Expectations are hard things to live with. In a culture increasingly driven by “targets”, the expectations we have of ourselves and others can be a source of great hurt and confusion. This is especially true when our expectations do not match those of others. And it has to be said that there are many times when our expectations are not met: our hopes may be on the far horizon, but our ability takes us no further than the bottom of the garden. We strive to have more and be more, to “succeed” and improve. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that — except that we can become so purpose-driven and goal-orientated that we forget about grace and gift.
We’re all preparing to celebrate Christmas, to remember the long-ago events in Bethlehem and worship the Prince of Peace who comes amongst us. Not in power and glory. Not with success written all over him. He comes “little, weak and helpless”, a fragile scrap of human life born into a situation so precarious that his first bed was a feed trough. This is hardly a promising start. If you were an advertising agent working for God, is this the image that you would choose?
The paradox and irony of the Christian gospel is our claim that God’s power is revealed most completely in this self-emptying weakness. Where we seek self-determination, God makes himself dependent. Where we applaud “winners”, God ranks himself with the “also-rans”.And where we prize progress and self-improvement, this little one’s journey is from a stable to a cross. As Luther reminds us, the crib is cut from the same timber as the cross.
As Christmas approaches, I wonder if we dare face the challenge offered by that vulnerable child in a manger? As he grew he refused to be chained by the expectations of others. He chose faithfulness to God over success. When ambition beckoned he turned away from it. Finally, when his friends fled and his enemies abused him, just when you might expect a proper display of divine power and glory, he stretched out his arms in an embrace that would encompass the world.