How do you feel about expectations?
To me, the word seems pretty negative. We talk about unrealistic expectations, which only end in disappointment. We talk about managing expectations, not letting others run away with an exaggerated impression of what we can achieve. And then there are those expectations others hold of us, which they forget to let us in on and therefore give us no hope of meeting. All in all, the concept of expectation can all too easily be seen in a fairly gloomy light.
I have a particular problem with social expectations. Don't get me wrong, many of them are based on good principles and are formed with the best of intentions. The thing is, these vary between areas, cultures, ideologies and generations and if we're not careful, they end up causing discord - and I'm sure that's not what was intended. We've all heard of examples of this when visiting different countries (if you don't believe me, here's an article to help visitor to the UK to understand ours). These conventions arise from an assumption that we all have the same mindset and experience, and that everyone knows what the expectations are. Not a pleasant situation if you find that you don't.
We're also running up to Christmas, a time of heightened expectations for many of us. For some, it might be expectations of quality time spent with family. Nothing wrong with that at all, provided that your family hold the same expectations (and definition of quality time). For the children in our families, it might be the expectation of a particular gift or outing. For those cooking the dinner (or really looking forward to eating it!), maybe it's the expectation of the lovely meal that is Christmas dinner itself. None of these are wrong, and when they turn out to be reality it is a wonderful thing. But the more tightly we hold these expectations, the harder it is if they don't turn out the way we'd hoped. It only takes a burned turkey, car problems for a missed relative, or an over-ambitious Christmas list and if that's our marker for success, we can miss the wonder of the rest of Christmas.
That's where everything changes, though. We are all so used to the Christmas story that it can begin to go over our heads (although Hannah's out with her team as I write, making sure that doesn't happen to a class of year 6s). Stop and take a fresh look though, and there is very little about the Christmas story that meets expectations. Jesus wasn't born to royalty, despite being the King of Kings. He wasn't born in a palace, either. His mother wasn't married when she found that she was pregnant (just think of society's disappointment at that missed expectation)! I dare say that the shepherds weren't expecting the host of angels.
Those of you who know me well will know that the Chronicles of Narnia are my favourite story. In the final book, The Last Battle, Lucy (my favourite character) tells the others that "In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world". Now, Hannah would remind us that the stable is never mentioned in the Bible, but the point is the same. Jesus' arrival at Christmas defied all of our expectations, but in the most wonderful way. And He continues to do immeasurably more than all we could ask or imagine.
So, this Christmas, let's shift our expectations - because if we stop focussing on our expectations of others, or of this world, and focus our expectations on God, we won't be disappointed.