Advent is a season of expectancy, an opportunity to practice faithful longing, a patient impatience. But expectations can be tricky things. They can help us to be more attentive, to notice things we might otherwise miss. But they can also blind us to the reality that is sitting right in front of us.
A trivial example. I will occasionally have something in my hand–say, my reading glasses–and then get distracted and set them down somewhere, rather absent-mindedly. Later, of course, I’ll need my readers and can’t remember where I laid them. I’ll rack my brain and try to recreate the scene of the crime: “Let’s see. I know I had them when I left the bedroom, and then I walked through the living room like this…” Sometimes, it works. Other times, I’m reduced to a simpler strategy: just look everywhere, and eventually you’ll find them.
But once in a while, something odd happens. As I search my memory, I become convinced that I know exactly where I left them. I remember–they’re on the kitchen counter, on the right side of the toaster! So I march there confidently–and they’re not there. I’m mystified, going back through my memory again, wondering how this could be. Then I start my corner-to-corner search of the house, and eventually find them: on the kitchen counter, on the left side of the toaster.
Now I’m really mystified. How could I not have seen them? I suppose the good news is that my memory wasn’t completely leading me astray; the glasses were next to the toaster. The bad news, though, is that my vision can be so narrow that the object of my search becomes invisible to me, even if it’s only ten inches to the left of where I expected it to be.
A not so trivial example. The Psalms and the prophetic writings of the Old Testament are filled with anguished longing. Some of it sounds self-righteous or even vengeful: I’ve followed your ways, O Lord–so why are my enemies doing so much better than I am? Isn’t it time for you to take them down?
But underneath it all is a deep sense of injustice. They know that they’re God’s covenant people, and that God had in mind to bless them. They also know, however, that they’ve not kept up their end of the bargain, and as a result have had to suffer God’s angry but righteous discipline.
Because of this, the constant refrain is How long? Here’s a highly charged example:
The nations have come into your inheritance, God! They’ve defiled your holy temple. They’ve made Jerusalem a bunch of ruins. They’ve left your servants’ bodies as food for the birds; they’ve left the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth. They’ve poured out the blood of the faithful like water all around Jerusalem, and there’s no one left to bury them. We’ve become a joke to our neighbors, nothing but objects of ridicule and disapproval to those around us. How long will you rage, LORD? Forever? How long will your anger burn like fire? Pour out your wrath on the nations who don’t know you, on the kingdoms that haven’t called on your name. They’ve devoured Jacob and demolished his pasture. Don’t remember the iniquities of past generations; let your compassion hurry to meet us because we’ve been brought so low. God of our salvation, help us for the glory of your name! Deliver us and cover our sins for the sake of your name! (Ps 79:1-9, CEB)
This isn’t just a scared child pleading for the spanking to end. This is a child that seems astonished that the father would be so angry that he’d let people come in to ransack and destroy the house. We know we’ve messed up, Lord. But letting foreigners take over the Promised Land? Raze the Holy City? Desecrate the temple??? Are you going to let all of your people–your covenant people, Lord!–be killed and left for carrion? Are you really going to let that happen?
It’s unthinkable. The firestorm of God’s anger seems to threaten everything for which the covenant stood. So the psalmist and the people plead for God to save them, not simply to end their own suffering–though that certainly is part of it–but for his name’s sake.
How long, O Lord? It’s that kind of deep groaning, a longing for salvation and God’s Messiah, that makes the Christmas story so poignant. I don’t mean the Magi of Matthew, or the shepherds and angels of Luke. I mean the other Christmas story:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. … The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world. The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light. The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him (John 1:1-5, 9-11, CEB).
Compared to the other gospels, the opening of John has an almost in-your-face quality: OK, people, this is who Jesus really is. The truth about him is much bigger than you thought. Are you going to believe it or not? Because here’s the thing: he came to those who should have immediately recognized him for who he was, and welcomed him with open arms–and they didn’t. What about you?
Put simply, Jesus wasn’t the Messiah many people expected. It didn’t matter how many miraculous signs he did; these could all be rationalized away, because he didn’t fit the profile. It makes me wonder: if we’re going to learn to live with a faithful expectancy, are we so sure that our expectations are in line with God’s intentions and promise? What if he does something that’s entirely different than what we expect?
Or just ten inches to the left?