Posts Tagged ‘expectations’

Not up to our expectations?

July 8, 2017

Pentecost 5 -2017

Matthew 11:15-19, 25-30

Marian Free

 In the name of God who defies and exceeds our expectations. Amen.

Some things just don’t live up to our expectations. For example, I found the musical: “Phantom of the Opera” truly disappointing. I had gone with high expectations, but the show left me feeling that something was lacking. “Les Miserables” on the other hand, has never failed to impress whether it be musical or not, stage or film.

The same is true of people. We build up a picture in our mind of someone we have never met, only to find when we meet them or come to know more about them our ideas were quite wrong. A week or so ago the TV programme Compass featured the controversial Anglican priest from Gosford. Rod Bower is known for the sign outside his church that sometimes makes it into

Example of Sign at Gosford Anglican Church

the national news and frequently features in my Facebook feeds. With no information other than Rod’s slogans, I had formed the idea that he had to be something of an extrovert. Compass began with a clip of him setting up the sign and clips of him leading and speaking at demonstrations – both of which suggested to me that he was happy to put himself out there, to engage with people and to be a public figure. However when the journalist interviewed him, he revealed himself to be intensely introverted – to the extent that he found joining parishioners for coffee after church difficult. In reality, Rod was the complete opposite of what I had expected.

It is human nature to create expectations about people and events. By and large we don’t like to be caught by surprise so we prepare ourselves. If we are traveling or attending an expensive show, we do a certain amount of research to ensure that our money is well spent and that we won’t be disappointed. If we are inviting a speaker to a conference we do a certain amount of background research to ensure that they will deliver. In the case of someone whom we have never met, we use the information to hand to create a picture in our imagination. If the person is very different from our expectations we might find ourselves either disappointed or pleasantly surprised.

Jesus found himself in a lose/lose situation. He did’t seem to fit any existing expectation. If he had behaved like John the Baptist – neither eating nor drinking – he would have been rejected as a “wowser” or a “party-pooper”. On the other hand, if he came eating and drinking, he would have been accused of being a party-animal or libertine. At this distance, we have no really clear idea what the first century Judeans expected of one sent by God. Some, it appears, thought that John the Baptist really did fit the bill. He was an ascetic, a prophet who challenged the status quo. People flocked to hear him and to be baptised by him, but the establishment who found both his message and his life-style too confronting did not accept him. Jesus on the other hand appeared to be too ordinary, too much “one of the people” to be the “holy one of God”. It is not that he couldn’t please some, Jesus felt as though he couldn’t please anyone.

Even though Paul and our gospel writers have done a great job of combing through the Old Testament looking for texts that demonstrate that Jesus does conform to the expectations of the anointed of God, their efforts demonstrate never-the-less that it is impossible to find an exact fit for Jesus. Nowhere in the Old Testament does it say explicitly what the people of Israel should be looking for. In fact, some of the expectations contradict each other – the suffering Servant of Isaiah for example, is the opposite of a king of the line of David. As a result of the confusion, by the beginning of the first century there were a variety of expectations. These are evident in the Dead Sea Scrolls or other inter-testamental writings. People variously thought that God might send a king or a prophet or a priest or perhaps that Elijah would return to save the people. Even so, given their rejection of Jesus, it does seem that above all the people of Judah expected a king or at least a soldier – someone who would free them from the foreign oppressors – the Romans.

Despite what our gospels imply, there was at that time no one, fixed, expectation of the “one who was to come”. It was no wonder that Jesus was not universally accepted as the Christ, no wonder that the crowds found it so easy to turn against him when it seemed that it was all going sour.

Jesus simply didn’t fit. He was not a king, or a soldier or a priest. He was not convincing enough to gain the approval of the leaders of the faith and as a result was ultimately unable to maintain the loyalty of the ordinary citizens.

I am sometimes asked: “Why didn’t the Jews believe that Jesus was the Messiah?” The answer lies in today’s gospel – Jesus was not what they expected him to be. Despite everything – his teaching, the healings, the miracles – Jesus did not live up to their expectations or their hopes. He didn’t gather the nation together as a united front against Rome, against the Gentiles, against the hypocritical leaders or even against those who failed to keep the law in its entirety. As a Messiah Jesus was nothing short of disappointing and, to cap it off, his mission ended with his ignominious death.

Expectations – we all have them. What if our expectations of Jesus are the wrong ones? Would we do any better than the first century Jews if Jesus were to come again today or tomorrow?

Our task is to let go of our expectations and to develop a sense of openness to whatever God might do next, whenever and wherever that may be.






Why don’t they just ask?

September 19, 2015

Pentecost 17 – 2015

Mark 9:30-37

Marian Free

 In the name of God who withholds nothing and who reveals Godself to those who seek. Amen.

