One of the most significant issues we will deal with as human beings is the issue of unmet expectations. Disappointment. Things did not go as we thought they would.
We walk into a marriage with hopes and dreams and desires, and we find that the other person doesn’t share quite the same vision. Conversations suddenly grow muddy, forced, and guarded.
We thought we’d work our whole life in one life-giving stream. Our vocation was clear, the picture in our heads of the day-to-day duties charmed us through our preparation. The vision was strong enough to last late nights and sacrifices that others didn’t have to make.
Then suddenly through either diagnosis or downsizing we lose that vision. It is taken from us. Then we say, “What was it all for?”
The path with God begins in earnest, with energy and excitement for a new life growing within us like an infant in a womb. We read Scripture and it is electric, crackling from thought to feeling to action. Gathering with others fills us with grace and peace, and serving others fills our heart with wonder.
Then it felt as if someone shut off the faucet.
Every spiritual surface suddenly feels cold, at best. At worst, it feels as if we are wearing clothes from our childhood that pinch with every movement.
We thought it would go differently. I expected something more. What happened?
The birth of Jesus which we await and expect through the season of Advent was a profound disappointment.
Though we can’t dig into every piece, the birth of Jesus was a profoundly political event connected to the national and religious hopes of the world’s most resilient people. The covenant people of Israel were expecting, as songwriter Andrew Peterson says, “a king, on a throne, full of power, with a sword in His fist.”
Jesus comes meekly, under the cloud of a scandalous pregnancy. Two people – a carpenter and his fiancé – from irrelevant backwater town are those given the task of bringing the world’s true King safely into the world.
The bottom class shepherds hear from the divine, while those who sat in the seats of power and knowledge felt only fear. The scholars of Messianic prophecy ignored the whole thing. The paranoid in power brandished the sword, killing a generation to try and exterminate the one who would put him out of a job.
Men of Eastern descent show up to see toddler Jesus, nearly three years old. They precipitate Herod’s rage but they also tarnish the birth of a Messiah. Only Jews were invited to the Messiah’s carpentry-themed 3rdbirthday party. These men worshiped the stars, gods with names that Jewish folks wouldn’t dare pronounce.
Jesus’ life from then on was a celebration of unmet expectations.
As a child he dodged his parents and stayed in the temple talking with the scribes and Pharisees. When called on the carpet for not “honoring his father and mother,” Jesus replies coolly,
“What else did you expect?”
People thought. They had hoped. What happened?
Of course, the Gospel writers Matthew and Luke were writing the birth story with the end in mind. They were writing at least a decade after the church had exploded from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. These writers knew that a seemingly disappointing birth led to a disappointing life and execution. Also, they knew that this “disappointment” brought about a revolutionary resurrection.
Instead of political power, Jesus Christos – the Greek term for Messiah, or “anointed one” – showed the power of death and humility. Love won and disappointed everyone.
Jesus’ birth did not meet expectations.
The life of Jesus did not fulfill what was expected of a Messiah.
The death of Jesus proved, in the eyes of some, that the whole project failed.
Which is why…
The most fertile soil for our spiritual formation is the place of unmet expectations.
It was in the unmet expectations that Jesus embarrassed the self-sanctified powers. Yes, the journey from Bethlehem to the cross affected the salvation of the world but it also dethroned the political systems of oppression and injustice.
It is in our unmet expectations where we, along with Jesus, can diffuse the power of anger and rage and lust.
Our compulsive behaviors are in part our coping mechanisms for when life doesn’t go as we had hoped.
Disappointment is where we learn to live as holy and helpful people even when we don’t get our way. To drive in Chicago, for example, means understanding that slow drivers aren’t trying to ruin our lives. Instead, we release our need to control the pavement in front of us so that our anger cools to a hush.
Let-downs and roadblocks to our grand plan are lenses through which we see a new dream of reality that isn’t our plan but is far greater.
In this season of Advent, perhaps we need to confess where our expectations have not been met. We need to name, either out loud or by writing it down, the things that we had hoped would happen but didn’t.
As we do, we can reflect on the life of Jesus. He understands what it means to struggle with things not going as planned, but he also understands the grace that comes in grieving our expectations.
He knows the mysterious spirit than inhabits the “instead” moments that come after our expectations are extinguished.
If Christmas and Advent give us anything, it is the gift to say that God is alive and well in unmet expectations. In turn, we might live as well.