As we enter the Christmas season and reflect on the birth of our servant-king, what are your expectations of God and how God operates in the world? Trinity College Queensland Principal Dr Paul Jones takes us on a whirlwind tour of the Bible to chart God’s subversive interactions with humanity that culminate in a revelation that goes beyond all human expectations.
The biblical story is largely about people meeting God. And as that grand narrative unfolds between Genesis and Revelation, and humans become acquainted with the divine, it’s surprising that they do not shy away from stating their expectations of God.
It appears that we’ve always been that way, haven’t we? We’re such entitled creatures, laying claim to what we believe we deserve.
And don’t we deserve a God who meets our expectations? A God who responds to our felt needs? One who comforts us, liberates us, and empowers us to do all the wonderful things we dream of doing?
And yet, the biblical story—which is largely about people meeting God—is also a tale of unfulfilled expectations. One could even call it a tragedy that climaxes in the death and downfall of its central character.
But let’s go back to the beginning.
When the Israelites first meet Yahweh at Mount Sinai, they are not simply disappointed; they are utterly terrified. The text doesn’t indicate exactly what kind of encounter they were hoping for, but they certainly speak their minds to Moses: “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” (Exodus 20:19)
God also has some expectations of his new covenant partner, but the Israelites are so busy fashioning an idol for themselves that they hardly notice. Apparently, they know exactly what they want in a god. They desire an easily accessible god of a more familiar size and shape, something smaller and less … well, just less than what they encountered on Mount Sinai.
Their expectations are met in the making of a golden calf. But little do they realise that in worshipping a stiff-necked idol, they become like what they worship (Exodus 32:9). And needless to say, God is not impressed with a stiff-necked people who refuse to bow to their maker.
A few hundred years later, when Yahweh entrusts one particular Israelite to lead the nation in a lifestyle of worship, this chosen king—Jeroboam is his name—decides to invent his own rules of engagement between God and the people (1 Kings 12). On this occasion, Israel’s representative creates not one, but two, golden calves.
As kings come and go over hundreds of years, Israel’s scribes make note of the kind of king—and the kind of God—that the nation desires: namely, a warrior-king with a worldwide reputation, and a warrior-God who will give the nation rest from her enemies (2 Samuel 7:8–14). Those are the hopes of God’s people.
And don’t we deserve a God who meets our expectations?
Fast-forward 500 years, and God’s people are still being oppressed. The Assyrians and Babylonians are gone. So are the Medes, the Persians, and the Greeks. Now it’s the Roman empire that is making trouble for Israel.
Hundreds of years of hopeful anticipation have passed. And for what? The prophecies have been clear enough, promising the end of war and the coming of a child who will fulfil those promises made to David:
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. Isaiah 9:5–7
The Gospels begin with the arrival of this king foretold, though not everyone rejoices at his coming. For not everyone recognises Jesus as the prophesied king.
After all, if Jesus wields divine authority, as the prophecy in Isaiah suggests, he does not appear to make much use of it.
Wars rage on, children continue to suffer, and disease still strikes.
“There shall be endless peace?”
I wonder: what are your expectations of God this Christmas?
Most of us feel right at home in the biblical story—which is largely about people meeting God and feeling disappointed. Because let’s be honest. We want a tame, approachable God who comforts us, makes everything right, takes away our loneliness, rewards our loyalty, and gives us more stuff.
But what we get in Jesus is a vulnerable baby who grows up into a man who makes himself vulnerable. A man who is only ever seen in royal robes on one occasion—when he is being mocked and beaten as an imposter. A failed king who claims that he could call upon legions of angels and rid the world of Roman oppressors—but chooses not to.
If this is God, then he is surely a God beneath our expectations.
And yet …
While our expectations of God have often led to disappointment, the fact remains that the biblical story is largely about humans meeting God.
And in spite of our continued efforts to reduce God to manageable, pocket-size golden calves, God insists on making himself vulnerable, insists on being mocked and beaten as a false king, and refuses to dazzle the world with legions of angels.
So that our poor expectations might be subverted, and so that we might discover that the gods who fail to meet our expectations are golden calves of convenience, gods of our own making, and that the God whose arrival heralds the climax of the biblical story is, in fact, well and truly, far and beyond our wildest expectations.
Because in Christ (the “anointed one”), we meet a paradoxical servant-king. And in the Holy Spirit, we receive the capacity for our stone hearts and stiff necks to be softened and moulded, so that obedience becomes a genuine possibility. And where there is obedience, there is truly—and finally—our Prince of Peace.