"The Power of Expectations"

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – January 16, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 40: 1-11; John 1: 29-42

Dick’s First Sermon in Bermuda

     As I began preparing for my first message to you, I became intrigued by the assigned lectionary Scripture passages for this morning.  They were about expectations.  I am not sure how many of us are aware how our expectations flavor every experience we have. Most of us have lived long enough to realize that expectations can be a two-edged sword.   Expectations can easily set us up for disappointments.

     For example, one edge features the hope of a woman that her boyfriend was going to give her a diamond this Christmas.  She had already planned how and when to make her announcement to her family and friends.  

     The other edge was exposed when Christmas came and went and that magical moment never happened.  Her boyfriend did not pop the question.  There was no ring.  Life was pretty much business as usual. 

     When we turn to our Gospel lesson, we immediately notice that John the Baptist had expectations of Jesus.  John knew the identity of Jesus.  He also knew that Jesus was sent here to take away the sins of the world.  He understood Jesus’ purpose for coming into our world from what he experienced when he baptized Jesus.

     Most of us know that story well.  The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove.  While it is unclear exactly who heard the voice, we know the words from God, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”  These words would drive Jesus into the wilderness to be alone to sort out what they meant.

     Did Jesus fulfill John’s extraordinary expectations of Jesus?  Jesus did not.  In fact, John’s ministry and the ministry of Jesus ran parallel to each other for quite some time.  You may remember the episode that gave testimony to this.  From prison, John sent his own disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one who was to come.  Jesus told John’s disciples, “Go back and tell John what you see.  The blind are able to see, the lame are able to walk.” 

     Such an answer had to be confusing to John.  John had different expectations of the one God was going to send. Along the banks of the Jordan he was angrily pointing fingers at the Scribes, Pharisees and Teachers of the Law as he announced that the Kingdom of God was coming.  John was expecting a Messiah that would clean the house of those who had made a mockery of the faith traditions of his people. 

     What we know from biblical history is that Jesus’ ministry was completely different from John’s expectations.  John’s anger had molded his understanding of what God was going to do.  “Know this,” Jesus told his listeners, “I assure you that John the Baptist is greater than anyone who has ever lived.  But, the one who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.” (Matt. 11:11) 

     John’s judgment of those who considered themselves the most faithful to God, caused his preaching to be filled with rage and contempt.  Many of his listeners repented and came into the Jordan River to be baptized because they were afraid of the coming judgment of God. 

     Jesus’ message was not about punishing people.  Rather he taught people the importance of changing how they thought and felt about their enemies and neighbors.   He was teaching them how to live in the Kingdom of God.  Remember the Beatitudes – they described attitudes of being.

     Jesus knew that expectations colored everything about how his listeners perceived their environment, how they defined their relationships and what they believed about God.  The Jewish expectation was that God was going to send a Messiah who would save them. Their definition of that savior was political. 

     Such thoughts dominated their thinking. Their traditions had not trained them to think in terms of an inner world of spirit, of attitudes or of thought patterns that would help them love people like tax collectors and harlots. They were looking for someone who would restore David’s Kingdom.  We need to consider and recognize how our own expectations can influence the judgments we make.

     Recently, I went to one of our local pharmacies to secure four photos of myself that needed to be attached to various immigration documents.  The woman who waited on me was the store manager and she spoke with a very tell-tale English accent. 

     As we talked, I learned that she was from England and that her mother did not care one bit for Americans.  In fact, her mother had visited the States one time and had decided never again to return.  The manager caught her self possibly saying too much and said, “I hope you are not offended by what I’m saying.”  I assured her that very little ever offends me.

     Feeling more comfortable, she proceeded to tell me what her mother had told her when the two spoke by phone at Christmas time. Her mother said, “You have been in America too long.  You are beginning to sound like a bloody Yank.”  I asked her to tell me more of her mother’s thoughts.  Oh my!  She mentioned every stereotype and image that you might imagine. 

     I said, “Your Mother is right.  There are many people in our country that more than live up to those images.  She found all the flaws that she was expecting to find.  Again, expectations formed her conclusions.  What your mother is not considering is the possibility that there are others here who know how to give without counting the cost, who are angels in the flesh.  They are here too.”

     This experience could not have come at a better time for me.  It helped me imagine what your expectations and pre-conceived notions might be of me.  At this stage of my journey, Lois and I have never lived in another culture on a long-term basis.  As I told Valerie and David, our gracious hosts when we first visited Bermuda, Lois and I will be facing a gigantic learning curve.  I learned years ago to remain a student of what my life experiences can teach me.  I want all of you to become my teachers.  I have not changed in wanting such feedback from others.

