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.
At Christmas, we hope expectantly - not only for the One who defines the word, but also that relatives won't fight with each other, costs will be modest and that we will be spared additional pounds from overeating. The problem is most of these things can be expected to come to pass.
The birth of Jesus was a miracle. Socially rejected shepherds, not religious or political elites who expected to be told first, heard the news from the angel. The newborn king's first home was a barn, not a palace. He owned nothing all his life but the simple clothes on his back and, after leaving home, He had no home to call his own. Farm animals, not thoroughbred horses, were his first companions. He was placed in a manger, not a soft bed with silk sheets. None of this was expected, except by a few prophets and those who followed them. But then the idea that God would enter the world so that humanity might enter eternity wasn't expected either.
Modern politics is emblematic of these conflicting kingdoms. Too many put too much faith in Democrats or Republicans to deliver us from evil, a word that serves more as a metaphor than as a diagnosis of our time. Those expectations are quickly diminished for most, once temporal power is achieved.
At Christmas we are given another opportunity to focus on One who never disappoints, assuming our expectations are in the right place and our faith in the right Person.