“And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘Look! There he is!’—do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything.“
(Mark 13:21-23, NRSV).
I have returned, as I do annually, to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Pip, the main character, spends a whole book looking for love in all the wrong places — and in all the wrong ways. He looks for love in the attentions of a girl trained from infancy to break the hearts of men. He looks for love in the benefaction of a bitter woman who can give only rage and recrimination from her pain of rejection. He looks for love — well, acceptance at least — in the company of the well-born to which he aspires.
Pip wouldn’t know real love if it smacked him in the head — or wrapped its arms around his shuddering shoulders. He cannot see, except in retrospect, the love of Joe Gargery, his de facto father who is a source of shame and embarrassment to the barely conscious social climber. He cannot see, except in regret, the love of Biddy, the one woman in the whole book with her feet on the ground and her heart in the world. He cannot see until almost too late the love of his true benefactor — one who horrifies him and frightens him with his commonness.
Pip pursues approval and eschews love. He seeks to rise in the transactional world that understands power and privilege, but knows nothing of grace and giving. It is only through the rearview mirror of suffering that he can see all that he missed.
In the words that lead to the gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent, Jesus warns his disciples that many will promise to offer what we want. Many will pretend to be the one anointed by God to make everything right. Of course, none can deliver. Regardless, we willingly pay the price and are once again left devastated and disappointed.
Donald Trump is the latest installment in this saga of broken promises. Many have accepted his offer of messianic finality. Some still cling to that false hope. Once we have invested in a messianic pretender, it is hard to let go. The sunk costs fallacy is more than an economic reality. It is an emotional and political one as well. Good money chases after bad, as do good hopes and dreams. Looking for love in all the wrong places costs us dearly — whether we are the ones looking or not.
I sense an almost equal fervor on the part of some who look forward to the Biden-Harris administration. I would not suggest that the President-elect seeks this adulation. Far from it. But the temptation to raise up another messiah is profound, especially in a time of such disruption and despair. If only someone, somewhere, could have the answer.
I pray that the new administration will have great success, especially when it comes to serving those in greatest need among us. I believe that some progress toward the good will be made. I am sure that some progress toward evil will also be made. That is the nature of the real world, no matter what our hopes.
We Christians are always called to train our vision — to look for the love of God in the last place we’d expect to find it. We begin the new church year with a reminder of the end of the world as we know it. The end of the world as we know is the end of power and privilege, the end of vanity and violence, the end of transactions and trauma. All of that ends in the cross and resurrection of Jesus — the last place we expect to look.
That’s why I often pick up the story of Pip at this time of year. It is a reminder to look elsewhere, to look deeper, to wait and watch while the struggle goes on. What we see is often not what we get, especially when what we see is power as the path to peace, violence as the path to victory, lies as the path to love. When we look to all the ways that we can control and contrive our acceptance by others, we are — I am — looking in all the wrong places.
So, friends, I begin a new church year with eyes trained in another direction (whenever I can remember to do so). I pray for the grace to look for God’s love in the places where it truly is.