“Why didn’t you just ask?” These are the words that are uttered by an exasperated parent or frustrated teacher when confronted with a child or student who has misunderstood what was required, done something foolish or embarked on the wrong exercise. If only they had asked for clarity, they might not have got themselves into such a muddle or headed off in the wrong direction. There are a number of reasons why people do not ask for clarity, for direction or for permission. Some people are afraid that asking a question will expose their ignorance or foolishness. Others are ashamed to admit that they do not understand and still others assume that they have understood what is required and so there is no need to ask. The problem is that a failure to ask can have disastrous consequences. People end up going off at a tangent – either tentatively because they do not understand or confidently because they are so sure that they have got it right that they don’t need to ask. It is only when things go awry, when it clear that they are lost, doing the wrong exercise or using the wrong tools that such people wish that they had asked.

The situation can be even worse with relationships. One person in the relationship may draw the wrong conclusion or inference from what the other has said or done. As a result the relationship may be damaged or, in the worst case scenarios, the person who has misunderstood may becomes bitter or trapped into a way of thinking and behaving that prevents them from growing and maturing. Think for example of the child who perceives a parent’s reserve as a lack of affection and who carries that perception around like a stone only to discover that they were wrong all the time. “Why didn’t you ask?” Is the cry of the anguished parent or the misjudged person – I would have told you: that you were loved; that I was proud of you; that you never disappointed me. “I would have told you.” “You need not have been afraid.”

“Why didn’t you just ask?” could have been Jesus’ question to his disciples. For the second time now Jesus has told the disciples that he will be betrayed and killed and on the third day will rise again. The idea that their leader and teacher should be put to death is so foreign to the disciples that they simply cannot come to terms with it. The first time Jesus announced his death, Peter rebuked him and was in his turn roundly rebuked by Jesus. Perhaps it is no wonder that the disciples are now afraid to ask Jesus what he means. Not only do they not wish to look foolish, they might also be a little afraid of Jesus’ frustration.

So the disciples react in the way many of us do when we do not understand, they change the subject. Instead of asking Jesus what he means, instead of trying to grapple with what Jesus is saying, instead of trying to understand what sort of Christ this might be, they turn to something familiar: who among them is the greatest? Here they are on solid ground. In first century society honour and shame determined a person’s place in the world. Honour had to be won and shame avoided.

Faced with something utterly beyond their comprehension, the disciples turn to a familiar argument – who, in their little group, has the highest status? By focusing on something they do understand reveal not only their failure to grasp what Jesus had just said to them but their complete misunderstanding of what he is about.

Jesus doesn’t respond by saying: “Why didn’t you ask!” Nor does he express his exasperation by rebuking the disciples. This time he takes a different approach. If the disciples don’t understand what he says, perhaps they will comprehend an action that illustrates what he is trying to tell them. That is that honour and status have no place among those who follow a Christ such as he who is destined to suffer and to die. So he sits down and says: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and the servant of all.” Then he places a child in the midst of them before taking it in his arms and saying: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Later Jesus will use a child to demonstrate the innocence and simplicity required of those who would enter the kingdom, but here his purpose is quite different. In the first century worlds of both Palestine and of Rome, the place of children was complex. On the one hand they had value as those on whom the future depended, on the other they presented a liability, as they had to be nurtured and protected and yet they contributed nothing to the household. An adult slave was a more productive member of the household than a child. At the same time a child had no legal status or power and therefore could not bestow honour or status on those who welcomed them. (A child was not worth the time or effort of someone’s attention, as they could give nothing in return.)

By insisting that a child be welcomed and respected, Jesus subverted the social conventions of his time and illustrated more clearly than words are able that discipleship contradicts the norms of society and that Jesus’ leadership turns on its head everything the disciples thought they knew and understood. Those who follow him will have to stand outside the culture and renounce the values honour and shame. True greatness, Jesus suggests, cannot be achieved by serving only those who can give you something in return, rather it lies in welcoming those who can give nothing – the disabled, the poor, the unclean, the widow, the child anyone who is considered an outsider, anyone who has no status at all.

What the disciples have yet to grasp is that Jesus’ leadership is completely counter-cultural, it does not and will not conform to known categories, but will continue to contradict and to subvert their expectations and their view of the world and will demand the same of them.

Jesus continues to subvert and confound our expectations. He refuses to be categorized. He will not be tied down to societal norms. He breaks the rules and relates to the wrong people. His behaviour shocks and unsettles. We like the disciples continue to be confused and disconcerted. We try to fit Jesus into known categories, to confine him to the limits of our expectations, to force him to be conventional. In our efforts to understand we may follow many false leads and wander off on our own paths.

If only we could admit our ignorance. If only we would ask. If only we would search the scriptures for answers, open our hearts to the Spirit who knows what God has yet to reveal to us?

