What are you expecting? (Third Advent)

The year 2020 is almost over. “Good riddance,” I’ve heard some say, and I’ve thought the same to myself. These last several months have been disruptive at best, traumatic at worst. It’s not merely the virus itself, but all the collateral damage that the global and national pandemic has wrought. Some people are isolated and depressed, suffering the effects of too little togetherness. Others, quarantining with family, are struggling with too much togetherness. It’s not that they don’t love each other. It’s just that they’re used to having a bit more control over their environment and schedule — more privacy, more independence.

Seems you just can’t win.

When the pandemic began in March, we lamented and complained, but figured it would all be over in a couple of months. End of summer, at the outside — after all, won’t the hot weather help? The numbers trended down…hooray! Then they went back up…oh, no! And here we are, in December, in the midst of another surge of infections, still breathing through masks (you are using a mask, right?) and washing our hands to death.

Personally, I never expected the pandemic to go on so long. As a teacher, I’ve had to rework and rewrite all of my courses for online presentation; the Bible class I teach Sunday mornings now has to be done with PowerPoint and Zoom. It’s way more work. But hey, I figured, it’ll just be for a couple of months, right? Then everything will go back to normal.

Things still aren’t normal, and we don’t know what the new normal will be. At some point, I assume, the pandemic will be over. People are putting their hope in the development and deployment of new vaccines, and I pray that they will be as effective as some have claimed. But COVID has altered the social landscape, and some things may never be the same again.

Ask me today, right this second, what I’m hoping for — and I’ll tell you that the end of the pandemic is number one on my list. No more COVID. No more masks that steam up my glasses. No more hand sanitizer. No more having to keep our distance from people we really want to hug. No more arguments over who’s taking unnecessary risks and who’s being needlessly paranoid (or possibly both, on alternating days). No more…well, you can fill in the blank yourself. Stop when you reach a hundred or so.

It’s natural to hope for the end of the things that cause us real suffering or just plain inconvenience. But the season of Advent represents a different kind of hope.

Israel’s hope for the coming of their Messiah always had two sides to it: salvation and restoration. They longed for the restoration of the glory days that would be brought by God’s anointed king, born of the line of David. But that also meant the defeat of their enemies; God would have to rescue them from the oppressor du jour, from whatever godless nation had them under their thumb.

How long, O Lord? Save us! Put things back the way they were. Put things back to normal.

Such was the long-standing hope when Jesus was born. Even his name, taken back to its Semitic roots, may mean, “God saves.” His demonstrations of divine power led many to believe that he would be the one to save and restore the people. Hosanna! Save us, Son of David! That’s the Messiah they expected.

It’s not the Messiah they got. One might even say he was killed for not living up to expectations. That’s because there’s another name we should remember at Advent: Emmanuel. Not merely God saves, but God with us.

It’s not quite what the people expected. Instead of a savior who would put things back to normal, they got a savior who established a new normal, an unexpected one.

We’ll ponder that new normal together on Fourth Advent. But meanwhile, it might be good to ponder this: if Advent is a season of expectation, then what, exactly, are we expecting?