“What to Expect When You’re Expecting”
July 6, 2014
“When John heard in prison what the
Christ was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to Jesus, ‘Are you the
one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’”
It is said that negative expectations
produce negative results. And positive expectations—well, positive expectations
also produce negative results.
You know what that’s like.
Show up at an event not wanting to be
there, expecting to be bored, and you probably will be. But go with high hopes
for what will happen and you’ll probably find that your great expectations were
not met. “Well, I expected that” and “Well, I didn’t expect that” are both expressions of
The problem is that our expectations can
get in the way of how we respond to what we hear and see.
Consider the experience of John the
You might remember John’s story. Or if
you have taken my advice and started reading through all of the Gospel
according to Matthew, you recently encountered some of John’s story at the
beginning of Matthew.
John must have been quite a sight.
Matthew says that John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around
his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey—he was not one for polite
company even in those days.
John’s name tells us much of what we
need to know about him. John the Baptist. No, he didn’t belong to the church
down the street or to a megachurch in Texas. He baptized people, dunking them
into the River Jordan.
John’s message is the same one that
Jesus gives to his disciples when he sends them out to announce the good news
to all the towns and villages: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”
And like Jesus, John is not talking
about “heaven” as someplace where all good people will go when they die if they
just do this or believe that. John’s message is good news about life here and now.
The kingdom of heaven. as we have
discovered, is the new reality that is seen in an end to exile, the defeat of
evil, and the presence of God with God’s people. Even as John speaks, God’s
rule is being established in the world that God created and loves.
Because of this, what we do matters. How
we act matters now and it matters for the realm of heaven that is being
established on earth.
Because how we live matters, John adds
one more word to his message: “Repent.” Change what you’re doing so that it
looks more like God’s desire for you and for this world. That message seems to
work for a lot of people. He gathers quiet a following.
Then the religious leaders come to check
him out. He calls them a “brood of vipers” and sends them packing. “Bear fruit
worthy of repentance,” he tells them—show that you’ve actually changed—or don’t
come around here bothering me anymore.
John has great expectations. “I baptize
you with water for repentance,” he screams at everyone in earshot. “But one who
is more powerful than I is coming after me…He will baptize you with the Holy
Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his
threshing floor and will gather his wheat into his granary; but the chaff he
will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Then one day Jesus shows up at the
Jordan River. John is absolutely certain that this is the One for whom he has
been waiting. This is the One who will usher in the realm of heaven. John knows
that Jesus so fits his expectations of this fire-baptizing, chaff-burning One,
that he is reluctant to baptize Jesus. Why would he need to repent?
John knows he is not worthy to carry
Jesus’ sandals. But when Jesus says it’s OK, well, who’s going to argue?
John has great expectations and on this
day at the Jordan it is obvious to him that Jesus meets all of them. Jesus is
the Messiah, the anointed one, sent as Isaiah said, “to proclaim the year of
the Lord’s favor, and the day of
vengeance of our God.” The realm of heaven is near. Soon the axe of God will
fall hard upon the fruitless trees. Soon the fire of judgment will burn hot.
A little while later John’s message
reaches Herod, who is living with his brother’s wife. Repent. Turn in a new
direction. Herod, of course, is unable to turn or unwilling to turn. And John
winds up in prison. We probably could have expected this. The common people
love John. He is a problem to the religious leaders. He is a problem to the ruling
In prison, John hears what Jesus is
doing. And what he hears gives him second thoughts.
John asked: Who warned you to flee the
wrath to come?
Jesus said: “Blessed are the meek, the
merciful, the peacemakers.”
John ate locusts and wild honey in the
Jesus came into the towns eating and
drinking—and with the worst type of people at that.
John told the people the end was near.
Jesus announced that a new beginning was
Jesus cures the sick, heals the broken,
and sends his followers out to do the same. He tells the people, “Do not judge.”
“Ask and it shall be given.”
John had recognized that Jesus was God’s
anointed one—the Messiah, the Christ. But this Messiah is doing the unexpected.
