Deacon Terry preached a sermon a couple of weeks ago on expectations, meaning mostly the expectations we have for our own lives. Terry got me thinking not only about the expectations we have for ourselves, but also about the expectations we put on our children.
We have a new baby in my extended family, born just a few weeks ago, the first of the new generation in that line. He comes literally as the answer to prayer. Our family is thrilled. I hope to see him next week while I am down in Georgia visiting my parents.
Like every baby, our newest family member arrives with a host of expectations on him. But I’m a second cousin. I don’t get to impose my particular expectations on our latest addition. That’s for the closer members of his family to do.
So, I think back—way back!!—to the birth of my own children, the ones I did get to put expectations on. I look forward to the day they both become priests!
As some of you know, our eldest son is named after me. My full name is Benjamin Harvey Hill IV. It took a lot of persuading, but finally, against her better judgment, Carrie agreed that we could name our new baby Benjamin Harvey Hill V. I was thrilled.
But when baby Benjamin was born, I had second thoughts. Benjamin had a big head, but the rest of him was tiny. As I held that little baby in my hands, it occurred to me that naming him Benjamin Harvey Hill the fifth was putting a heavy weight on those little shoulders. We were imposing five generations worth of expectations on an eight-pound baby.
So far, the weight hasn’t crushed him. We’ll see what the future holds.
But if you have justifiable sympathy for poor Benjamin, with his five generations of expectations, think about the expectations on Baby Jesus on the first Christmas.
The Gospel of Matthew lists forty-two generations of ancestors, including David and all the kings of ancient Israel. Prophets had predicted Jesus’ birth centuries earlier. For literally hundreds of years, his people had looked forward in hope to the day their messianic king would be born. Compared to the load of expectation on Jesus, five generations is nothing.
And, of course, there was more than the LONG period of anticipation and hope weighing on Jesus at his birth.
In the lead-up to Jesus’ birth, angels announced to the Virgin Mary that her son would be the Son of God. On the day itself, a multitude of the heavenly host sang hymns of praise to God. Astonished shepherds who witnessed the angelic choir hurried to the manger to see the child, and to add a little more weight to the expectations on him. Sometime afterwards, wise men from the east came bearing gifts fit for a king. Yet more expectations.
Presumably, baby Jesus was unconscious of all the fuss. But as he grew up, Jesus surely learned about his illustrious forbears, and the predictions of the prophets, and the hopes of the people, and all the strange and wonderful things that happened around his birth.
I wonder what Jesus made of it all. The Bible gives us virtually no details of Jesus’ childhood, but the weight of all those expectations must have sometimes felt crushing.
I imagine Jesus processing while still a young boy, asking people what, exactly, the messiah was expected to do.
If Jesus did ask the question, we know the kinds of answers he would have heard. The messiah will come as a great and powerful king. The messiah will fix all our problems, starting by driving out the Romans. The messiah will set up his own kingdom, and those of us in the messiah’s kingdom will have everything we want.
I imagine young Jesus hearing that, treasuring those words, and pondering them in his heart.
But at some point, Jesus realized that those expectations weren’t right, that he wasn’t going to drive out the Romans and set himself up as king, that everyone was missing the point. Jesus had to push back against all the expectations others were trying to impose on him, and find his own way to fulfil his mission.
It wasn’t easy. We see that in the Gospels.
By the time he embarked on his public ministry, Jesus understood that his mission would end with his death and resurrection. Jesus tried, over and over again, to tell that to his disciples. But his disciples were so locked in on the idea that Jesus would be a king that they couldn’t hear him. Their expectations were grand. But their expectations were also like a blindness, limiting their capacity to see Christ for who he truly was. The same seems to have been true for everyone in the first century. As he came to the climax of his ministry, Jesus was alone in understanding what he had to do.
Only later did the disciples come on board.
First, they had to let go of their own expectations of Jesus, however slowly and painfully. They had to accept that Jesus was not going to fix all the problems of the world, that Jesus was not going to set up a worldly kingdom, that Jesus was not going to reward his disciples with lives of ease and plenty.
To make that move, they had to experience Jesus as he was. They had to watch Jesus die and rise again, and ascend into heaven. They had to receive Jesus’ commission to make disciples of all nations, working to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream that God has for it. They had to wait for the Holy Spirit, who inspired and empowered them to do what God called them to do.
It's like Jesus took all the expectations that people placed on him, refined and purified them, and then put them back on us, his followers. And, thankfully, equip us to do the work He gives us to do.
The question for us on this Christmas Eve, the question for us throughout the year but especially at Christmastime, is, can we let go of our own distorted expectations of God, embrace God’s expectations of us as God’s people, and live as God’s beloved children, following the example of Christ?
My prayer is that we can. And I pray that in the name of the one whose coming we celebrate this evening, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan