December 6, 2018

Advent 2018

"When Expectations Turn Out Not So Glorious"


For more than half a millennium the Jewish people had looked forward with great anticipation to the time when the Lord would send them a messiah, one anointed by God to be their savior.  In the intervening centuries they endured civil wars, invasion, and domination by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and finally the Romans.


The Prophets promised them deliverance.  The hope and expectation was that the Deliverer would be a ruler like the greatest king in their history, King David.  He would come in like a tornado, and, like David, he would destroy their enemies, and restore the nation to its former glory.  But, in fact, the Prophets wrote about two types of Deliverers, and they were very different.  One was indeed the warrior-king like David, and we read about him in such books as Daniel and Ezekiel, among others of the Prophets.  The other appears in such passages as the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah.


Being human, like the rest of us, the Jewish people of the first century were more attracted to the warrior-king than they were to the servant who voluntarily endures suffering on behalf of those he loves.  Winning is always better than losing.  Isn't it?


When we follow the course of the life of that baby born in a stable in Bethlehem, we wonder:  "What happened?"   At his birth, angels sang to announce his arrival.  Foreign dignitaries came to honor him with expensive gifts.  By contrast, even shepherds, the "least of these," came to pay him homage.

Babies are wonderful; they don't threaten anybody.  Well, Herod thought so, but he'd be dead by the time the babe in the manger could cause him any trouble.  By the time that baby had grown to adulthood, however, he became a threat to the entire religious and political establishments.  His brief life would be dominated by conflict, controversy, and finally crucifixion.  How could such glorious expectations have finished in such an inglorious ending?

Bjorn Thorkelson, a contemporary American artist, has a powerful painting that can help us understand how such a thing can happen.  An empty trough filled with straw sits in the middle of a stone floor.  The shadow of a cross falls across the trough.  The implication is clear:  the Deliverer will indeed appear, but how he will deliver us is something other than what we expected.  As he so often does, God surprises us again.

Herein, it seems to me, is one of the messages of Advent that we find easy to overlook.  We don't always get what we expect.  Sometimes what we get falls horribly short of what we expected.  Sometimes, we wonder if we were expecting the wrong thing in the first place.  There is, however, good news:  even when our expectations are far from met, or even if they are met in a way that makes us wonder how such things can even happen, God can glorify them.

-- Howard Pendley


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