What do you expect?

A friend took a trip to visit some relatives with her son. Since they hadn’t seen her son in years, she went expecting them to have some curiosity about his family, his life, his plans.

It never happened. They ate together, they laughed, they talked, but the relatives never once spoke of anything except themselves. This had always been their pattern, in fact, but my friend had believed – hoped – that the presence of her son would make a difference. She left feeling disappointed. “I have to stop having expectations,” she told me.

I protested. It felt like she had given in to pessimism. But now I’m not so sure. I’ve had my disappointments, experiences where people haven’t lived up to my expectations. I have counted on them to be better, more generous, more loving, more gracious, more faithful than they turned out to be, and like my friend, I was disappointed.

Can we make people live up to our expectations for them? Not that I’ve noticed, and I’ve tried. We have no power to make other people conform to our plans, our hopes, our desires for them.

Perhaps this yearning for someone to live out our expectations is what makes marriage is so difficult. We enter into this most intimate of relationships and give ourselves to another with all sorts of preconceptions about how our love will be received and reciprocated. These expectations have been formed over many years of waiting for that special someone, that friend and lover who will complete us and share life with us. But at some point, reality crashes headlong into our expectations and we feel – disappointed.

He should do more X, she should enjoy more Y, this thing we call “we” should be better than it is. We “should all over each other”, as another friend once quipped. “Should” is an expectation word. It’s a hard word. It has absolutely no power to affect reality and it’s often very frustrated by its impotency. The world should be at peace. People should be kinder to each other. Young children shouldn’t die of cancer. Love should be mutually satisfying. Life should be fair.

We have expectations of God, too, don’t we – expectations that he often fails to meet? We expect him to accept us as we are, because he’s loving and we’re doing the best we can. We expect him to bless us, because he’s good and we really need a break. We expect him to rescue us, because he’s powerful and we’re in a jam. We expect answers to our prayers, not silence.

We expect God to do something about everything we’re powerless to change ourselves.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, Israel had been living through centuries of expectation that Messiah would come, as promised by the prophets, and would rescue them from the terrible jam they were in. It’s probably true that some, perhaps many, had stopped having expectations of God. But a few held on.

Simeon was “eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel,” writes Luke (Luke 2:22-35). So he went to the temple one day, led by God’s Spirit, and arrived in time to see Mary and Joseph presenting the newborn Jesus to God as required by the law. And at that moment, Simeon knew that his expectations had been fulfilled.

He took the child in his arms and praised God, saying, “Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace, as you have promised. I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!” Jesus’ parents were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them, and he said to Mary, the baby’s mother, “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” (Luke 2:28-35 – NLT)

Like Simeon, we’re supposed to live expectantly. The writer of the book of Hebrews tells us that faith is “confidence in things hoped for, believing in things unseen.”

To live expectantly in this sense is to live with the confidence that God is alive, at work, and moving in our personal lives as well as in all of human history and experience. To live expectantly is to recognize that our expectations often – usually – fail to comprehend what God is really up to.

In Christ, God did what we never could have expected. He sacrificed his son, he vanquished death, he wiped away our sins, and he took all of our unfulfilled expectations and fulfilled them in himself. Simeon never imagined anything more than God rescuing Israel. God had much bigger fish to fry – reconciling the entire world to himself.

We live in circumstances were our expectations very often come to naught. We live with hopes that very often turn to disappointment. These realities are symptoms of a world broken by sin. But if the stories told about Jesus are true, we can expect that God invites us to get to know him, to walk through life with him, and to have confidence that our expectations, if rooted in his faithfulness, his goodness, his grace, will not disappoint.

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