     What is interesting about Jesus is that he did not change either when he came into contact with such concepts as, “There is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”  We are painfully aware that the sins of humankind are still very much with us.  What Jesus did during his ministry was teach his listeners how to remove the barriers that prevented love from showing up in their relationships.  For example, it is better to be kind than always needing to be right.

     What expectations do we have of our relationship with God?  How do we wish God would act toward us individually or collectively as a church family?  Our temptation is look to God as a non-ending source of help, much like the Psalmist in our one lesson for today.  “I waited patiently for the Lord’s help; then he listened to me and heard my cry.  He pulled me out of a dangerous pit, out of the deadly quicksand.  He set me safely on a rock and made me secure.”  (Psalm 40:1-2)

     If we look for God to send us a lifeboat each time we feel stranded in challenging circumstances, we will repeatedly be disappointed. We would become like John the Baptist who wanted Jesus to do our homework for us by removing our selfish desires.  If such would have been the will of Jesus, it would have happened.  It did not.   Our sins will go away when we make wiser choices and willfully embrace loving responses to all others.

     The first three words of Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled, are these: “Life is difficult.”  How do we move beyond such a perception?  What are we expecting from life?  The Apostle Paul offered this advice, “Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind.  Then you will be able to know the will of God – what is good and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

     When I was attending seminary, I had the privilege of studying under the author and lecturer, Dr. L. Harold DeWolf, who later became the Dean of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.  He began his career as a pastor.  Within the first two years of his ministry, a crisis occurred in his congregation for which Harold had little preparation.  He learned that a young boy in his congregation had developed leukemia.  In those days, there was little the medical community could do to save the young boy’s life.

     Harold immediately visited with the family.  Both parents were experiencing a crisis of faith.  The young man’s mother was very angry.  She had expectations of God.  She said, “We tithe our income, we volunteer, we seldom miss church and we are involved in our community.  We are good people.  Rev. DeWolf, if God has the power to intervene, why doesn’t he? Please pray.  Please have our congregation pray.  Ask God to spare the life of our son.”

     In spite of all the prayers, the boy continued to decline in health.  He had lost considerable weight and his mother and dad had to feed him in little increments all during the day.  He eventually became so depleted of his strength that eventually the little guy was unable to speak.   The report finally reached Harold that the boy had died.

     DeWolf paced back and forth in his office as he tried to rehearse what he might tell these grieving parents.  Nothing came to him.  He knocked on their door and was surprised by their cheery greeting as they invited him to come into their home.  After they visited a while, Harold asked how it was that they had moved from being angry with God to an apparent acceptance of the loss of their son. 

     They both began to tear up as they told him of their experience very early that morning.  The time was 2:15 a.m. when they heard the voice of their son call out, “Mom, Dad, come quickly!”  They had not heard their son’s voice for over a month.  

     They entered his bedroom and turned on the light and were astounded that their son was off his pillow, resting on his arm.  They stood shocked and silent as they heard their son say in a clear, calm voice, “I wanted you to see the angel standing at the foot of my bed.  He has come to take me with him.  I asked him if I could first say good-bye to you.  He said, ‘Call them.’  Isn’t he beautiful?  Mom and Dad, I am not afraid.  Right now I feel wonderful.”

     The two of them stood speechless as they hugged each other.  They could see nothing.  However, they watched their son’s eyes follow something that appeared to be approaching him from the other side of his bed.  He summoned the strength to reach out with both arms as if someone were about to pick him up, then their son fell back on the bed and was gone.  They said, “Had we not had that experience this morning we would be in a very different place.”

     For me, this story illustrates that God’s love encompasses and surrounds each one of us regardless of our circumstances, expectations, doubts, fears and beliefs.  God’s love is something that we cannot earn by our goodness.  Life can be unfair and even cruel. Faith is accepting what comes with steadfast trust that God’s love of us in unfailing.  In fact, this was the spirit that served Jesus as he went to his own death.

     When we develop expectations, let them be of ourselves.  Who did Jesus call his disciples to be when they entered the world, when they encountered people who were impatient, when others were unhappy because their world was not the way they wanted it or when they felt alone?  Jesus called us to teach others what living in the Kingdom of God looked like.  My prayer for all of us is that we have such a vision as we leave our place of worship and re-enter our world.