Yesterday morning I walked over to the church in the early morning to practice a guitar-piano duet with our very talented piano player. We are playing “What Child Is This” for the first Sunday of Advent, and even though I had practiced the piece by myself many times, I wasn’t exactly sure what it would sound like when we put both parts together.
As I started out with a repeated, ostinato eighth-note intro, I could feel the excitement and anticipation building inside. There would come a point where my part and the piano part would join together in an intricate counterpoint, and I couldn’t wait to hear what it sounded like. Even though I could count the number of beats on my music and know when the pianist would join in, there was still this sense of yearning and wonder. It seemed both guaranteed and mysterious. And, then, when both parts came together, it was beautiful. After that, I made a lot of mistakes, fumbled along with the complicated finger formations, and said, “I’m sorry” a lot. But, the eager anticipation reminded me about one of the most beautiful parts of Advent – the anticipation.
The problem with Advent for me – and maybe for some of you who struggle with control-freak tendencies like I’ve blogged about before here at TRB – is that sometimes I lose sight of the anticipation because I’m bogged down by the expectations – the ones I place on myself and others, and maybe even on God. Expectation is “the act or state of looking forward or anticipating,”  but expectations are those ugly little demands we place on ourselves or others for how we think we deserve our lives to be. Anticipation is a yearning; expectations are a greedy feeling of deserving.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received is, “If you want to be happy, expect nothing from anyone.” When we expect things from others, we set ourselves up to be disappointed. Expecting things from others takes the focus off of a relationship and puts it onto what we think other people can do for us. Instead of centering on relationships, we fixate on ourselves and getting what we hope for, or presenting ourselves the way we want to, and when we go through our lives placing all kinds of expectations on ourselves and others, we set ourselves up to be miserable.
When my friend first told me I had to stop expecting things from others, it made me a little angry. Certain ideas seemed so normal to me, so basic that I couldn’t understand why it was wrong for me to expect those things of others. But, at the root of it, this advice about not having expectations is a wonderful practice for our personal relationships, and also for Advent.
Expectations for Ourselves
I have already had to remind myself that my goal for Advent is not to make sure I get more done in a quicker amount of time than I did last year. For this season of Advent, let’s release ourselves from whatever image of ourselves we are so desperately trying to maintain. Let’s give gifts from the heart, and not because we want to prove our generosity. Let’s invite others into our home because we long for the chance to show hospitality and to grow in our relationships, and not because we think everyone is expecting us to put on an even better party than last year. Instead of having impossible expectations for ourselves, let’s reclaim the childlike wonder and anticipation of the ever-nearer day where we celebrate the birth of the Savior. And, even more than that, let’s rekindle that hunger and desire for the return of Christ, the second Advent, the fulfillment of the promise we read about in Acts that Jesus will return in the same way he was taken up into heaven.
Expectations of Others
I started with expectations for ourselves, not because that is the easiest step, but because if we are going to love our neighbors as ourselves, we have to start with how we love ourselves. Beyond showing myself grace and releasing myself from my perfectionist expectations for myself, this Advent, I want to make it a practice to view each act of generosity from others, each kindness, each embrace, each display of love as a precious gift rather than something owed me. Releasing myself from the expectations I have for others means no more trying to guess how others will behave towards me. It means letting go of grudges, not pretending I have people pegged, and going through life free of a list of demands for how people should behave towards me. There are obviously some exceptions to this one. Abusive behavior cannot be allowed to continue, and that isn’t something we should tolerate. But, as Christmas approaches, let’s set ourselves free from how often we think people should call, how many cards we should be sent, what kinds of gifts are “good enough” for others to give to us, and go through our days with wonder and thankfulness.
Expectations of God
This Advent, I also want to release myself from the expectations I have for God. God has made promises to us, and we can expect God keep those promises, but we need to resist the temptation to expect what the fulfillment of those promises will look like. As I think back on that first, long period of Advent before the coming of the Christ child, I wonder if anyone expected God to take on human flesh as a helpless baby. I wonder if anyone could have known that God would choose a young, unwed mother to carry the Son. Could anyone have foreseen that the revolution God would usher in would come by way of sacrifice and self-giving?
And we know the answer to this: most people did not expect it. They thought they had God figured out, and they clung to their expectations so ferociously that they missed the gift in the timid. They overlooked the stable because they were hoping for a palace. Philippians 3:20 says, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” We can expect God to come through on God’s promises, but this Advent I am making it a practice to approach these promises with wonder and anticipation. I don’t want to be so caught up in my own expectations that I miss the true gift, which is far better than anything I could ever ask for or imagine.