"Expectations That Empower"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 24, 2002

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11


     Since Palm Sunday comes once a year, by now many of us have heard a good number of sermons concerning the events of that day.  When we consider the multitude of themes that have come from this well-known story, we have to admit that there is much about it that we do not know. 

     Why, for example, did Jesus do this?  What was his point? What was he trying to communicate?  Why did people crowd into the street shouting his praises as though they knew who Jesus was and why he was entering Jerusalem in this fashion?  Then why did their enthusiasm die almost as quickly as it had been born?  Could it be that their expectations created the prism through which they viewed Jesus?  Their responses were not directed toward Jesus but rather to the form of him their expectations had created.


     This morning I want to talk about how our expectations interpret what we experience. They wield enormous power over the quality of our lives.  They can encourage our faith and resolve.  They can also inspire thoughts on hopelessness and despair.  How many times have we been confused by some event that troubled us?  We have asked ourselves, "Why is this happening?" 

     Many themes for discussion are found in the Palm Sunday story.  High expectations brought the crowd to Jesus.  Failed expectations destroyed the enthusiasm of these cheering people almost overnight.  Our expectations have the same ability; they distort our awareness. 

     For nearly 2,000 years Christianity has taught that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.  Only with slight variations this same understanding was part of Jewish culture for centuries.  The idea that God would send a Messiah to save them was a consistent thread throughout their history and traditions. 

     For example, in the Hebrew Bible, writers reflected the idea that God inspired a number of events so that Joseph would arrive in Egypt in time to be the savior of Israel during a seven-year famine.  These events included Joseph's being sold into slavery by his brothers,  his arrest on the false charge that he had attempted to rape Potifer's wife and his eventual rise to become the second most powerful figure in Egypt.   

     This same interpretation of God's activities surfaced when the Moses story was told and retold during the period prior to when these accounts were written.  Every key episode of Moses life from his being plucked from the Nile river by Pharaoh's daughter, to the burning bush, the Exodus and his receiving of the Ten Commandments were all events viewed from this perspective.  The expectation of the Jews was that God sends saviors. 

     This was the popular tradition that brought the crowd  into the street when Jesus entered Jerusalem. They wanted him to be what he could never be -- their Messiah.   They quickly concluded that he was like many others, a person making claims on behalf of God. When he did not live up to their expectations their interest in him faded.   

     Saviors can come in many forms. We have been trained to look for them ourselves even though we may not be aware of it. We imagine that we can be saved by a better job, a Federal Government subsidy or a better school system.  The list of saviors can be fairly extensive.  Our hope is that each of these will have the power to bring us the happiness and joy we believe God intends for us. 

     The drama which reflects the feeling of "being saved" surfaces most recognizably in our relationships. For example, when people are looking for a mate, frequently they do so out of need. Initially, this is now many of our relationships begin.  "All my friends are either married or are getting married," we say. "I need to find someone." We begin looking for such a person in order to feel more complete.               

     Then when he or she finally enters our lives, we become intensely excited. The air we breathe is filled with romance. Our minds become filled with fantasies. "He brought me flowers."  "She knows how to cook." Happiness fills our lives.  There is no question that "being in love" is exhilarating.   

     We have often seen a newly engaged woman proudly displaying her engagement ring to her friends in the office.  We observe the spring in the step of the man who has just heard "yes" to his proposal for marriage. Their enthusiasm is not unlike that of the Palm Sunday crowd.  Idealized expectations can do this to us. 

     One of the unsettling elements in life we call reality. In time, certain qualities in a person's life may surface tarnishing their attractiveness.  We may learn, for instance, that Mr. Wonderful finds it challenging to keep a job for more than six months.  Or, we learn that Miss Perfect is seriously into clothing and cosmetics.  She has a half-dozen credit cards that are maxed out. She says, "So what?" to their 21 percent interest rates.  Or, it turns out that his idea of an adventurous evening is buttered popcorn, ice cream and a diet soda while seated at the center of his home entertainment network watching one athletic event after another.   

     Saviors have this habit of disappointing us because we have assigned to them the task of filling our cup just the way we expect it to be filled.  It is painful and sometimes devastating when our cup remains empty, particularly after people exchange their wedding vows.  It could be that this is why society has named the brief period following the wedding ceremony, "the honeymoon."  When we examine expectations that empower us, our focus must be somewhere else. 

     Jesus was not riding into Jerusalem hoping to please the crowd.  He was not pretending to be anyone's king.  He was not trying to incite a riot, nor was he trying to impress the Jewish and Roman authorities with his power.  Besides, his little parade was witnessed by a minuscule number of people who could not possibly impact any of "the real movers and shakers" who lived within the world's more renowned cultural centers.    

     Jesus' expectations were rooted elsewhere.  Considering this "elsewhere" is where I want to spend the rest of our time this morning.  If he was not coming into Jerusalem to capitalize on his popularity and if he was not coming to be anyone's savior, what was Jesus doing?  The Gospel message has made the answer to this question very clear.  His request to "Follow me," means that he wanted to lead people in a direction very different from the one that had captured their attention.    

