Giving up Expectations

The second in our Lenten Series, “Giving it Up,” features “Giving Up Expectations.” This sermon is based mostly on Jesus’ nighttime encounter with Nicodemus. What do you think? Have you ever found yourself limiting your expectations of yourself or others, or even God?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In this second sermon of our series, thinking about things we might “Give up” for Lent, we’re going to be talking about giving up expectations. Now, I’d like to say upfront, we obviously can’t ever give up expectations entirely—they’re a part of how we make sense of the world and having expectations about the future is a good thing.

They help us to do things like plan, be prepared and to dream and hope. But when we talk about giving up expectations, we need to think about what types of expectations we have—for ourselves, for others, and for God, and how those expectations are working in our lives.

Over the years, I’ve realized that I put a lot of energy into managing my expectations. For example, anytime I sit down to watch the Phillies, I tell myself right at the beginning that they’re going to lose, and probably going to do so in an embarrassing way. It keeps me from getting disappointed. And often, they manage to meet my very low expectations of them. In order to keep my expectations from getting dashed, I lower them in the first place. It’s not just with sports that I do this—and I imagine that I’m not the only one.

But often our expectations function as our pre-conceived notions of how the world works. Or ought to work. For example: we think that if we, if I, am good enough, smart enough, or make enough money, everything will turn out okay.

Or we have expectations about other people: that other people should be willing to do for me what I’m willing to do for them. This might be good in theory, but we all know it isn’t often reality. Or our expectations for God: that God will operate by our sense of right and wrong, that the people we find objectionable, God finds objectionable.

When we consider the Bible, expectations can be tricky to look at, because we’re not often given insight into what the characters are thinking and feeling. But, at least in the gospel reading today, we’re able to see the missteps and miscommunications that happen when two people approach a conversation with very different sets of expectations.

Nicodemus, a leader of the synagogue, comes to Jesus by night to find out more about him. Jesus and his disciples have come to Jerusalem at this point, early in John’s gospel, for the Passover festival, and those in authority, including Nicodemus, have taken notice of this traveling teacher and healer.

And so Nicodemus comes to have his questions answered. And that’s where things start to go awry. We don’t know what exactly Nicodemus is expecting from Jesus, whom he calls a teacher from God, but from the way the conversation goes, he certainly didn’t expect he was going to be told he needs to be born again from above.

Whatever his expectations, Nicodemus is incredulous at Jesus’ answer. “How can this be?” He asks. He knows that what Jesus is describing doesn’t make sense, and is incredibly skeptical, and as Jesus says, does not believe.

We often single Nicodemus out as being a little dense in his lack of understanding—even Jesus seems to do that—but I think instead he’s just the latest in a long line of people who were confused and skeptical when their expectations came face to face with God’s. People whose experiences led them to find God’s promises to be laughable at best.

Think of Sarah, her body old and beyond the age of childbirth—when she hears that she shall have a son, she laughs in disbelief. Even the story in our first reading, God’s call of Abram, goes against all our good expectations. Who shall God choose to be the patriarch of a great nation, of all of God’s people? No one would have expected that it would be a wandering Aramean, a no one from nowhere.

Or what of another woman of the Hebrew Bible—Naomi, her name changed to mean Bitter—too deeply acquainted with grief and loss to see how God’s future might come through Ruth a Moabite. She is an old woman now, with no husband and no sons. She tells her daughters-in-law to go back to their own families and find new lives. It’s impossible, nonsensical, that she and Ruth would have a future together. And yet that is exactly what happens—and it is through this unexpected pairing that God works great deeds.

No, Nicodemus is certainly not the first to find God’s actions upending his expectations of how things should work. But you know what—it’s a great thing that Nicodemus’ expectations are shattered. That Abraham and Sarah’s expectations of what is possible are put to rest.

When confronted with the unexpected wideness of God’s love and mercy, all of our expectations—of who’s in and who’s out, of who deserves what, of how this whole system works—are blown out of the water. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believed in him might not perish but have eternal life.”

It’s a lot for Nicodemus to take in, and no wonder. Living in such a grace and mercy filled mindset involves a rebirth in the Spirit—and that means giving up old ways of thinking about how God works. About what is possible and impossible. We don’t get the end of the story here; but later we find out that Jesus’ words have truly broken through to Nicodemus, when he shows up at Jesus’ burial, carrying spices for the body.

But this week, the question is put to us: what do we expect? From God, or from ourselves? Are you managing your expectations, like me and the Phillies, hoping not to be disappointed? If so, we’re selling ourselves and God short, because new life and hope can and do come in and surprise us.

God will, whether we’re ready or not, sometimes whether we want it or not, God will come and break through our expectations. Break through our expectations about who is in and who is out. Our expectations about who deserves what. God will use ordinary things—things like bread and wine—and ordinary people, just like you and me, to surprise us with grace. And it might not be what we’re expecting. But it could be just what we need.

There’s an old hymn by William Cowper, called, “Sometimes a light surprises.” Sometimes a light surprises. May we be willing to see past our own expectations, and be surprised by God’s light, mercy, and love. Amen.

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