The Agony and Ecstasy of the UnexpectedAdvent
When I was 8, I set my hope on a GI Joe for Christmas. I secretly hoped for all the equipment that came with that toy. On Christmas morning, the package under the tree with my name was the size and shape of the GI Joe. When I opened the package, it was not the GI Joe that I’d expected, but an action figure named “Buddy Charlie.” The figure was dressed in camouflage and boots but it wasn’t the popular GI Joe brand that I longed for. Every time I brought out my Buddy Charlie, I was disappointed that it wasn’t the GI Joe I’d imagined.
In her book, Adverbs for Advent, Marilyn McEntyre writes: The mystery and paradox of Advent lie in its emphasis on expectation: believers wait in “sure and certain hope” that what has happened will happen again. It is possible to live expectantly without insisting on or even naming what we expect. It is possible to “look for with anticipation” without a particular object in mind, like a child without a Christmas list (a dwindling remnant) for whom the unopened package promises utter surprise… To live expectantly is to live in hope–even in longing–but also to wait patiently for what will happen in due time… to live expectantly is to know something is afoot. The scriptures we read today illustrate the difference between living with expectations and living expectantly.
Matthew tells the story of John the Baptist in prison. John’s disciples kept him informed of what Jesus was saying and doing. John sends a message to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?”
John the Baptist’s tone is absolute despondency. Not only despondency over his own plight but his unmet expectation for who he thought Jesus was and what he thought Jesus was supposed to do. John had been Jesus’ greatest frontman. In fact, John had staked his life on Jesus being a reigning king who would come and take hold of the Jewish nation and lead them. That had not happened.
When Jesus heard John’s question, he told his disciples, “Go tell John what you see and hear.” In other words, John is going to have to decide whether Jesus is the one who had been promised. The disciples and John were directed to look at the evidence for themselves.
I think Jesus is telling John to pay attention to what you have seen and what you have heard because it is there. You have missed it because you have been focused on your own expectations for the Messiah.
In his response, Jesus referred to our Isaiah scripture. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear. The dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.“ The evidence is there, the facts are in front of you. Maybe what you expected and what you have been waiting for didn’t happen in the way that you thought it was going to happen.
Is Advent a season of expectations and waiting for those to be fulfilled or is Advent a season of waiting expectantly to recognize Jesus among us? There is still fulfillment yet to happen. We still need to resolve our own expectations for ourselves. Is Jesus the one we expected? Or, have we been disappointed like John that it hasn’t worked out as we’d hoped?
The last thing Jesus says to John is “the poor have good news preached to them,” which had not been in the Isaiah scripture. It is not all in the miracles of healing, but people’s lives are being changed.
In Matthew, Jesus asks us to notice what God is already doing in response to our expectations. Isaiah’s passage fosters expectancy– what will God do? Isaiah is preaching to captives of war who have been wounded, maimed, and blinded. They were as despondent as John the Baptist in prison.
In Isaiah’s prophecy, the words “shall” or “shall be” are used 25 times in these ten verses. The dry land shall be glad. The desert shall rejoice and blossom. Waters shall break forth in the wilderness. The desert will become an oasis. In verses 3 & 4, “the weak are given strength, the fearful are given courage. The feeble are made firm and the coming of the Lord brings salvation.”
Isaiah is saying the wilderness the Israelites are experiencing is not a journey of struggle but it is a journey of hope. In verses 8-9, Isaiah describes a great highway, a way through the wilderness. This great highway is a vision of how God will make a safe passageway out of the wilderness.
God will prepare a highway for us that will lead us from the barren dry places to the place that God has prepared. Our waiting may not have produced the results that we expected but God is present with us. This highway of hope for us is a reminder that God guides our path during this in-between time.
In our in-between time, we must endure and interpret a lot of noise. We may long to go backward, to a more stable time. Others want nothing more than to forge ahead and discover a new beginning. Few want to live in the disorientation of the in-between time where nothing feels resolved. And yet, this moment is ripe with possibility for learning exactly where we need to be.
Jesus calls us to go beyond our expectations and see and hear what is happening now. Isaiah calls us to expectant hope and to wait patiently for what will happen in due time. To live expectantly is to know something is afoot.