Alarm bells

January 3, 2015

Epiphany – 2015

Matthew 2:1-12

Marian Free

In the name of God who is always the same and yet always challenging (alarming) those who are open to God’s presence. Amen.[1]

In a recent edition of The Christian Century I read the following story. A parish in the United States was in the habit of presenting a “live nativity pageant” – real people and real animals spread out over the expansive front lawn. It was the practice on these occasions for the magi to appear from elsewhere and to this end, those playing the role of magi put on their costumes in the hall of the local Catholic Church. One year, the enterprising participants decided to add to the mystery and drama by arriving in a cloud of incense. They borrowed a Thurible from the Catholics and set off towards their own Church having first made sure that the coals were well alight and that the incense was smoking. As they made their way to their destination, they were perturbed to hear the sirens of the fire trucks. Unbeknownst to them, they had triggered the smoke alarm in the hall and this had sent a signal to the local fire department. When the firemen finally tracked down the cause of the problem, one was heard to say: “You %#@& wise men are setting off alarms all over town!”

Our passive nativity scenes do not adequately capture the extraordinary nature of the visit of the magi – who must have seemed exotic, different and disturbing at the time. Indeed we know that not only Herod, but also all Jerusalem trembled at their presence. Over time, the magi have been stripped of their mystery and their power to disrupt our comfortable lives. Subsequent generations of believers have domesticated these magicians/astrologers. They no longer appear as figures who are strange and disquieting. These days they are more often referred to as kings or as wise men rather than as magicians. Their number has been determined and history has given them names and nationalities – even to the point of guessing the colour of their skin.

The text however is clear. These men – whose origin, nationality and number are unknown to us – were men who studied the sky and interpreted the movements of the stars and the planets. (Today we – good Christians that we are – might shun them as proponents of astrology, people who believe that they not God can look into the future.) Yet it is heir study of the sky is the reason that they (and apparently no one else) have noticed the star and guessed at its meaning. Even Herod, the chief priests and the scribes appear not to have noticed this phenomenon or, if they had, they had not realised its significance. No wonder the presence of the magi set alarm bells ringing.

What was the cause for alarm? First century Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city. Successive invasions would have ensured that many cultures were represented in the city. The Pax Romana ensured that roads were safe to travel and merchants and others were, as a consequence, quite mobile. Apart from this people (not only Jews) from all over the Empire would have come to worship at the Temple. The city would not have been without its fortune-tellers, healers and miracle workers. From this vantage point, the magi might have looked like any other visitors to the city. Added to this, Matthew implies that their presence should not have been unexpected. The Old Testament bears witness in many places to an expectation that when God restored the fortunes of Israel, “all the nations” would stream to Jerusalem to worship God.

The thing that makes these particular visitors so disturbing is that it is they, not the leaders of Israel have understood the importance of the star and of the birth of the child. Unlike the Israelites who are shown to be ignorant of and then indifferent to the presence of Jesus among them, the magi recognise what is going on and have come from a distance to worship the child.

From this vantage point, their presence is disturbing – indeed alarming. Their part in the story of Jesus’ birth indicates that God is doing something radically different and unexpected. That is, God is giving the Gentiles a prominent place in the unfolding story of the people of God. The identification by the magi of Jesus as the Christ implies that from now on everything is going to be different – as indeed it turns out to be. As Paul’s letters reveal, one of the most confronting and difficult issues for the emerging church was this: “what is the place of the Gentiles and how much should our traditions and practices change so that they can be included?”

For us, the magi provide a romantic element to the accounts of Jesus’ nativity, but “King Herod was troubled and all Jerusalem with him.” Not only did the birth of the King of the Jews threaten Herod’s position and the peace and stability of Jerusalem, but it also shattered the expectations about how God would act and threw open previously unthought-of possibilities with regard to God and God’s relationship with the world.

In life, but more particularly in faith, most of us become comfortable with the way things are. We tend to think that because God has acted in a particular way in the past, God will continue to behave in that way in the future. In so doing, we make God a servant of our expectations; we place boundaries on the way that we think God will act and we blind ourselves to God’s intervention in our lives and in the world. God is not and cannot be a slave to our expectations.

Matthew’s account of the magi raises important questions: Do we want to keep things the same or are we willing to allow our world-view to be shaken and tossed upside down by God’s once more breaking through our complacency and entering into our world. When the alarm bells ring – do we look to immediately extinguish the flames or do we ask ourselves whether God is saying something new and radical, challenging us to move in new directions and to open our eyes to new possibilities? And do we have the courage to accept the change that that involves?

[1] (With thanks to Thomas Long (Christian Century) Blogging Towards Sunday, Epiphany, 2015, 2014.

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