Advent: Adjusting Expectations for Life

Advent: Adjusting Expectations for Life December 18, 2023

Eugène Girardet (1853–1907); “Flight into Egypt;” Date unknown; Wikimedia {{PD-US-expired}}

Yesterday marked the third Sunday of Advent. This is the third of four reflections on Advent in 2023. The first reflection focused on Abraham who waited faithfully for the fulfilment of God’s promise involving the Messianic hope. The second focused on Zechariah and Elizabeth, who waited faithfully for God’s promise to give them a son who would prepare the way for the Messiah who would provide salvation for God’s people. This third reflection features Joseph, Mary’s husband, and the father of Jesus. Advent is all about waiting and adjusting expectations for life. Joseph learned the importance of adjusting his expectations for life as he waited on God for direction. It was a matter of life and death.

Life has a way of forcing us to make adjustments of various kinds if we are going to survive and thrive. Such adjustments include reconfiguring our expectations. One biblical example of a person who had to learn to adjust expectations for life is Joseph. He and Mary were engaged to be married. Before their marital union, news reached Joseph that Mary was expecting a child (Matthew 1:18). That information changed his and Mary’s expectations and plans.

Matthew’s Gospel informs us that Joseph was a righteous man. This being the case, he was not going to shame Mary, but divorce her quietly (Matthew 1:19). Before he could follow through on his change of plans, an angel of the Lord appeared and told him to proceed with the marriage. This was no typical conception and no typical child: “But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’” (Matthew 1:20-21; NIV)

One might expect Joseph to say in response to the angel, “What do you mean, ‘Do not be afraid’?” This news is overwhelming. I didn’t sign up for any of this! This plan does not fit my expectations for married life and raising a family. I’m out of here.” But Joseph does not fit most people’s expectations of what a typical man might do given the situation: “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus” (Matthew 1:24-25; NIV).

Joseph dutifully did what was expected of him as a husband and father. In keeping with Caesar’s census edict, Joseph went to Bethlehem, his ancestral home, to register with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and expecting the child (Luke 2:1-5). Later, after Jesus’ birth, Joseph and Mary took Jesus to present him to the Lord in complete obedience to God’s Word (Luke 2:22-24).

Time passed. Just when Joseph probably thought life was settling down to a new normal, some wise men from the east knocked at their door. They had come from afar to worship the child Jesus and present gifts to him. (Matthew 2:1-2, 10-11). Just as Joseph had no doubt wondered what neighbors were saying about Mary’s pregnancy and the child, now he may be thinking what the neighbors and authorities might say about their visitors.  King Herod was by no means pleased. In fact, he and Jerusalem were “disturbed” by their visit to worship the “King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2-3). Surely, this was not going to be good for Joseph’s carpentry business.

Sure enough, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to take Mary and the child and flee immediately to Egypt, as King Herod was determined to kill the small child Jesus: “When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” (Matthew 2:13-15; NIV)

Sometime later, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. The angel instructed Joseph to take Mary and the child Jesus back to Israel, since Herod was dead. When they returned home, God spoke to Joseph one more time in a dream. This time, God warned Joseph not to settle in Judea, but to take the family to Galilee, where they settled in Nazareth. (Matthew 2:19-23)

I count a total of four dreams in the canonical gospels in which God revealed an apparent change of plans to Joseph: Mary’s conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit, the command to flee to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath, the instruction to return to Israel after Herod’s death, and finally, the warning to leave Judea to avoid Herod’s successor.

If I were Joseph (and thank God for salvation history, I am not!), I would have suffered from insomnia or over-caffeinate simply to avoid sleep and dreams of God’s new directives. For most of us, dreams are uneventful. But for Joseph and his family, dreams involved great upheaval and a change of plans and expectations.

The last we read of Joseph is later in Luke 2. Jesus was now twelve and accompanied his parents to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. This was not the first time. As devout Jews, his parents had taken him to Jerusalem for the Passover ever since he was an infant. Several years have passed since anything eventful had occurred worthy of reporting. Joseph might have thought he and his family could finally experience normal life.

