A friend of mine sometimes counsels “expectations lead to resentment.” It’s his way of warning me not to get my hopes up about something or to expect too much. While I recognize the wisdom in that warning, I also think expectations can lead to spiritual growth. I can learn from my expectations and grow through them.
In the Gospel reading for Thursday in the Third Week of Advent we hear Jesus ask the followers of John the Baptist, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? What did you go out to see?” (Luke 7:24) Jesus asks them to reflect on their expectations. He asks this because their expectations of John and of the Messiah-to-come are blinding some of them to the fact that the Messiah, the long-awaited and hoped for savior, is standing right in front of them in the form of Jesus. Expectations have caused them to miss what God is doing in their midst.
When our expectations aren’t met we can get angry, hurt, or resentful. But if we pause for a moment and live in the space between the expectations we had, and the reality in front of us, we can learn. If I notice the difference between what I am actually seeing in a given moment and still remember what I was expecting to see, perhaps God can be in that moment of recognition. I may laugh or I may cry, but I notice. Those moments of recognition are what we are given in the season of Advent.
In these final days leading to Christmas, we surely have expectations for parties, dinners, presents, family reunions, phone calls, musical events, worship services, and more. In some cases a sense of foreboding might be mixed with what we expect. In other cases, our hopes might be based on previous experiences or heightened hopes for the future. A question for us to live into is this: Where is God in our expectations? Is God inviting us to pause and look closely at what is around us? Are we noticing the lights, the laughter, and the love already present? Or when there is a lack of such things, do we have the courage and faith to face the emptiness and welcome God even into our disappointments and resentments? Expectations can lead to grace and–this season and always–can lead us into the arms of God.