What are you hoping for this Christmas? To prepare the perfect Christmas dinner? To find the perfect gift? To experience the perfect Christmas family gathering? To ensure loved ones experience the perfect Christmas? The word “perfect” is showing up there a lot, how about we try one without it: world peace?
Whatever you are hoping for this Christmas, when these things fail to happen our hope can turn to cynicism, disappointment, and even despair. We light the candle of hope during church on Sunday morning but then we snuff it out and head home to the real world where our hope gets snuffed out, sometimes as fast as the candle.
It is not just the Grinch that can steal Christmas. Our expectations for the future can steal our hope for the future. Our hopes can fade to disappointment when the hope of Christmas is stolen by unmet expectations. In fact our disappointment at Christmas may be a symptom of a bigger problem; disappointment with ourselves, others, or with God.
So what are we to do?
We ask if our expectations are wise expectations. If they are not, they will steal our hope, replacing it with disappointment. Do we have wise expectations of ourselves, others, and of God?
Let’s turn to a hope filled passage of the Bible, specifically, Isaiah 11:1-9, and ask if Isaiah’s expectations were wise.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,Isaiah 11:1 (NRSV)
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
David’s family is described as a “stump” in a way that signifies that God’s people will face tough times, even destruction, interpreted by the prophet as being the judgement of God. By speaking of new growth from this stump Isaiah expressed hope that what could be perceived as the end would give way to a new beginning. This new beginning would come about with a “shoot” that represents remarkable new leadership, a great new king:
2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,Isaiah 11:2-5 (NRSV)
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
Isaiah had hope that there would be good governance, marked by the presence of God, taking direction from God, and in good relationship with God. The new king would be righteous, helping the disadvantaged and bringing justice to those who are evil.
Those who first heard Isaiah’s hope would hardly be thinking of Jesus, but looking back, we who are Christians can not help but see Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God.
Isaiah continues with the theme of hope:
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,Isaiah 11:6-9 (NRSV)
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
With animals getting along together who normally would not and children playing safely among violent creatures, Isaiah is expressing the hope that in this new beginning there would be a great sense of security. Some take these verses literally and look forward to a day in which such animals really will live together without bloodshed, but others take this as symbolic of the sense of security, peace, and safety that the hoped for new king would bring. Either way, Isaiah has great hope for the future.
But are Isaiah’s expectations wise?
Does Isaiah have a reasonable hope, or is he setting himself up for disappointment by having crazy expectations for the future?
Isaiah had great expectations for the future, but they are expectations of God and what God can do. God is the Creator, it is no trouble for God to be a Re-Creator. God can send a new king and establish a new kingdom. Our hope for the future as Christians may seem like “pie in the sky after I die” to some, but this is God we are talking about. God can do it. It is wise to have great expectations of God.
This brings us to our first word of caution as we consider wise expectations. God can fulfil sky high expectations, we cannot. We can expect God to be God. We cannot expect ourselves, or others, to be God. Might we need to lighten up a bit with regard to our expectations of others, and what we expect of ourselves? Our expectations may be unwise.
And now a second caution, our expectations of God are only wise when we expect God to do what God wants to do. If God has promised to do something, then our expectations are wise and we can have great hope. Sometimes, however, we expect God to do what we want God to do, or what we think God should want to do. We can make assumptions about what God wants to do. This can lead us to unwise expectations.
I might expect that God wants me to be pain free. Recently I have been overly active, plus doing things that I don’t normally do, like installing flooring, and moving appliances which lack handles for proper lifting technique. Add in a lack of good stretching and needless to say my muscles are not happy with me. This led to a sleepless night and a repeated prayer for relief from the pain. Should I expect the Lord to answer such a prayer like some kind of divine pharmacy? Perhaps I should learn to take better care of myself.
While I could not sleep due to a physical plain, there are those who cannot sleep because of emotional, psychological, and spiritual pain. Expecting God to simply lift such pain in the immediate future may be unwise, for God has not promised to do that. Expecting that God will simply lift all pain may just leave us disappointed with God and cynical about faith. Expecting God to journey with us in the pain, however, and to release us from all pain in the resurrection, is wise. We can have great hope. God has promised a King and a Kingdom. To have great expectations about that King and that Kingdom is wise.
We come to church and light the candle of hope, then go on our way and pin all our hopes on people who can’t meet our expectations, including, and especially, ourselves. Or we go on our way and pin all our hopes on unwise expectations of God. Hope gives way to cynicism, disappointment, and even despair when our hope is based on unwise expectations of ourselves, others, and God. Let us have wise expectations, and let us be hopeful!