Confusing Expectations for Anticipation
So “Tis’ the Season” is upon us and true to form our culture is heaping pressure to turn the “Season” into a stress filled, shopping fueled, money driven, Martha Stewart decorating standard season; which has very little to do with the birth of the Messiah. Don’t worry I am not going to go on a “Christmas is too commercialized rant.” I could do that and it is just sitting right under the surface and ready to explode like Mt. St. Helens in the 80s, but I won’t. I won’t because I want to focus on just what the church’s season of Advent is all about and why we kick-off the season with destruction, despair, and hope of a Messiah descending from the skies to make all things right. What does all this second coming passages have to do with the birth of Jesus and why do we read them during Advent?
First, let’s delve into the overriding images found in Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark. What both passages are dealing with are expectations. The expectations of the prophet Isaiah, the expectations of Jesus and his followers, and let’s be honest, our expectations. Expectations are funny things because we can get too focused on what we want and lose sight of what God is actually doing. In AA we say that an expectation is just a preconceived resentment and I have come to believe there is a lot of truth in that statement. I don’t believe that it is 100% true, but pretty close.
The prophet Isaiah is dealing with the reality that his expectations for his people’s return to Israel miss the mark by a long shot. The book of Isaiah follows the judgment, exile, promise, and return of God’s people. By the time we get to today’s reading the people had been living in exile in Babylon for more than 70 years. During their time in exile the prophet had been reporting that God would bring the people back to the promise land and all would be well. The reality is that the promise land is in ruin and all is not well. The Jerusalem is a mess, the walls are destroyed, the temple is gone, and graft, fraud, and misery are everywhere. Back in Isaiah’s time there weren’t war correspondents, and there wasn’t 24 hour news programs, or even news reels before movie screenings. All the people had to go on was the filtered words of travelers and the word of God. Nothing prepared them for the chaotic state of the promise land and their expectations of total restoration and land flowing with milk and honey has been leveled too. To understand how they felt just think of how the people of Baghdad feel about their city right now. Think about the people of Syria and other war torn areas. Think about Europe after WWII and all the ruined cities. Think about all the chaos, uncertainty and fraud that went on after 1945. That is exactly how the Jews felt when they returned to Jerusalem. There expectations were dashed and they didn’t know how to deal with reality. The starting point for rebuilding was to honestly lament and as all laments go Isaiah ends with hope.
A lament is the death of one’s expectations and coming to terms with reality. Isaiah laments the death of all his expectations for Israel and what God would do for his country and his people. Isaiah laments the truth that at their core people are still people who are capable of tremendous good and at the same time incredible self-serving evil. Isaiah laments his expectations of his people to have changed after 70 years of exile because the reality is that people are still all too human. The prophet also laments his expectation that God would change humans so that we would do God’s will and not our own. The beauty of Isaiah’s lament is that he transitions from grief to hope. Hope that God has a plan and that that chaos that he is experiencing is not the end of the story. Isaiah grasps that the Jews, people, and the world are all a work in progress and God isn’t done working. Isaiah moves from expectations to anticipation. Anticipation for the fulfillment of God’s good work and open to however that might turn out because God promises that it will all be good, very good.
In the birth of Jesus the Israelites had to move from their expectations that the Messiah would arrive like the re-incarnation of King David and destroy the gentile occupiers of their country. The expectation of how the Messiah would come was so ingrained in the psyche of the people that when the Son of God arrived God’s people couldn’t see him. Their expectations had been formed, molded and crafted for centuries from the time of Isaiah 64 through the birth of Jesus. God’s people didn’t simply refuse to believe it wasn’t quite black and white. God’s people had no concept that the Messiah would come poor, lowly, marginalized preaching peace, love, and mercy. God’s people were incapable of seeing Jesus as the Messiah. When Jesus calls the Jews and their religious leaders blind he isn’t being flippant. Rather, Jesus means that his people are blind to the truth because they were conditioned to see truth in what turned out to be false.
Jesus also had expectations. In our reading from Mark today Jesus has the expectation that the return of the Son of Man would happen in his follower’s lifetime. Some would say that Jesus was wrong. Personally, I don’t think Jesus was wrong, I just think his expectations were wrong. Or, more likely, our understanding of what Jesus was conveying to his disciples is wrong. Our reading today is known as, “Mark’s little apocalypse” and we interpret that to be Mark’s depiction of the end of the world. Our expectations of what apocalypse means is where we go astray.
Apocalypse means to uncover or reveal. What Mark does is reveal in very descriptive language what will happen in the very near future. What transpires a mere 10 years after this was written is that Rome, like Babylon before her, destroyed Jerusalem and dispersed the Israelites throughout the empire. All the Jesus speaks of occurs, but what about the Son of Man descending in the clouds? Jesus rose from the dead and Jesus ascended into heaven. Furthermore, Jesus through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension has dashed all our expectations of how God will and does function in the world.
Now, about our expectations. Yes, we do have expectations not only about Advent and Christmas, but also about the second coming. No matter how many times I say this our religious popular culture seems to drown me out. Don’t worry about the second coming! It’s Jesus! Jesus coming back is a good thing not a bad thing! That being said, let’s look at our expectations about the second coming and then look at the reality of Jesus’ words.
According to our gospel reading today “The son of Man will descend from the heavens.” Because of that phrase we tend to look up towards the skies waiting for Jesus to descend from the clouds to restore order. The problem with this is our expectations. We need to recognize that Jesus is already here among us. Last week in our lesson from Matthew concerning the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus is found in the least, last, lost and forsaken. Jesus is present in the naked, thirsty, hungry, sick, stranger, and imprisoned. Instead of looking up to the skies saying, “When God are you going to come and restore order” maybe we should look for Jesus a little closer to the ground.
No one can deny that the world is in disarray. No one can deny that our expectations for the world are not being met. And, I will be the first to admit that I lament that the world isn’t a better place. However, in our lament let us stop and think about what God is doing in the world and for the world. God is present in the people and organizations that strive for peace and justice. God is present in the church where we strive to bring wholeness and peace in the world. God is present in the Spirit in ways we are not made aware of because we are too focused on our expectations.
So, let us put our expectations to death and live in anticipation. Let us live in the anticipation that God works through the outsiders, the marginalized, the least, last, lost, and forsaken. Let us live in anticipation that God is working in the areas in which we are blinded. Just because we can’t see God’s work doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Just like God was working through Jesus two thousand years ago and God’s people didn’t recognize the Messiah I believe that we too are blinded to God’s activity in the world.
Like Isaiah we need to remember that God is the potter and we are the clay and we are being formed and molded as we speak. This world isn’t the finished product and we are not complete works. Let live in hopeful anticipation that God’s ultimate work will be beautiful, complete and awesome which will exceed all our expectations.