     As he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he was communicating this message:


     The kind of savior that people want is not who I am.  My entrance into Jerusalem in this fashion will dispel that idea permanently.  I have not come to overthrow Rome but to lead people in a different direction.  Force, politics and financial wealth are the forms of power the people of this world have created.  There have been many Caesars, many governing assemblies and many powerful armies.  They come and go as the seasons. To understand God, you must learn to give away the same qualities as God.  What you can create is without limit because in God's Kingdom there is no end.  Follow me there! 

     Try to imagine where Jesus' expectations were based. God can take a woman who put into the Temple treasury two copper coins and create with her a "poster child" that interprets what stewardship means.  God can take a carpenter and raise the consciousness of humanity.  God can take a little 30-minute parade on a dusty road in an obscure country and turn it into Palm Sunday for hundreds of millions of Christians around the world.  God can take a set of written manuscripts that survived the Dark Ages and inspire the creation of the Bible.  Can we see where Jesus' expectations were placed?  God can never disappoint us when we understand how God creates. 

     Jesus understood that it is not by our efforts alone that anything on a massive scale can be accomplished.  It is what our efforts do when God creates with them that produces the miraculous.  Do we honestly think that Joseph knew where each challenging episode of his life was leading?  Do we believe that Moses had a publicist walking with him so that an accurate interpretation of his life's work would be recorded?  

     It is interesting that Jesus wrote nothing and yet there are more books written about him than any other person in human history.  God took what Jesus gave to humanity -- a 3-year ministry among people who lived in a very unsophisticated part of the world  -- and made it clear how humanity could live together peacefully, productively and creatively.   

     No one living in Jesus' day or even in the immediate centuries that followed, could have imagined or anticipated what God was doing with Jesus' small, insignificant acts of faithfulness.  They  loom large for us, of course, because of our faith and where we now stand to view them.  At the time, however, very few people noticed or cared.  Yet the Jesus story survived. 

     People who claim to suffer from low self-esteem, who think ill of themselves, or who cannot imagine the potential left within them always miss the most important part of life's equation.  They suffer because of misplaced expectations.  They want from the world what the world cannot give to anyone.  They have either forgotten or never learned what God can do with small, insignificant deeds of faithfulness. 

     No smile is meaningless.  No touch goes without impacting the one being touched.  No kind word goes without leaving its imprint.  Words like, "Suffer the little children to come unto me.  Forbid them not, for to such belongs the Kingdom of God" are never forgotten.  For nearly 2,000 years Jesus' comment about children has been remembered. How can we account for that?  

     How can some of us actually believe that we are worthless or that we have nothing left to give?  Those of us who think that way need a new coach who encourages us to think again about what God can do with who we are.  Each of us is extremely unique.  There is no one like us anywhere in the universe.  How can we possibly think that we are useless?       

     Jesus' confidence in God was not shaken when his prayer in the garden was greeted with silence, when one of his own betrayed him or when his disciples chose personal security over standing by his side during his arrest?  Jesus chose to stay within his circumstances.  His expectations, however, were centered on a future his tired, exhausted mind could not possibly have imagined.  

     When the expectations that form the basis of our happiness and sense of completion are focused on people, on our jobs, on fulfilling circumstances or on God blessing us, we are looking for saviors.  As we do that, we are sending a message to God that questions God's ability to love all of us all the time.  Jesus never questioned God even though the circumstances surrounding his final days were filled with elements that suggested he had been abandoned.  Jesus had no savior.    

     When we contribute to life, even in a manner that we consider humble or small, remember what God did with a three-year ministry, a thirty-minute donkey ride and a carpenter who died on a cross.   

     When we expect God to do with our lives what God has always done with and among the faithful, the future is in very good hands.  Trust that understanding.  On Palm Sunday Jesus was leading witnesses away from expecting the arrival of a savior.  When we follow him, we will find his tomb a thoroughfare leading into a Kingdom that quite literally has no end.  For that message, however, you will have to stay tuned.  We will see you back here next Sunday. 


     Ever present and merciful God, thank you for touching our lives with glimpses into what is essential to life.  When we feel undervalued, alone and in need of attention, help us remember that the Palm Sunday cheers for God's Son were silenced in less than a week.  Lead us to remember Jesus' moments of profound aloneness in the garden.  Help us recall that following his arrest, Jesus watched his closest friends flee into hiding.  O God, help us discover and live with the power Jesus taught was possible.  He displayed all that was essential in life even while approaching his own death.  Lead us beside such still waters that our spirits might likewise reflect his grounding and strength.  Amen.


     Eternal God, as we have experienced these days of Lent, for some of us they have merely been like other days.  Yet for us who have actively looked within ourselves, we have found much to ponder.           

     We have wrestled with our need to control our destiny.  You have invited us to bloom where planted.  We have loved, expecting to be loved in return.  You have taught us that authentic love expects nothing. We have cried "unfair" when our idea of justice has not prevailed. Through our remembrance of Jesus' trial and murder, you have reminded us that sometimes justice, fairness and truth are not a part of everyone's experience.  We confess that there are moments when we struggle to right the wrong.  In so doing, our spirit for living becomes unsettled and distant.  You have taught us that when the righteous crucified your son,  you turned the other cheek and gave witnesses insight into life eternal.  You gave them an empty tomb.  

     What a joy it is for us to understand that your nature is to teach us, to lead us and to liberate us from the poverty generated by our own thoughts.  As Jesus entered Jerusalem with a sense of triumph, so may we enter our tomorrows with a deeper understanding of our calling to be faithful during all circumstances.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .