Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Trinity, preached at Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 6 June 2021 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson. (2 Corinthians 4: 13 – 5:1; Mark 3: 20 – end.)
I heard an interesting variation of the half full, half empty glass of the optimist or pessimist the other day. The optimist considers his glass to be half full and concludes that he has already drunk half of it. The pessimist sees his glass as half empty and wonders who it is who has drunk the first half.
This is also a simple example of how our expectation can influence how we interpret our world. Our experience affects our expectation. But equally our expectation reinforces our experience. That may be good or it may give rise to a vicious circle. We often underestimate the influence that what we expect to happen can have on our lives. It is not simply a matter of some people having an optimistic outlook and others always expecting the worst. I think we may well subconsciously engineer the result so that it comes out as we expect. The optimist expects a successful outcome and more often than not that’s what happens. A person’s self-confidence is of great importance. The pessimist is already convinced that things are going to go badly and so approaches the task half-heartedly. The project fails and so the pessimist can say: “There, I told you so!” He has, of course, the satisfaction of being right.
What we expect of ourselves, then, is fraught with ambiguity. What we think others expect of us can also be a source of conflict and stress and Jesus himself was no stranger to the pressure of expectation. He was born into restless times. The Jews were under Roman rule and they greatly resented it. Historians tell us that oppressed people tend to look for a great leader, a deliverer who will rescue them and free them. The children of Israel had the OT prophecies to encourage them and inspire them to hope for a Messiah. Indeed, from time to time someone would put himself forward with claims to be that Messiah – perhaps lead a local rebellion which the Romans would put down with their usual efficient savagery and then everything would quieten down for a while. John the Baptist was asked if he was the Messiah. He denied it but sent messengers to ask Jesus the same question. People were on the lookout; their expectations were high.
But for others expectations were different. The Sadducees did not expect a Messiah at all and ridiculed such ideas while the Pharisees certainly did not think that an itinerant preacher from the unsophisticated North, from little rural Nazareth, could possibly be “the One” they were looking for. Their expectations, then, produced foregone conclusions: Jesus could not be the Messiah; therefore he could not heal with God’s help; it must therefore be a trick, something done by Satan to delude people. In reply, as we heard in today’s gospel reading, Jesus speaks of the impossible inner conflict that that would imply. Evil ends are not deliberately brought about by good means, just as God cannot produce good results by evil means. It’s all a matter of integrity, of wholeness.
The expectations of the Pharisees therefore produced a great distortion. And Jesus was subject to the pressure of expectations from others too – of the disciples, for instance, who wanted a live leader not a dead one and who, perhaps, looked for the great day of the Lord to be inaugurated by the climax of the clash between the authorities and Jesus.
As Christians how do we find our expectation is healed? Well, wholeness comes when we replace the demand of expectation with the request of hope. When we expect, we make demands on ourselves, – on others, – on God. But if we hope in trust, we look for what is good; we allow our ideas to be examined and corrected; and we destroy the power of false expectations and heal its hurtful and negative force. Then we may serve others by looking for their best interests and so we shall love our neighbours.
But secondly, we are to love our neighbours as ourselves and we shall do that by not setting up demands upon ourselves which it is impossible for us to fulfil. We need to know that we are loved and accepted by God.
Thirdly, people have false expectation of God. Some see him as a sort of divine Santa Claus, but we will serve him best by receiving the grace that he gives us with thanksgiving. Then we shall find, as did the disciples, that while God may not give us what we desire, he does, in fact, give us what is beyond expectation.
As we move, as a parish, towards the arrival and institution of a new Team Rector, we need to be careful not to lay unrealistic expectations upon him. We would like everything sorted out, new leading roles filled, various difficult decisions made and so on. The burden of expectation can be great. We need to give him time and support. Our expectation needs to be replaced by hope and love.
St. John writes in one of his letters: “How great is the love that the Father has shown to us! What we shall be, has not yet been disclosed, but we know that when it is disclosed, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”