“The people were filled with expectation” (Luke 3:15).
What are your expectations? Do you expect to be safe? Do you expect more than a week might go by before another mass shooting is reported? Do I expect that by the time this is posted I will hear about more shootings, more terrorist attacks, more bombings, more senseless death? I do. Sadly, I really do.
Expectation is a double-edged sword, as they say. It can be full of anticipation. But it can also weigh you down so much that there is no possibility in sight of burying out. Expectations are complicated. They frequently seem beyond the possibility of being met, and so the following quote might ring true: “One day, she realized that she could never please everyone, so she gave up and decided to be herself. Whether other people liked it or not was not her business,” Anna Taylor. Depending on what they assume, expectations can generate a sense false optimism, even despair, because they seem too good to come true.
Expectations are heavy. They are frequently lodged outside of ourselves and beyond our control. And we tend to equate expectations with hope. That becomes perilous, because we often do not acknowledge or are able to articulate in what the hope is based. Then, of course, there are those expectations that are placed on us. Those we cannot meet, either because they are not fair or because we resent trying to meet them. Phrase expectations as you need. You need to be able to articulate them on your own terms because otherwise they are set for you. Always.
Expectations are dangerous. They elicit hope when there’s no ground to believe in hope. They cause us to strive for that which is not us, for that which is placed on us. They are set in place without acknowledging the truth of the contexts that make them often impossible to achieve.
But expectation now has reached a different kind of importance and urgency. We expect safety. We expect kindness. We expect grace. We expect tolerance. And what happens when expectations are shattered again and again? How do you cope?
I suspect that the expectations to which we have grown accustomed, which we have assumed, perhaps even those we have taken for granted, are now all up in the air. Which makes this verse from Luke stand out, speak out, shout out. I also suspect that this is what Luke had in mind. Expectations of God were being upended right and left. Expectations about God were being shattered in the presence and ministry of Jesus. Expectations about what it meant to follow God were being challenged. And I suspect that given the events of these past weeks and year, our expectations of God, our expectations about God’s activity in the world, our expectations about how to be a disciple in a world that appears to be hard at work rejecting God’s world are less than certain and seem rather unattainable.
We live in a clash of worlds. Perhaps that has always been and likely that always will be. But how do we deal with these painful intersections of what we want and what cannot seem to be? How do we maneuver through these junctions of expectancy and reality? How do we negotiate these convergences of war and the angels’ proclamation of peace?
What to do, Dear Working Preachers? You need to name the expectancy of expectations and the grief that results when expectations are not met. You need to talk about where and how and why what we expect cannot end up coming to fruition because it’s not grounded in any kind of perceivable or conceivable reality. You need to be honest about the feelings of dashed hopes, grounded or not, when expectations continue to go unfulfilled. You need to help your parishioners negotiate the varied truths of expectations, both of the world in which we live and the world God wants us to know and experience.
Here is the existential reality this week — we see, through the eyes of Luke, the potential and possibility of what the kingdom of God is and can be and yet it seems so far away.
Yet, here is the theological promise this week — that people are able to give witness to God’s truth in the face of the systems that try to suppress their truth; that those who believe in the world-changing gospel according to Jesus are able to testify to this gospel even in the face of resistance; that along with many other exhortations, the good news will be preached (Luke 3:18); that our human expectations are not God’s. And God’s expectations, unlike ours, are founded on and grounded in God’s met promises.
If we ever wondered if we really needed Advent, it is certainly now. Advent names and exists in the tensions identified above. Advent claims God’s expectations in the face of the world’s false ones. Advent says we can have expectations of God and God will meet them, because with God all things are possible.