The crowds, who were gathering to be baptized by John, asked him, “What should we do?” In reply John said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.
“... the people were filled with expectation.”
“No expectations, no disappointments” — a simple mantra for a happier and more peaceful life, touted by modern psychology at large.
The statement itself is not wrong but, if you’ve had any kind of disappointment, you’ll know how difficult this is to follow. You’ll also know how prone human beings are to constructing expectations for themselves, others, the world and the circumstances around them. Psychology argues that forming expectations produces “should thinking,” a cognitive distortion that leads to disappointment when those expectations are not met.
It seems we are not unlike the crowds following John. In response to John’s proclamation of the Good News, the question, “What should we do?” is asked no less than three times by people from very different walks of life.
At first, John answers the question with a list of laudable behaviour relative to each group. But, by its third iteration, John identifies a pattern forming: these people are missing the main point of his message, which is not about what we should expect of ourselves or others but in whom we should place our hope.
So John swiftly brings the “main thing” back to being the main thing: “... one who is more powerful than I is coming ... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Jesus is coming, John tells us, not so that we can live peaceful lives where unmet expectations and disappointments are avoided or unaddressed, but so that all expectation be placed on God. John is wincingly direct about this: with the imagery of a winnowing fork and wheat, John illustrates that Jesus will not withstand anything gone wrong — He draws only good to Himself and destroys the rest. This is the reason for His coming.
So what should we do? It is worth looking at why we ask this question.
We ask this question because deep down, we want to know that it actually matters what we do and what happens to us. There are some things that should or shouldn’t happen. There are some things we wish we would or wouldn’t do. Like children, we search for boundaries and direction to make sense of our world and our lives.
These things matter to God too because He loves us enough to want our good. Jesus knows we need to place our expectations somewhere, so He became flesh to take those expectations upon Himself. Everything and everyone else will fall short and, when they do, we will find He has left the manger for the cross so that all things can be made right.
Where, or on whom, have I placed expectations? Are these fair?
This Advent, could I release those expectations to Jesus?
What does God expect from me? What can I expect from Him?