Hoping for normalcy would be wishful thinking. After the close of the Passover celebration, they realize Jesus is nowhere to be found. They finally locate him. He is among the religious leaders in the temple, asking them keen questions and providing astute answers. His deeply discerning interaction “stunned” everyone who heard him (Luke 2:47; NIV).

In contrast, when his parents found him, they were “shocked”: “When his parents saw him, they were shocked. His mother asked him, ‘Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been worried sick looking for you!’ Jesus said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you realize that I had to be in my Father’s house?’ But they didn’t understand what he meant. Then he returned with them to Nazareth and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. Jesus grew in wisdom and maturity. He gained favor from God and people.” (Luke 2:48-52; NIV)

If I were Joseph, I might have been miffed. Joseph might have been thinking, “What do you mean that you had to be in ‘My Father’s house’? You belong to my household, and you’re grounded!” But the text indicates nothing of the sort. All we know is that they did not understand Jesus, who returned home with them “and was obedient to them.” (Luke 2:50-51; NIV)

Joseph appears to be a master of adjusting his expectations for life based on God’s direction. How about you and me? Do we adjust our expectations for life based on God’s direction, which can apparently change in a moment? You and I might not have the benefit of God speaking to us in a dream through angelic messengers. But then again, who wants to be alerted in the middle of the night to ‘rude awakenings’?

There’s not enough space and time in this post to discuss how to discern God’s will, especially when one does not experience dreams and visions. What I do wish to emphasize is that we need to be discerning enough to adjust our expectations to fit abrupt and dramatic changes in life. Waiting for God to fulfill his promises requires adjusting our timeframe and being careful not to demand of God that life at Christmas and beyond turns out to look like a Hallmark card.

Joseph and Mary did not live a normal married life, but it was eventful. If we wish to be like Jesus’ godly parents and survive and thrive, we had better learn to think and operate like them.

In closing, my wife and I have been learning way more than we hoped to learn about marriage and parenting the past few years. When we made our wedding vows over thirty-three years ago, and when we beheld our firstborn child, Christopher, twenty-eight years ago (November 19th), we never expected that we would be making daily visits to an adult care facility where a traumatically brain injured Christopher now resides. It’s enough to make one bitter about life, bitter toward God, and envious of other families who appear to have life made. Such is life for those who expect everything to turn out to be like a Hallmark card or who play incessantly the chorus “#Blessed.”

But in viewing life through Joseph and Mary’s well-adjusted eyes, waiting for God to show up looks quite different. God shows up in dreams, visions, and even nightmares that alter one’s destiny. Joseph and Mary with their son had to endure the gossip mill about Mary’s pregnancy and Jesus’ birth. They often had to live out of a suitcase. They had to keep changing their expectations for what life would look like in view of Jesus. The same is true for all of us who have to change our expectations for life. It’s a matter of life and death.

Just think if Joseph was not willing to change his expectations for a ‘successful’ marriage and family life. He would have divorced Mary quietly and refuse to raise Jesus with her. Or he would have refused to take his family and flee to Egypt. I hate to imagine what life would have looked like for Mary and Jesus. No doubt, destitution, or perhaps a very premature death.

Just think if my wife Mariko and I were not willing to change our expectations for what a successful marriage and family can be. Actually, I would hate to think of it. What would it mean for Christopher, his wife, and daughter, or the rest of us?

As long as Jesus is in our lives, as long as Jesus makes those daily visits with us to the care facility, as long as Jesus resides with Christopher and bears him up, even as Christopher bears his name (“bearer of Christ”), as long as Jesus gives us the strength and wisdom to advocate for our son and his family, we can adjust our expectations for life and wait for God to be revealed in abnormal—or, should I say with Joseph, extra-ordinary—ways.

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I wrote a book about the liturgical calendar titled, Setting the Spiritual Clock: Sacred Time Breaking Through the Secular Eclipse. You can find a sampler here.

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University & Seminary; Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins; and Author and Editor of numerous works, including Setting the Spiritual Clock: Sacred Time Breaking Through the Secular Eclipse (Cascade, 2020). You can read more about the author here.
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