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Expectations, writes Anne Lamott, are resentments under construction. Just take a look under the Christmas tree. That big box with a certain someone’s name on it? He’s expecting a new game system, or a telescope to look out on the night sky- the one that was circled in the catalog that came to the house three months earlier and left on the coffee table in the family room so that someone might get the hint. And when the wrapping paper gets torn off and it’s revealed to be neither of those two things… well, you get the picture. Or the person who has the family get together all planned out in their mind, when people will arrive, the traditions that will be enjoyed. Only someone gets sick and can’t make it, and someone else begs off due to a competing commitment, and one of the grandkids doesn’t like nuts. Put up the road signs, because you can almost watch the resentment under construction in real time.
Which begs something of an uncomfortable question this morning. What do you come to church expecting? It’s hard to know these days. Some people expect the comfort of what’s familiar. Other people expect the convenience of something that fits into a window of time that’s only so long. One person expects to be inspired, another expects to be challenged, some might even expect to be corrected or redirected. That’s quite a few expectations all in one place. Which means that if Anne Lamotte is right, it’s also quite a few potential resentments if those expectations aren’t met.
My guess is that few of us expected to be greeted in worship on this third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday when we light the pink candle, the Sunday that is often associated with joy- my guess is that with Christmas only nine days away what we didn’t expect was this greeting from John the Baptist. “You brood of vipers,” he cries, and we all cringe a bit. Because we certainly weren’t expecting THAT! What the heck?! Someone might want to talk to John about his people skills. Someone might want to point out to John that calling people names might not be the best way to build a following. Someone might want to do that, but I don’t think I’d like to draw the short straw. For the obvious reason, of course, that John sounds a little scary. But there are also some less obvious reasons. Because as jarring as it is to hear this kind of language about the wrath to come and the axe that even now is lying at the root of the trees just waiting to cut them down and throw them into fire, as uncomfortable as such imagery makes me especially as we prepare once again to look for the birth of God among us- a part of me knows that while we might not like hearing those kinds of things, we sort of need to.
It’s not unlike the common practice in the Roman ritual of triumph. A general, or even the Emperor himself would parade through the streets on a chariot of glory as the people all around would shout out their praise and approval for the latest victory. And all the while in that same chariot stood a slave whose job it was to whisper in the general or the Emperor’s ear, “Memento mori.” Remember that you too will die. Only John’s call to repentance is hardly a whisper and far more of a shout. Still, they carry something of the same message, namely that we are always dangerously susceptible to believe the kinds of lies that we want to hear. The kind that tell us what a great job we’re doing, and how well everything is going. The kind that would have us believe that somehow success, happiness, triumph are practically our birthright. John’s words snap our attention away from all those bright shiny lies and back to the reality of an expectation that will not turn to resentment. Because if we hang our happiness and hope on the kinds of expectations that are generally on offer during this consumer holiday season, we are bound to be sorely disappointed.
John is the antidote to misplaced expectation. Just look at how he’s introduced. We heard it last week, but since that introduction was filled with relatively unfamiliar names and places you’ll be forgiven if you don’t quite remember how it went. Here are the first two verses of Luke, chapter 3: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” All those names tend to run together so our eyes and ears tend to glaze over at the sight or mention of them, but with those two verses Luke is making a very specific point. He starts with the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, then goes on to list all the different rulers and authorities. The local Roman governor in Judea, Pontius Pilate (whom we’ll hear more about later in the Jesus story); the Jewish figurehead and puppet king, Herod in Galilee who is sharing what little regional authority the Romans will give him with his brother, Phillip and this other guy, Lysanias; as well as the religious leadership of the Temple under the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. You get this list of leaders, the who’s who of important people, powerful people, the people responsible for shaping the policies and practices of empires and armies, regions and religious communities. And what Luke says is that when pretty much the whole world was looking to these big shots as the ones in charge of everything, the Word of God, the truth about what it is that God wants for the world didn’t come to any of them. Instead, the truth of what God was up to and what God was about came to some wild man out in the desert whose program for preparing people for the coming of God among them was to call them a brood of vipers, invoking God’s wrath like an axe come to chop them down and throw them into a fire. Which is to say that the truth of what God is up to and what God is about rarely comes to the people we might expect, or in ways we might expect. It doesn’t tend to come to people who consider themselves big shots, or who are so full of themselves and the power they think they wield that they lack anything like humility before the grandeur of God. No, while the peace that is promised at God’s coming is certainly for everybody, it can be easy to miss if we’re holding on to what little power and control we think we’ve got in this world. It can be easy to miss what God has for us when we’re too busy worrying about what we can get and keep for ourselves.
That is why we need John. That is why we need to hear from him in this season of expectation, so that we don’t waste our time on resentment- filled with expectation for the wrong sorts of things. To repent means to change direction, and it isn’t about some kind of abasement in our heart of hearts, being really sorry. It isn’t about going through the motions of some ritual so that we can suddenly claim rightness with God. Repentance is the act of turning from a way of life that is generally dictated by our own personal preference, convenience and expectation and orienting our lives instead according to an expectation shaped by the anticipation of what God is about to do. What God is about to do is share God’s very self with us. So we take stock of what we have to share with others; extra food for Advent food boxes, a coat for a child who might be held in detention in the desert, waiting to know what his or her future will look like. What God is about to do is empty God’s self of all power and pretense over creation and instead enter into it. So, if we’re in position of opportunity, like the tax collectors were, we don’t use it to enrich ourselves at someone else’s expense. Or if we’re in a position of authority, like the Roman soldiers were, we don’t use that power to shake people down with threats and untruths.
We may not like his tactics or his rhetoric, but the change of direction that John calls us to in these waning days of Advent is to expect more than the superficial trappings of the holiday season might lead us to expect. The change of direction that John is calling us to is one that saves us from all those resentments that might be under construction, preparing us instead for one whose baptism doesn’t just wash us clean, but strips away the chaff of our lives so that we and this world can finally be what God meant us to be all along.