15 December, 2013

Expectations and the Path of Peace, a sermon

Throughout the whole Bible, there are some amazing birth stories. Remember back… the first story is from Genesis, when Abraham and Sarah are told they will have a child. The messenger said to Abraham, “About this time next year I will return, and your wife Sarah will have a son.” Sarah laughed silently.

She was old. She was barren. She was surprised when she had Isaac.

Samson, one of the Judges had another amazing birth. “In those days, a man named Manoah from the tribe of Dan lived int he town of Zorah. His wife was unable to become pregnant, and they had no children. The angel of the Lord appeared to Manoah’s wife and said, ‘Even though you have been unable to have children, you will soon become pregnant and give birth to a son. You must not drink wine or any other alcoholic drink or eat any forbidden food. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and his hair must never be cut. For he will be dedicated to God as a Nazirite from birth. He will rescue Israel from the Philistines.” The wife tells the husband, who prays. Then the angel comes again. She ran for her husband. 

“Manoah ran back with his wife and asked, ‘Are you the man who talked to my wife the other day?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘I am.’ They prepared an offering and then the angel went away. The text continues, “When her son was born, they named him Samson. And the Lord blessed him as he grew up.” And eventually, the Spirit of the Lord began to take hold of him.

Then there’s Samuel. Hannah, his mother, was the second wife, and she had no children. She was teased by the other wife all the time. Each year, the whole family would head to Shiloh to give an offering. One year, Hannah went over to the Tabernacle after supper to pray. Eli the priest was sitting in his place, and “Hannah was in deep anguish, crying bitterly as she prayed to the Lord. And she made this vow, ‘O Lord Almighty, if you will look down upon my sorrow and answer my prayer and give me a son, then I will give him back to you. He will be yours for his entire lifetime, and as a sign that he has been dedicated to the Lord, his hair will never be cut.”

As she was praying, Eli watched her. He thought she might be drunk. Of course she wasn’t. She was just praying. Eli said, “May the God of Israel grant the request you have asked of him.” Hannah gave birth to Samuel, who became the last of the judges, and he anointed both King Saul and King David.

Then we have the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah. The birth of John. 

So the story of the barren woman rings back through the Bible. But it’s not just the barren women who are important. It’s the children, too. They are born with the greatest of expectations on their shoulders.

I wonder… was there ever a child born with no expectations? We all had some expectations put on us. Were we expected to fix our parents’ marriage? Were we expected to take care of our parents in their old age? Were we expected to be successful in everything we do? And even worse, were we expected to fail in all that we do? Were we expected to do so little that we never did anything?

Expectation is defined as a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future.

But let me tell you something here. There’s not a single one of us who has ever lived up to expectations. Not our parents expectations of us. Not our spouses’ expectations of us. Not our children’s expectations of us. Not our God’s expectations of us. Not one single one of us.

And you know why? Because we’re not supposed to…

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book An Altar in the World, writes this: 

In my life, I have lost my way more times than I can count. I have set out to be married and have ended up divorced. I have set out to be healthy and I have ended up sick. I have set out to live in New England and have ended in Georgia. When I was thirty, I set out to be a parish priest, planning to spend the rest of my life caring for souls in any congregation that would have me. Almost thirty years later, I teach school. The last time I tried to iron one of my old black cotton clergy shirts, the rotted fabric gave way beneath my fingers.

While none of these displacements was pleasant at first, I would not give a single one of them back. I have found things when I was lost that I might never have discovered if I had stayed on the path. I have lived through parts of life that no one in her right mind would ever have willingly chosen, finding enough overlooked treasure in them to outweigh my projected wages in the life I had planned.

We never get our life lessons if we stay on the path. We never get the full measure of life’s treasures if we stay on the path. We never get all the goodness that life has to offer if we never get a little lost and give up on our expectations and the expectations of those around us.

Look at Abraham and Sarah. They could have said, “No, thank you, God. We’re good with staying right here,” when God told them to go to the new land.

Look at Samson’s mother. She could have said, “No! It’s too hard. I’m expecting to be childless, and I’m good with it.” And it wouldn’t have been her son who tore apart the Philistines who were killing the Hebrew people left and right. 

And look at Hannah. She could have skipped going to the temple to pray for a child. She could have missed the blessing of Samuel, who led the people, anointed kings, and said to God, when God called, “Yes, Lord, your servant is listening.”

And then there’s John the Baptist. His father sings this song of joy when he is born. He sings, “and you, my little son, will be called the prophet of the Most High, because you will prepare the way for the Lord. You will tell his people how to find salvation through forgiveness of their sins. Because of God’s tender mercy, the light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.”

Zechariah and Elizabeth could have said no. 

And John the Baptist, this wilderness-living, camel-hair-shirt-wearing, locust-eating, repentance-yelling crazy character baptizes hundreds and hundreds of people, inviting them into the Good News, which is a life lived honestly, generously, and without piety. He even baptizes Jesus. And then he gets his head cut off by the ruler of Israel. They call that the path of peace.

The path of peace is never what  you think it is. Isaiah tells us:

“Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.

This path of peace sounds like it might be different than what we expect. It will be full of God’s people. And as we just noted, God’s people are the ones that turn away from their own expectations and the expectations of others. They are the ones who say “Yes!” to life. They are not the goody-goodies. They aren’t the ones who followed all the rules. They aren’t the ones who meet their parents’ expectations. They are the ones who bravely went where no one went before. They are the ones who lived honestly, gave generously, and sought justice.

Today, you might be trying to live up to the expectations of others. You might still be trying to live up to the expectations of you parents. You may think that the future holds particular things for  you, and you may be trying to live up to those. But I am here to say to you that the only expectation that you need to live up to are those of God. Say yes to life. Live honestly. Give generously. Seek justice.

It might be the first time you’ve ever decided to follow Christ, to live up to God’s expectations. If so, I’d like to invite you to talk to me after the service. I’d like to pray with you and support you on this Path of Peace. You might have even decided that somewhere along the way, other people’s expectations have become more important to you than God’s expectations. I’d invite you to talk with me, or someone you trust here at GCC. Let them know that you’ve decided to follow God’s path of peace.

Pray with me please:

Loving God, thank you that you’ve provided a Path of Peace… a path that leads us deeply into trusting you, serving you, and serving others. Help us see that the path is still rocky, the road is still difficult, but that it’s the road of life and life of sharing. Walk with us. Hold us. Help us to be your children. And to meet your expectations.

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