Sermon Preached on December 8, 2019 – Advent II
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Expectations of a Different Kind
John the Baptist is a weird guy, unexpected barely seems to describe him. Consider John’s beginning – his parents are old and childless, and one day the angel Gabriel comes to them and tells them that they shall have a child. When the baby arrives his mother, Elizabeth, names him what the angel has told her to name him, John. But the people who gathered to receive this baby boy of this elderly and previously barren couple, don’t understand, why was Elizabeth naming this child John? (Yes, that’s what struck them in this situation!) There was no one in their family named John. The people are shocked. They ask out loud, “What will this child become?”
When he grows up, John goes out into the world to live a different life. Wearing animal skins, eating locusts and wild honey, John is unconventional to say the least. He matches his radical message, and lives into his unexpected beginnings; he becomes the astounding child that the neighbors were worried about in the first place. He fulfills their expectations. Strange birth, strange name, strange kid who grows up to be a strange man.
In our Gospel today, John is standing there, probably waist-deep in the water of the river Jordan, arguing with the Sadducees and the Pharisees – who claim their position and authority from their lineage. John argues back, ‘as if your roots alone justify your actions now. The kingdom of God is coming. Which root will be chosen? That root which is fruitful. The root that lives out its faith.’ He chastises them for their arrogance, ‘God can raise up from these stones children of Abraham.’ It’s not the connection to the line of Abraham that saves anyone, but being connected to God right now in the present.
God has promised Abraham that his descendants will out-number the grains of sand, out-number the stars in heaven. This promise is made about 1800 years before this moment when John is standing in the Jordan – that’s a long family memory. And a deep abiding faith in the promises of God. John’s point is that the descendants of Abraham are faithful not because they think they deserve these things promised by God, they are faithful because God’s promises can be trusted.
Honestly, there’s nothing in the family story of Abraham’s descendants that would assure them of greatness, except faith in the promises of God. There’s nothing that assures us of greatness or success, except our faith in the promise of God. And God’s ways are not the world’s ways, they aren’t easy to measure by the world’s value system.
Our culture tends to teach us that we deserve certain things, a certain life. And we learn to expect that life. But life rarely pans out the way we envisioned it. And then we are angry and disappointed: “This isn’t how I pictured my life, I deserve better than this.” But the world owes us nothing, because the world isn’t in relationship with us. Whether or not we exist, the world keeps turning; culture, politics, economy – they don’t hinge on any of us as particular individuals. Few of us are so important or so influential on our own that the world will stop to notice, or to owe us something. Problem is we can spend our lives expecting that it will, living in a state of entitled expectation. Like the Sadducees and Pharisees whose birth lineage gave them certain rights and roles in their culture.
And when the world doesn’t hinge on us, doesn’t stop to make sure that we have what we always thought we’d have, we run face-first into that wall of expectation. And we feel like we’ve failed somehow, or the world has failed us. Most of us have felt this way at one time or another in our lives, or we know someone stuck in this place. ‘Wait, it wasn’t supposed to be like this,’ and then the anguish and anxiety because we don’t know how to make it right. And our feeling that the world somehow owes us something else only gets in the way. The world doesn’t owe us anything. It won’t come running to our rescue and there’s not some tally list of what you’re supposed to have or who you’re supposed to be. Those false expectations set us up for disappointment.
The story we hear again and again from our culture isn’t one that gives us life, it’s one that tends to create false expectations for us that set us up for failure and guilt. Not just in large, life-changing moments, but in all the little moments of our lives. I could share dozens of stories with you from my own experience, but the most obvious illustration is still a fish story.
It happened just after we moved here from Maryland; our stuff was in big metal containers called PODs and we were living between Bethel and Yarmouth. It was a difficult time, and I was praying constantly, which shouldn’t have been all that surprising – except I was praying frantically for a fish. All the animals on the Pooley Ark had made a pretty smooth trip, except Channing’s beta fish. For some reason this, our easiest pet, was really suffering from the move. Maybe it was from sloshing across the country, or the change in temperature or water, but whatever the cause, he was dying. It’s not easy to help a sick fish; we put in the recommended medications and watched helplessly. And I prayed, “Not now God. Don’t let the fish die now!”
I felt terrible, sad – but also guilty. Somehow my measure of whether or not I was a good mother had come down to this fish. What kind of mother drags her children across the country, tears them away from their friends three times in five years, makes them be the new kids again and again, and then, and then – kills the fish?!
Seems ridiculous to put so much weight on this beta fish, but I was feeling guilty and anguished that after everything else, Channing had to watch her fish friend die. So, I was praying. In the midst of making a major life change, taking a big step in my career, buying a house, and moving a family of four – I was praying almost exclusively for a beta fish.
Did you hear it? The worldly expectation whispering dangerously in my ear? The soundtrack that I allowed to play during this moment, the one that the world was only too happy to supply: A good mother would – Not move her kids, not work full time, and would never let her family sacrifice for her career. (A good mother wouldn’t kill the fish.) The soundtrack of worldly expectation does not offer us life, just the opposite – it steals our life. It poisons our perspective and makes us feel and act in ways that aren’t life giving for ourselves or anyone we love.
God offers us another life. Turn to God. Hand over the worldly guilt, and those false expectations to God. Repent of the sin of choosing the world over God; offer ourselves in faithfulness. And live.
It was enough that I loved my daughter so much that I shared in her concern for her fish. That I would have done anything in my power to help her make him well. That I told her that I was praying for him and for her, and I was. Whether or not the fish lived, there’s was nothing more I could have done – but that was enough. Enough for me and Channing because this fish had helped us remember to focus on what was really important during all the changes and chaos and excitement.
You might say it was enough because the fish wound up living a long fish life. But I think it was enough because we met the only expectation that matters – God’s expectation that we love those around us well, and that makes it enough. The world will never tell us that. But God is telling us that all the time. Love God, love others. Do it well; build your life around these two things, and that will be a fruitful life. A real life. That’s the soundtrack that should be playing in our heads.
God lifts us up, children of Abraham, holding out the promise of relationship – “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” God’s hope is that we live a fruitful life, living out our faith in the promises of God. It’s a choice to follow in the faithful footsteps of Abraham, to stand alongside the crazy shouting man in the wilderness, to choose to live a different life than the world offers.
We’ve given the world too much power, the power to judge us a success or a failure, the power to break our hearts. Turn, John says, turn back to God. Turn and give our hearts to God’s safekeeping. Change our expectations – give our anguish and anxiety, our disappointments and ‘should-haves’, over to God. And live it out from here.
That is the call of John. Turn to God, expect the grace of God, and it will come to you. Not success or money or power, but grace. Grace will come to you. This Advent, may we return to God, and receive God’s grace. Amen.