Bible Text: John 3:1-17, Genesis 12:1-4a | Preacher: Rev.M. | Series: Giving It Up | This morning we are continuing into week two of our Lenten sermon series, “Giving It Up.” As I mentioned last week, the season of Lent is one where many Christians will give something up during the forty days until we get to Easter Sunday. Lent serves not only as a time for contemplation and reflection, but also as a time of preparation for Easter through various spiritual practices including prayer, fasting, denial or ego or luxuries, and other similar practices.
Typically, people will give up things like certain foods or drinks, video games, smoking, television, or other things. But are those the only things we should consider giving up? Are there other, maybe more important things that God wants us to give up? Throughout this series, we are going to be talking about some things that God wants us to give up, and not just for Lent, but for all our lives.
Last week we talked about giving up control using a passage from Matthew’s Gospel and the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert, along with a passage from the book of Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. Today, our sermon title is “Giving Up Expectations,” and we will be focusing on our readings for today from the book of Genesis and the Gospel of John.
Expectations. We all have them, right? About different things in life and reality. And we all have different ideas and understandings around the concepts of expectations. American fiction writer Brandon Sanderson once said, “Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely they were to crack.” “If you expect nothing from anybody, you’re never disappointed.” wrote American Poet Sylvia Plath once. Hong Kong-American actor, director, martial artist, and philosopher Bruce Lee once said, “I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.”
I can tell you that as a senior in high school, at the beginning of the year, I had expectations of studying actuarial science and working with numbers making a six-figure salary. I was good at math, especially statistics, and it seemed like an obvious path to take in terms of a career that would provide me with the financial means to do what I wanted to in life.
I can also tell you that towards the end of my senior year, my expectations had changed to working in the information technology field where I would still make pretty good money, but I had a stronger passion for the work. While I enjoyed numbers, I LOVED technology and creating things with it to make things better or more efficient, or to empower people. I can also tell you that I had NO expectations of EVER standing in front of a congregation as a pastor, or at least not really at that age. My career expectations changed over time and were influenced by different things.
Expectations can be a funny thing sometimes. Expectations are not the same thing as hope. We can have expectations of a positive outcome in a given situation, and we can have expectations of a negative outcome in a given situation. Our expectations can be based on somewhat arbitrary things like our gut feelings. Or, our expectations can be based on somewhat more concrete things like statistics or data or historical information. Expectations can be wide-ranging, emotionally driven, fact-based, positive or negative, and a myriad of other things.
If we go back to our Scripture readings for this morning, we find some interesting stories that are full of expectations in different ways. Let’s start with our passage from Genesis, chapter twelve. Here we have God calling to Abram to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show.” Now, this is kind of a big deal given the culture Abram came from. Leaving behind all your family and your family’s land was not something done on a regular basis.
But God makes a promise to Abram when he tells him to go saying, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” God furthers this promise by offering to Abram that God will “bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” It sounds like a pretty good promise to help Abram make this big move away from his family. And so, Abram goes and takes his brother Lot with him.
So, Abram, or as he is later known, Abraham, follows God’s call to leave his family and homeland and travels to the place that God promised for his descendants. And he does this even though he doesn’t know how it will all work out. God doesn’t sit down with Abram and map it all out. He doesn’t hand him his planned itinerary and check his bags for him. But Abram is able to give up any expectations he might have had about his life and pretty much everything else. He gives up those expectations and follows God’s call.
Now in our second reading from the third chapter of John’s Gospel, we have a story about Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus, one of the leaders of the Jews. Nicodemus goes to see Jesus one night, and he goes at night because if he would be discovered to be spending time with Jesus, he might lose his leadership position or worse. Jesus was a troublemaker in the eyes of most of the Jewish leaders. But Nicodemus, as he states to Jesus, knows that Jesus is sent by God because of all of the signs that Jesus does and his authority in his speaking.
But when he goes to speak with Jesus, well, he struggles a little with what Jesus tells him. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus, somewhat confused, questions, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” And if we think about it, given that this was probably one of the few times this concept had been offered, it’s not that surprising that Nicodemus might be a little confused.
Jesus responds to his questions with, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
But poor Nicodemus is still struggling as he askes Jesus, “How can these things be?” Jesus continues to explain more and challenges Nicodemus further. And then Jesus speaks some of the most iconic words ever recorded in Scripture in verses sixteen and seventeen, “For God so loves the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Those words are God’s grace. But these words are new and counter to the understanding that the Jews had of their relationship with God. So when Nicodemus has a hard time understanding what God’s grace is really all about, it’s not that surprising because he is used to thinking in terms of the religious structure of the day. These words completely change one’s expectations of their relationship with God and how God works in the world. The expectations of how God sees the world and humanity seem to shift.
You know, sometimes we just cannot know what’s going on or what’s coming next in life. And while it is true that God doesn’t guarantee any future circumstances or uninterrupted prosperity, we can, and should, fully trust that God will be with us through whatever circumstances we face. And we can, and again should, fully trust that God will work with us to make the best result out of even the most hopeless of places.
The idea of giving up our expectations of life, the world, and so much more can be challenging. And I think that reality is because giving up those expectations is very much like, and in a way part of, giving up control, just like we talked about last week. Our expectations are often our attempt to assume an outcome that we either want control of, or believe we have some level of control of, but not complete control of.
What would it mean if we gave up our expectations of certain things in life? Are you familiar with the term “self-fulfilling prophecy”? Self-fulfilling prophecy refers to the sociopsychological phenomenon of someone expecting something, and then that expectation comes true simply because one believes it will, and their resulting behaviors align to fulfill those beliefs. This further suggests that peoples’ beliefs influence their actions. And this is not an uncommon belief for many people, and it goes both ways, either towards the positive or negative.
But what might it look like, what might it ultimately mean, if we could give up our expectations? Would we be more in awe of the outcomes? Might we see God’s hands more in events of the world? Might we see them less? Might we change how much we assume God is active or inactive in the events of the world?
Or let me take this in another direction. If we gave up our expectations, might we understand the outcomes of situations differently? What if instead of having expectations that someone who is deathly ill is going to die, we let go of our expectations and see what happens? And what if we didn’t always just expect God to intervene in every situation in life? What if instead, we took the initiative to act?
What if instead of waiting around, expecting God to come in like Superman and fixing all of the world’s problems, what if instead we began to make positive changes for the world. Abram had no idea what would happen by following God’s call, but he put aside any expectations he may have had and followed God. Nicodemus had the engrained expectations of his culture and the history of this faith tradition that made it hard for him to understand and manage his expectations of Jesus and God’s love.
Expectations are not a bad thing. I want to make that clear. They are a normal part of the human experience and who we are. But, what if, at least some of the time, we could give up our expectations and see what can happen? Or what if we could give up those expectations and instead of waiting on others to make things better, we acted ourselves?
This Lenten season, and beyond, I encourage you to try and give up your expectations. Maybe it’s your expectations about what a particular Sunday morning worship experience will be. Maybe it’s your expectations about the future of our denomination. Maybe it’s your expectations of a future political election. Or maybe it’s your expectations of how someone is going to disappoint you in your life. It can be countless kinds or categories of expectations but make an effort.
Make a sincere and prayerful effort and see what happens. Someone or something might surprise you. You might even surprise yourself. You might be moved to do something that has a lasting impact far beyond anything you might ever expect. God might surprise you. But just like with control, if we ask for God’s help, we must do so truthfully and sincerely. Amen.