No one in the first century expected the Messiah to be a healer. And while it
was still in the future, certainly no one expected God’s anointed would be
But here is Jesus: instead of bringing
John’s fiery judgment, he brings compassion, mercy, and healing.
Here is Jesus: never living up to our
expectations for him.
It must have been all too much for poor
John in that miserable prison cell.
So John sends his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the One who is to come, or
should we wait for another?”
John is speaking here, not so much as a
prophet, but as a representative of all people—including us. “Should we wait?”
We might imagine John thinking: “Jesus,
you are just not living up to my expectations.”
We can certainly imagine ourselves saying: “Jesus, you’re not living up to
Why is Jesus never like we want him to
be, never like what we expect him to be?
Finding that Jesus doesn’t fit our own
image, we go looking for something more to our liking. And there’s always
something or someone out there that promises to be more to our liking.
It is only by a tenuous grasp that we
hold onto our faith. We look around. We listen to the voices of those who seem
smarter or better off or just better
than we are. We look and listen and wonder: Should we wait for another?
The new atheists use science—or what
they call “science”—to tell us that
the universe in which we live came into being on its own; that life here got
started somehow out of no particular purpose; that we are, in the end, just a
mass of selfish genes looking to perpetuate ourselves and altruism is a fiction.
Why then would we affirm that we are created in the image of God and seek to
live in ways that bring out that image in ourselves and others? Why would we
follow this Jesus who tells us to love as we have been loved, who encourages us
in all things to do to others as we would have them do to us?
The radical capitalists so enamored of
Ayn Rand tell us that there are only makers or takers; that compassion is a
sign of weakness and only creates weakness in others; that the successful are
self-made and invite us into the kingdom of self-made success. Why then would
we follow this Jesus who says that a core sign of the coming of God’s realm was
that the poor have good news preached to them? Should we go along when he tells
us: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to
borrow from you”?
My guess is that each one of us here
today knows someone—probably several people—whose lives are examples of
goodness, kindness, generosity, mercy, love, or just general human decency who
have no connection to a church or who are adherents of no religion at all. We
all have friends who have taken a pass on this whole Christianity thing. We
wonder if we’ve made a big mistake. Maybe some other religion—or no religion at
all—would set us on the right course. Maybe we, too, should look for a better
deal, something more to our liking, something that better meets our
expectations. Why then would we follow this Jesus who tells us: “Take up the
cross and follow me”?
Should we wait for another? It is the
question that that John asks, it is the question that we ask because it is the
question that is asked by people of faith.
As usual, Jesus does not give a
straight-up, yes-or-no answer. Jesus calls John—and us with him—to set aside our
expectations and instead remember what we have heard as well as what we have
seen—and as you are discovering as you read through this Gospel, in Matthew
hearing always precedes seeing.
What we have heard:
You are the salt
of the earth. You are the light of the world.
enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Ask, and it will
be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for
Have no fear.
What we have heard is the word of life,
a word that is gently and persuasively calling us toward the realm of God as it
draws near to us, as it takes shape with us, around us, and through us.
What we have seen:
receiving their sight, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed, the deaf
hearing, and the dead being raised;
cities being rebuilt—even Joplin, Missouri and Washington, Illinois;
The arc of
history bending slowly but inexorably toward justice—through the Civil Rights
Act fifty years ago, through increasing victories for marriage equality;
being released, the hungry being fed, the homeless being sheltered—even in our
midst, even with our help;
What we have seen are signs that our
waiting is over, that God is indeed with us, with this broken and weary world.
Of course you will doubt. Of course you
will question. Of course you will wonder if any of it makes sense. We
Christians, after all, are people of faith—not certainty. But your faith and
the commitments that grow out of it are neither misplaced, misguided, nor
What we hear and see tells us and shows
us that the way we have chosen, while not always easy, not always certain, is a
way that participates in God’s creative and redeeming power, a way that makes
the love of God real in this world.
Set aside your expectations.
Be done with your waiting for another.
Continue to love.
Continue to live in the hope that does
Continue to do all the great things and all
the small things you do that tell the world the realm of God is near.