by Becky De Oliveira—
“I hope you’re including the issue of unexpectedness in at least one of your reflections,” my husband, micromanager that he is, mentioned in passing as I was getting close to the end of writing a week’s worth of reflections for an online Bible study that our church creates and distributes to several thousand people around the world. Lucky for me I still had one reflection left to write. “The point of this chapter,” my husband continued, helpfully, since it is often a struggle for me to glean the point of anything, “is that the Messiah, when He came in the form of Jesus Christ, was not what the people were expecting. He didn’t fulfill their ideas of what a Messiah should be.”
Right. I get it. Some years ago, very early in the morning when the streets were nearly empty, I was chased (by a slow and incompetent would-be assailant who promised to cut my throat) into the London Tube at Piccadilly Circus. I appealed for help to the men wearing the orange vests who appeared to be in charge. A few minutes later, after I’d descended several escalators down into the belly of the underground and was waiting for my train and hoping the throat-cutter wouldn’t find me, a cheerful huffing and puffing man with a red nose and a pronounced limp approached to inform me he’d come to save me. He didn’t say it quite like that—no British person ever would—but that was the gist. He was my savior. A closer look revealed that he had a prosthetic leg. Up until that point, I hadn’t been aware of what I was expecting in the person who might protect me from a homicidal maniac, but in that moment I knew for sure that this guy was not it.
“What does a human being have the right to expect?” I used to ask my undergraduate classes at Andrews University. Many of the students would reply, “Nothing,” but that’s a disingenuous answer—or at the least not particularly well thought out—and I could have proven this point easily by giving them all arbitrary Fs and then waiting for the flood of indignant phone calls from Mom and Dad to start pouring in.
We are always exceeding, meeting, or failing to meet expectations or having other people, places, or experiences exceed, meet, or fail ourexpectations. Famous people are often told that they are shorter in person than members of the public expected them to be. Many people express disappointment at the Colosseum, the Alamo, Stonehenge—all of which are not as expected. We expect life to be fair, for the fire truck to come when we call, for our water to be clean, for those who govern over us to act justly and sometimes with mercy. These are reasonable expectations. We also, most of us, carry unreasonable ones. We expect other people to read our minds, to make us happy, for the world to configure itself in such a way as to avoid activating any of our pet peeves. We even have expectations about who should save us and how.
So Jesus Christ was not what the people were “expecting” in a Messiah. Well, what were they expecting? We’re often not explicit about where our disappointment comes from. We have these half-formed and hazy images of things that we’ve never fully articulated and they loom large. Who knows what the people at Jesus’s time were expecting a Messiah to be like. Just different, right? Bigger or smaller. Shorter or taller. More religious. More real. And in clinging to their expectations they missed the power of what was standing in front of them.
In the movie How to Train Your Dragon,Hiccup, miming his father’s disappointed expectations in his son, sarcastically says, “Excuse me, barmaid! I’m afraid you brought me the wrong offspring! I ordered an extra-large boy with beefy arms, extra guts, and glory on the side! This here, this is a talking fishbone!”
What do we expect of a Savior now? What evidence has God provided of what a Savior is? Video game creator Hideo Kojima says, “the story does not trick the player, it is the player that tricks himself.” Perhaps we have everything we need to see the Messiah clearly but we trick ourselves, over and over again.
Becky De Oliveira is a writer, editor, teacher, and qualitative researcher working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado. This blog is adapted from a reflection for the Daily Walk, an online Bible study produced by Boulder Adventist Church.