Thursday, December 12, 2013

A God that exceeds our Expectations

Third Sunday of Advent Year A

I had just recently returned from a whirl-wind pilgrimage of Eastern Europe, covering 9 countries (10, if you include our transit in Istanbul). It was an exhilarating experience taking in the whole width and breadth of Catholic culture, both past and present, that has left a deep and lasting imprint on this region. However, our last day in Rome was marred by an incident where the backpack of one our members, who had painstakingly filmed and compiled footage of our journey, was stolen, together with the all the equipment that was used for the filming. One of the pilgrims commented with pain visibly slipping through the cracks in her voice, ‘It’s as if our memories had also been stolen.” All efforts to recover the lost goods and footage were fruitless. Appeals to the hotel were frustrating, as the complaints were met with indifference and denial. Ironically, the reply, which must have been a standard computer generated answer, given by the hotel began with this line, “We regret that your expectations were not met …” Which begs the question, did they really feel remorse or regret, or were they implying that our expectations were unreasonable?

I guess the message that the hotel wanted to convey to my friend was simply this, ‘Life will not always turn out the way you want it to; so suck it in, grow up and move on.’  Maybe you don’t get that promotion you think you deserve.  Or maybe your marriage doesn’t turn out the way you imagined.  Or perhaps something tragic happens to someone you love or you’re close to.  Or you don’t get the response you want from your Parish Priest. Or sometimes, the homily you’ve spent hours preparing doesn’t come out right. So often we have expectations of what life is supposed to be or what this life is supposed to provide to us but we are disappointed.  What are we to do? The most common answer would be to go in search for another solution.

The Bible is full of stories of persons who struggle with unmet expectations. Take for an example St John the Baptist whom we hear about in today’s gospel. Due to his courageous denunciation of Herod’s adulterous liaison with Herodias, John the Baptist was thrown in prison. In that lonely confinement, John heard of the “works of Christ.” He sent a message to Jesus, asking: “Are you the one who is to come, or have we got to wait for someone else?” John was at a crossroad: should he settle with Jesus, the less than promising Messiah, or should he start looking all over again? Had Jesus not fulfilled the expectations John entertained? Had the Baptist hoped that Jesus would be a different kind of ruler, and perhaps usher in a political regime?  Or was John the Baptist struggling to back up what he had said about Jesus? All these could be real possibilities.

John had preached about the Messiah's kingdom coming with power and justice and baptising with fire and the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Baptist kept harping that a greater One is coming; a stronger One, One whose sandal he was not worthy to untie. John the Baptist created very high expectations in the people.  But instead of an explosive charismatic fire-brand sort of a figure, Jesus came across as a fizzled-out firecracker. We are presented with an image of a pacifist rather than a rebel leader, preaching a message of meekness, powerlessness, vulnerability and forgiveness. This was not going to go down well with the constituents who had grown impatient with the yoke of Roman imperialism. Unable to reconcile the contradictions and imprisoned in his thoughts, John may have doubted his own preaching. Perhaps, as he now sits in prison, John himself may have begun to doubt whether he had backed the wrong man and had wasted his entire life for a foolish cause. And so he sends a delegation to either confirm or dispel his suspicions.

Jesus then gives this reply which makes allusions to the signs of the Messianic age as prophesied by Isaiah: “Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.” These are words of assurance, not only for the Baptist as he prepares to meet death at the hands of Herod, but also for all generations. Even though the way of discipleship will be exceedingly difficult and sometimes we are tempted to give up when our personal strength gives out, we will be sustained by the words of Jesus – “the blind see again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and deaf hear.” No matter how bad things may seem, no matter how reality falls short of our expectations, no matter how dark the situation may appear, we are confident of the victory won by Jesus Christ.

The miracles cited by Jesus can be read on multiple levels. The prophecies in the Old Testament are not just simplistic predictions of an age filled with miraculous magic shows, but rather they are part of a wider drama in God’s plan of salvation.  As the drama reaches its climax, evil is finally defeated and the Messianic Age, or the Kingdom of God is established for ever.  Jewish expectations generally thought in terms of a Wrathful God raining down fire on Israel's political enemies, namely Rome in the first century, thus leading to their defeat. It would be clear from the content of Jesus’ preaching that this wasn’t part of his master-plan. Jesus pointed out the other half of the equation.  The battle was on a vaster scale – a cosmic conflict between the Kingdom of God and the forces of evil. Thus, the miracles served to demonstrate this. In themselves, they were the first glimmers of that kingdom, the defeat of suffering and pain. 

As history would demonstrate, the defeat of Rome proved not to be a military defeat, but a spiritual defeat.  Christians did not rise up in armed rebellion to overthrow the Roman Empire; they proved victorious, however, by converting the hearts of their enemies and persecutors. The Kingdom of God, therefore, is not a political entity, nor is it some future post-apocalyptic kingdom, but the rule of Jesus in the hearts of Christians.  It is the Church Invisible. Jesus was a Messiah who would show his people how to obtain spiritual freedom – a freedom ever more important than political freedom. And he would do so gently and firmly, with the spirit of Love. He came to show the Jews that God is a God of mercy, not of anger or destruction. He came to bring salvation, not political emancipation.

The temptation still lingers among the faithful as to whether God will answer their prayers and choose to intervene; and if He seems to delay, or not meet up to our expectations, will we then lose hope in him in our waiting. But this season of Advent reminds us that our fundamental duty as Christians is to ‘wait’ for the Lord. The word used for “wait” suggests earnestness that God can and will do something with this situation and that we are looking forward to what lays ahead. The Prophet Isaiah reminds us that “…those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.” (Is. 40:31). When dissonance happens between what we want and what God seems to be give us, what should I do about it?  Should I tell God, “Adjust to my expectations”? Should I look for another Saviour? Of course not! We need to align ourselves to God’s will, not Him to ours. 

In waiting for the Lord, let us never lose heart but hold on to the promise of Christ – “Happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.” We need to allow Jesus to walk out of the shadows of our expectations. Confronted with so many who have become indifferent to religion and faith, it is futile and fruitless to add our complaints to the voices of discontent, disappointment and frustration. God’s master plan for the salvation of the world will always be bigger than our tiny little agendas. Advent reminds us that we must constantly open ourselves to the broader vision of faith and hope that allows us to take in a glimpse of that plan; this will be our true source of joy – knowing that God’s thoughts will always be above ours and His ways will always be far better than any effort we can muster. It is a joy that can only come in trusting in a God that will always exceed our expectations!

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