1 Thessalonians 5:1–11, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on November 19, 2023

The wise and funny Anne Lamott says: 

Expectations are resentments under construction: set the expectations bar as low as you can! Write badly for an hour! Try not to hit any pedestrians; fill up at the gas station and then take the nozzle out of the gas tank before driving off. (X, August 17, 2020) 

My kids love to remind me, whenever we pass a certain gas station, how I once absentmindedly failed to meet that most basic of society’s expectations. I’ve been reflecting on the ways that expectations can be problematic and painful, how they are resentments under construction. And also about how unmet expectations can turn out to be a gift.

When I met my spouse Jen more than twenty years ago, it felt as if our choice to make a life together meant leaving behind everything we had expected for our futures—marriage, children, and, for Jen, ordination in the Lutheran church. I give thanks for the ways we have expanded our visions of both family and church since then. As a parent, I have found myself, again and again, needing to release my children from expectations that are not right for them. My role is to coach, support, and resource them, offer them accountability, and then let go and allow them to find their own paths and become their own people. And of course some days I’d really like to have more control than that! Friends, what expectations have been fulfilled or disappointed in your life? Has there been grace, creativity, or life for you, in unmet expectations?

In the letter to the Thessalonians, Paul laid out his expectations. Jesus was going to return. The timeline was unknown, but it would happen soon. This return, which Paul calls “The day of the Lord,” would bring with it a reckoning. God would intervene suddenly and definitively in human history to right wrongs and to bring to fulfillment God‘s promise of a flourishing creation. The world had received glimpses of the realm of God, of a sort of heaven on earth, through Jesus’ life and ministry, death and resurrection, and through the ongoing life of Jesus’ followers. And yet, the full vision was yet to be realized.

Because Paul expected this “day of the Lord,” to come, he used stark metaphors—darkness and light, sleep and wakefulness, sobriety and drunkenness—to draw a distinction between the community that followed Jesus and everyone else. Most of the world, he argued, was living under an illusion. Beneath the so-called peace and security of a tyrannical empire was a deep disconnect between humanity and our Creator. The violent, fear-based, exploitative values of Paul’s society were a betrayal of God’s intentions for our common life. For those outside of the community of Jesus’ followers, the expected breaking in of the divine would feel abrupt and frightening, like “a thief in the night,” like the labor pains of a pregnant person.

Of course, these expectations that Paul and other early followers of Jesus held about the end times did not come to fruition. Jesus has not made a bodily return. God has not brought human history to a culmination. In the intervening centuries, our worldview has shifted. Our images of God, Jesus, and Christianity itself are undergoing radical and necessary change. If God is not all powerful and not in control of history, then who is God and how does God relate to the larger story of human life? If Jesus is not coming back in a literal way, then is it meaningful to speak of his return? How can Christians be prophetic with humility? That is, how can we resist all that is destructive and death-dealing in our society without thinking that we have a monopoly on “truth?”

The poet David Whyte, in his book, Consolations, reflects on the importance of disappointment. Disappointment, he writes,

Is a misunderstood mercy and when approached properly, an agency for transformation. To be disappointed is to reassess our self and our inner world, and to be called to the larger foundational reality that lies beyond any false self we had only projected upon the outer world. Disappointment is just the initial meeting with the frontier of an evolving life, an invitation to reality, which we expected to be one particular way and turns out to be another, often something more difficult, more overwhelming and strangely, in the end, more rewarding.[1]

Perhaps we can embrace disappointment in our reading of today’s scripture. If we move beyond the unhelpful and unmet expectations of Paul and his community, then perhaps the Spirit can bring us a word that is both enduring and fresh. What I hear at the root of today’s passage is a call to take up a posture of expectation, which is different than clinging to specific expectations. We are to expect that divine purpose is at work in us and the world even as we remain radically open about the form that will take. We are to live in the tension between the now and the not yet, deeply grounded in present reality and yet keeping a sober, wakeful vigil for the possibility of change, the emergence of transformation.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Seattle for a meeting and I happened to make a visit to Chihuly Garden and Glass, featuring the work of artist Dale Chihuly. As I entered each exhibit space, I was filled with awe at the scope and scale of the scenes, overwhelmed by the brilliance and brightness of the shapes and colors. Chihuly’s boldly colorful glass sculptures are fantastical yet firmly rooted in everyday life—dazzling chandeliers made of wildly curvy waves and sea creatures, a whole ceiling that is a collage of undulating flowers, luminous glass balls overflowing simple wood fishing boats, living bushes and trees growing entangled with plants of glass. The photo on the bulletin cover today is just one section of a sprawling pond scene. Paul calls us to live with expectation; it strikes me that this what Chihuly does with his art. He depicts a harmony and wholeness that is authentic to this world, and at the same time, is not yet fully realized.

In our times, so full of pain and injustice, it is a deep and daily struggle to live with expectation. Paul’s imagery of defensive armor is striking. Rather than fight the forces of fear, scarcity, and despair with weapons, he says we should protect our hearts and minds with breastplates of love and faith, helmets of hope. Living with expectation means trusting that “we are destined not for wrath but for salvation.” Salvation, that is, wholeness here on earth, is what God has made us for, and what God is continually leading us toward. Above all, living with expectation is investing ourselves in community shaped by the values and practices of Jesus. “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other.” In this simple call to nurture community, I hear a sharp critique of our capitalistic society, built on the norms of white supremacy. Both within and beyond the church, our work, as followers of Jesus, is to embody a different vision of who we are and why we are here. We are to “be like Jesus,” engaging in deeply countercultural practices of mutual care, entering the flow of abundant giving and receiving that is at the very heart of God.

Henri Nouwen, in his book, With Open Hands, insists that the posture of expectation is integral to who we are as progressive and prophetic Christians.

You are Christian only so long as you look forward to a new world, only so long as you constantly pose critical questions to the society in which you live, and only so long as you emphasize the need for conversion both for yourself and for the world. You are Christian only when you believe that you have a role to play in the realization of this new kingdom and when you urge everyone you meet with a holy unrest to make haste so that the promise might soon be fulfilled.

Friends, let us be expectant. Amen.

[1] https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=david%20whyte%20disappointment