped to see in their lifetimes, but it’s not what John saw Jesus doing. He feared that he was mistaken in pointing to Jesus as Messiah. The validity of his whole ministry seemed in doubt.

In Matthew 11 John sends his disciples to question Jesus, asking, “What gives?  Are you The One or not?  Did we put our hopes in the wrong man, and if not when are you going to get on with it?”

Jesus does not give a simple “yes” or “no.”  He tells John’s followers to report back what they see.  He’s restoring sight to the blind, mobility to the lame, hearing to the deaf, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead, bringing hope to the poor. Those are not just things the Messiah is supposed to do: those are things Israel’s God does.

John’s problem is not that he is expecting too much. He’s actually looking for too little: a warrior and king, when God is offering a Savior, who is also Emmanuel, which means “God-With-Us.”

As we move forward in Advent, ask yourself where your expectations and anticipations may actually limit your ability to see and receive the gifts God has in mind for you this year. “Perfect Christmas” according to an image you’ve held since you were a child?  How about a fulfilled Christmas, accessible if you open your eyes to the needs and opportunities you meet on a daily basis? Stressed to do everything you think everyone expects? How about the gift of yourself, unhurried and available, to folks who never see enough of you?

Beyond Christmas, what do you expect of God in the routine of your life? Indulgent grantor of your every wish – a sort of Cosmic Valet? How about a faithful Companion, who walks with you in all weather and every eventuality? The endorser of all you hold dear, and all you want to do? How about a living Spirit, who shows you your sins and errors, but loves you anyway and offers to guide you through and out of them?

Expectation and anticipation are important tools, as we cope with the world and its ever-changing landscape. Sometimes they are right on target, and other times they miss by a country mile. Move through this season in hope and anticipation, but be ready to be surprised by God, whose love for us is deeper than we can imagine, and whose mercy goes to depths we can never guess.

Howard MacMullen, © 2010

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