Giving Up Our Expectations

First Baptist Church · The Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 12:1-4; John 3:1-17

March 16, 2014

I suspect that like me when you hear the term “yachting” your mind goes toward wealthy people spending their summer leisure time gliding across the water on beautiful, expansive vessels. Without question, the word “yachting” conjures up images and ideas as to what it means to be on a yacht and to go out for an afternoon sail.

In recent weeks, though, the idea of yachting has been completely redefined by the renewal of a sport that is actually over a century old but that is a rarity these days. You see, for the first time in many, many years, large bodies of water in the Northern United States, such as the Hudson River, are completely iced over as a result of this year’s brutally cold and harsh winter. In turn, these icy conditions and the hard freeze of these lakes and rivers, has allowed for the return of something called “ice yachting.” That’s right—ice yachting. In ice yachting, much smaller and less ornate vessels, albeit still beautiful, are connected to sails that allow them to be steered across the ice at 30-40 miles an hour in freezing cold conditions.

Who knew that this version of sailing, which has been around for over 100 years and that uses vessels that are often antiques themselves, even existed? Who knew that to go sailing or yachting could just as easily mean skimming across ice on a winter day when the temperatures are below zero as it could mean to sail on pristine waters in July when temperatures are nearing 100?

What this reminds me of is the simple fact that words and ideas with which we are all familiar automatically carry expectations with them. That is not only true for the terms “yachting” or “sailing” but it is also true for most other common words or ideas that are part of our normal vocabulary. In fact, the same was true for our children earlier in the service today.

When Sharon shared with them that Ms. Adair was going to play the piano, they had an idea in mind, as did we, as to what that meant. Our expectation was that the piano would sound a certain way. In turn, we were all surprised when the sound coming from the keyboard was more like that of a guitar rather than a piano. Why? Because it is not what our minds had trained us to expect.

This morning, I want to suggest to us that expectations can be good and expectations can be equally dangerous. I say this particularly as it relates to our expectations of God.

Without question, we regularly create expectations of God. In our minds, we expect God to do certain things. We expect God to behave in certain ways. We expect God to respond to the needs and experiences of our lives in one way and not in another way. Again, this can be good but it can also be very, very dangerous. The danger is that our expectations often keep us from listening to God or following God when God acts in ways or responds in a manner that are far different from what we had anticipated.

The stories of Abraham in the Old Testament and Nicodemus in the New Testament are classic examples of this truth. Both Abraham and Nicodemus, like all human beings, had expectations of and ideas about God. In terms of Abraham, an older man who had already lived a long life, certainly those expectations included what God would or would not call him to do at the age of 75 and as someone who along with his wife had never been able to have children. In turn, when God spoke and called Abraham to uproot his life and prepare to become the father of a great nation, both ideas were likely nowhere to be found on Abraham’s radar screen.

For Nicodemus, with much experience as a leader among the Jewish people at the time he met Jesus, there were also ideas and expectations firmly in place in his mind as to how God would act. In turn, when he met Jesus, who began to talk about faith more than obedience to the law and being born again as a child or God rather than being God’s child from birth by being born a Jew, Nicodemus too was caught off guard. After all, very little that Jesus said was in keeping with what Nicodemus had come to expect.

For both Abraham and Nicodemus, the danger was that both were tempted to dismiss their profound encounters with the presence of God because those same encounters tugged at the boundaries and dared to reshape their ideas of who God was and how God acted. 

Again, the same dangers exist for you and for me every single day. When God fails to answer our prayers as we had expected, do we get angry, throw up our hands and denounce our faith or do we allow for the possibility that perhaps our expectations were wrong to begin with?

When we read the scriptures and a new insight is brought to our mind through the Holy Spirit, do we quickly dismiss it because it is something that we have never thought about before, or, are we open to the possibility that God may be revealing something to us that will reshape how we live and how we approach others.

And, when we sense God tugging at us to do something, to engage in a new ministry, to reinvest in our church or to rectify a long dormant relationship, do we remain closed minded convinced God could never call us to that sort of work? Or, do we open ourselves up to the possibility that even at this stage in our lives, there might be something new that God yet has in store for us to do?

Here is the truth for today in a nutshell—God is far bigger than any box we can make or any set of expectations that we can create. In turn, both our disappointments and our frustrations with God are often directly related to the limits we try to place on God. Let me say that again, many if not most of our disappointments and our frustrations with God are directly related to our limiting of God.

When we lived in the Atlanta area, I enjoyed getting acquainted with an older member of our congregation. He was roughly 80 when I met him and had been retired for twenty years from a career in academics where he had spent his days as a researcher. From an early stage in our friendship, it became clear to me that as he aged, he had not lost many of the qualities one thinks of when you hear the term “researcher.”

In most every setting in which I encountered him, he was always incredibly inquisitive. He always had questions, was always tinkering with something and was constantly thinking about new things. I particularly marveled at him one day when he shared with me that he had taken up a new hobby—learning to play the violin. While most violin students are at the front end of life, he was learning this instrument on the back side of life and he was perfectly fine with that. Why, I even remember the year that he volunteered to play for his Sunday School class Christmas party. What remains a part of my memory is that while those in attendance struggled and strained to pick out Jingle Bells and winced at the multitude of wrong notes and unusual sounds his violin produced that day—he didn’t really care what we thought.

For you see, what this wonderful man illustrated so well was that there were always new things to learn, always new areas of life to explore and always new ways to be challenged. He, in turn, embraced this way of approaching life rather than recoiling against it.

In a world where we are taught to quickly make up our mind and firmly establish what we believe—his approach was refreshing. Now, don’t hear me wrong. I am not suggesting that there are not baselines and non-negotiable aspects of faith that we should always adhere to. But, I am suggesting that even in the midst of these, we must give God room to continually expand our mind of who he is and how he goes about his work in our world. For, if we don’t, we will only set ourselves up to dismiss the presence and movement of God every time our expectations and our ideas of how things must work as it relates to God are challenged.

After all, salvation is a process. And, this is true not only as it relates to our understanding of who God wants us to be, but, it is also true as it relates to our understanding of who God already is. Amen.