Scripture tells us that on that first Christmas - the one in Bethlehem before the advent of shopping malls - the Israelites were looking for a Messiah who would deliver them from Roman occupation. The Romans were anxious, fearing the birth of a king who would challenge their political authority.
Neither the Israelites, nor the Romans got what they expected and the Israelites, particularly (with a few notable exceptions), missed what they most needed, which was not a political liberator, but emancipation from their fallen nature.
When it became clear to the Israelites that Jesus was not the sort of Messiah they had been looking for and to the Romans that He was the type they most feared ("Are you the king of the Jews?" Pilate asked with apprehension 33 years later, to which the falsely accused answered, "Yes, it is as you say.") both Israelites and Romans concluded he threatened the status quo and must be put to death.
Expectations about God, man and kingdoms of this and the next world have been in conflict ever since.
Sunday, Dec. 18 at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Md., Dr. Robert Norris gave a sermon on the discrepancy between expectations and reality. John the Baptist, he said, expected the One for whom he had "prepared the way" to follow him in his condemnation of "sinners." Instead, He offered men grace and forgiveness.
"Sometimes when our expectations are not met, we doubt," said Norris. "Savonarola, the fiery Italian reformer, wavered in prison in Florence as he was being prepared to be burned for heresy. Jerome of Prague, the Bohemian reformer, was imprisoned in (the German city of) Constance after being promised a safe conduct and was burned at the stake; and in prison he doubted. John had to learn to trust that he was part of the purpose of God, even though his part in that purpose was not what he had anticipated."
We put our faith in so many things that ultimately and inevitably disappoint. From politics, to money and possessions, to human relationships, we expect a return bigger than such things can deliver. And when we doubt, or become depressed, we often turn to pop psychologists or take refuge in medication.
Mostly our distress comes from focusing on self. We indulge in external things - money, power, status, pleasure - hoping they will produce inner contentment. In a narcissistic age, we might admire Mother Teresa, but not many aspire to do what she did. The poor we may always have with us, but not even the most famous preachers wish to spend much time with them. No publisher wants a poor person to write a book. Probably none would be invited to speak at a religious convention.
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