"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
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
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.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
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.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
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 . . .