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Expectations

Many years ago, an Old Wise Head (he was an experienced pastor and probably all of 39 at the time) advised me that the key to successful marriage counseling lay with the use of the word “expectations.” Much of marital disharmony could be put down to unspoken expectations, he believed. He urged me, newbie pastor that I was, to keep the word firmly in mind and to collect stories illustrating the problem so that when the occasion arose, I’d have examples at hand to drive home the point. He mentioned one of his own favorites, about a wife who is frustrated when the windshield wipers give out and the husband who was oblivious to the fact that she expected him to stay on top of such things. Expectations were clearly the problem there. If only she’d told him that her father always took care of the family car.

My old mentor may well have been right about expectations. As it turns out, I never did much marriage counseling so cannot claim to know. However, you can’t be a student of the Bible for more than five minutes without having learned real respect for the word. One of the greatest stories in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is about expectations. It occurs in all 66 of its books, but nobody tells it better than Mark. In Mark, when the Long Expected One is introduced he turns out to be a King who rules but doesn’t rule, who liberates but doesn’t liberate, who saves but doesn’t save. Ancient Israel was expecting a champion powerful beyond the telling. Handsome, probably. Tall, quite likely. Someone who would stand on that historically important spot at the edge of the Dead Sea, put one big toe in the Jordan River and from there launch a military campaign that would out-Schwarzenegger Schwarzenegger. Someone alongside whom the Terminator, General George S. Patton and Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf would look like pasty-faced little boys.

Yes, ancient Israel was expecting a barrel-chested King Arthur to charge the river. And what they got (1:9-11) was a young ectomorph silently dipping himself into it. The irony makes Mark’s point: Jesus is so not what they expected. And, of course, not what we expect either.

As I write this, Mark is still a few months off in the lectionary cycle. It’s too bad we can’t just move him up because, it seems to me, he is the one who knows about the God of 2020, the God who subverts expectations. The God who doesn’t promise safety or rose gardens or even a fair return on a hard-earned, carefully-saved dollar. Who doesn’t guarantee your retirement or roof or respiration. The God of 2020 is not the safe house or safe harbor or safety net we expected. Not the God who gives security or stability at all. But the one who jumps into the chaos with us, who promises never to leave us, who, as the spirituality teacher James Finley says, has a mysterious way of always sustaining us.

The God of 2020 is the God who joins us in the tumbling waters of baptism. Who squeezes in next to us on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Who crawls into the emergency room bed with the ailing. Who breathes with the breathless and Zooms with the bleary. Who links steely ectomorph arms with the protestors jostled in the crowd and joins the chant. The God of 2020, Mark’s God, is not about power over but power with.

No, this year we are not getting the Jesus we have been expecting. This year, like every other year of our lives, we are getting the Jesus God sends. The big Jesus. The just Jesus. The one who joins us in our turmoil and faces down chaos in its many and various forms. Not at all what we imagined, and so much more than we expect.

Jana ChildersJANA CHILDERS is dean and professor of homiletics at San Francisco Theological Seminary and University of Redlands’ Graduate School of Theology.

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