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Sermon: "Expectations"

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA December 15, 2013.

Advent III; Year A (RCL): Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love.  Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.  Amen.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

If we’re honest, I think we'd all admit we're people with expectations.  We retire each night expecting the sun to rise the next day.  We expect drivers and bicyclists will observe the rules of the road.  We expect rush hour will make it hard to get in and out of our church parking lot.  We expect Immanuel is open Sundays, lights on, ready for the Eucharist.  Too often lately, we expect our professional sports teams to disappoint us.  We have expectations for what is considered appropriate behavior, for ourselves and others.  And many, if not all, our days are full of expectations.  They offer both order and some chaos to this world and our lives.

Then there are other expectations.  They can affect us more profoundly than the day-to-day expectations.  Sometimes, they are expectations of hope, and at other times, expectations of dread.  Either way, expectations have power that may exhilarate us, but also to insulate us, or alienate us, and maybe even imprison us.

Expectations of hope create a framework for how we think the world and life should be.  They often include our ideals and dreams which carry us forward. They, in some way, describe our world vision and what we want to see.  For example, when we marry, we may expect some day to have a family of our own.  But there are also expectations of dread, the things of life that we fear and want to avoid.  If that family planning doesn't seem to work, we may expect the dread of an infertility study or a necessary follow-up physical exam.  Whenever we speak about wanting to simply get through the next day, the next week, or a particular aspect of our life, we sound like we have underlying expectations of dread.  So you see, expectations can be helpful, some hurt, and others can make life interesting.

The thing about expectations - they pull us out of the present moment into a future we do not yet have, except as it exists in our head.  Soon we begin to act and speak as if our expectations, of hope or dread, are part of our reality.  We allow expectations to shape our attitudes, our beliefs, and the way we relate with others.  Expectations even shape our image of who God is, where God can show up, and how God should act.  If God doesn’t meet our expectations, we are quick to question God rather than ourselves.  We blind ourselves.  We trust our expectations of what God should be doing more than we trust what God is actually doing.

John the Baptist was a man with expectations.  Just last week, the rugged prophet was that voice crying out in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”  John expected a new kingdom and a new ruler.  He called people to a baptism of repentance for he knew the time had come.  John expected the One who was more powerful than he.  The Baptist expected wrath, axes and fire.  His expectations had given him the confidence and ability to turn his back on the religious establishment, to go out into the desert, to seek God in the wild, untamed places of life, and to preach to God's people.

Yet today, we hear from a different John.  Now he is a prisoner with a question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  So what happened?  How did John come from being free, out in open spaces, living in the wilderness, to be held in the small dank and dark confines of a prison cell?  How did he move from being a prophet with all the answers to a prisoner with this one question?

It began when John publicly and sternly rebuked Herod Antipas of Galilee for seducing his brother's wife, dismissing his own, and then marrying his sister-in-law.  "It is not lawful,” John said, “for you to have your [brother's wife]” (Mt. 14:1-4).  So Herod arrested and imprisoned John.  That’s the history, but Scripture invites us to look further and listen deeply, to seek the spiritual meaning.

Herod may have placed John in jail, but the Baptist's own expectations imprisoned him.  Herod’s jail, the bricks and mortar, is the outward symbol of the inner prison where John now waits.  It is a prison of disappointment and disillusion.  He is bound up by his own unmet expectations.  He had heard about the Christ, the Messiah, his comings, goings and doings, but where are the cleaving ax, the winnowing fork, and the unquenchable fire?  In the midst of cleansing lepers, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, where is the messianic wrath of deliverance to topple political powers and religious authorities?

So John sends his own disciples to Jesus with a question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  It’s as if John is saying, “You, you’re the One?  Isn’t there someone else?  Perhaps someone who better fits my expectation of the Christ?”

John was incarcerated by his own expectations of who the Messiah is and how the Messiah should act.  His vision of the Kingdom was too small, his expectation of the Messiah too narrow. That is the danger of holding onto our expectations too tightly. Whether they are expectations of hope or expectations of dread, our own expectations can blind us to the One who is coming, to the One who is more powerful.  Jesus doesn't work like that.  God's Word is liberating because we cannot imagine how God will work.  We expect God’s work will conform with our life and expectations.  But that isn't who God is or how God acts.

C. S. Lewis once said, "What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what kind of person you are."  We may have thought God would make our lives easy, and instead, God calls us to live more deeply.  We want God to eliminate our suffering, and yet I hope we all know God stands with us in the midst of our pain.  We expect God would hold us each as special, but God calls us to identify with the least, the last, and the lost.  We want God to make us strong, but we discover God's strength through our weakness.  We hope God will destroy our enemies; rather, God commands us to love them.  We want to be leaders, but God calls us to be servants.

Each time our expectations are unmet, our prison walls could just crumble.  Freedom is being offered.  We must decide if will we find our escape or simply start rebuilding the walls.  With our old expectations, life might seem so much easier if Jesus would just do and be as we expect.  But our Lord won’t.  Jesus comes to set us free from all human expectations.  He will not leave us in our prison cells, no matter how comfortable or safe they might seem to us.  Jesus loves us too much.

Yet there is a part of us that persists with our expectations and our question.  “Yes or No, are you the One who is coming?  Do we wait for another?  Please, sweet Jesus, just answer the question!”  John seeks "proof" of Jesus' Messiah-ship based on his expectations, and yet Jesus offers "evidence" based on God's promises.  Jesus doesn't answer Yes or No, for John or for us.  A simple Yes or No answer will not release us from our jails.  We will escape only when we let go of our expectations and see where God is at work now.  We will escape only when we open our hearts and minds to a bigger understanding of the Kingdom here on earth.  We will escape when we trust God more than our our ideas about God.

This season of Advent can be a season for jailbreaks, the season of escaping our expectations of God.  It can be the time in which the falling apart of our worlds is shown not to be the end of the world.  Maybe it is a time when wrath, axes, and fire are really about love and healing rather than punishment and destruction. Perhaps it is when God comes, quiet as a thief in the night, to steal way those expectations to open our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls to other possibilities.

So I wonder: Where have you imprisoned yourself with expectations of hope or dread?  In what ways do you work at rebuilding those prison walls?  How have you insulated, isolated, or alienated yourself from the love, healing, and life that our awesome God offers?

There is a full-sized painting by William Holman Hunt called "The Light of the World" which hangs in St, Paul's Cathedral in London.  The figure of Christ coming in the night with lantern in hand knocks on an overgrown and long-unopened door.  If you look closely, you see the door has no handle on the outside.  I bet if you check, you may find the door of your cell is locked, but only from the inside.  Christ waits outside, saying: "Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me." (Rev. 3:20)

As Christ our Lord invites you and me, I urge us to open that door and flee the confines of our expectations.  A new world awaits us.

John did not experience the full work of Christ, the meaning of his death on the cross, his rising to new life, and returning to the Father.  We who live on the other side of the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ know the story.  What do you see and hear?  The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, those who receive the Good News would be us.  God is always coming into the jails of our lives, proclaiming liberty to the captives and offering release to the prisoners.  Blessed, indeed, are we who take no offense as the in-breaking of Christ into our lives!