Published by Ronald Steed,
Sermon for 1 Epiphany (Year C), January 9, 2022
St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Madison, CT.
"All the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah…." We tend to think that expectation and hope are the same thing. But, there seems to be a difference between expectation and hope. I hope that the Boston Red Soxs will win the World Series; I expect that the won’t. See? I’ve already disappointed the expectations of half the parish here who are expecting that I am a Yankees
What does it mean that all those people gathered at the river Jordan were filled with expectation? What was it that they were expecting, and what did that have to do with the Messiah?
500 years before Jesus, the Jewish people were released from their 70 year exile in Babylon and returned to Jerusalem. There, they rebuilt their city and built a second temple. Even after all of that, it seemed to many that they were still in exile, and there was a prophecy in the book of Daniel Chapter 9 that suggested that their exile would continue for 70 weeks of years; about 500 years total.
That idea was reinforced by a succession of conquering powers across the years; Alexander the Great and his successors, and by Jesus’ time, the Romans. So those gathered at the river Jordan with John the Baptist were ready, primed, and expecting that the time for the Messiah was now… it was at hand. In fact, Jesus was neither the first, nor the last to claim that they were Israel’s Messiah. There were a lot of candidates, and people were eager for one of them actually to BE the Messiah.
But what were they expecting this Messiah to do? Certainly, there were a range of expectations throughout the country, but the main expectation was that God’s Messiah would raise an army and overthrow the Romans, and not just in Palestine, but in Rome itself, with the result that they would rule the world and dole out punishment to the gentiles of the world. They looked at the Romans and said "That should be us! We should rule the world as God’s chosen people."
So what kind of Messiah did they expect could do such a thing? Well, clearly, the Messiah had to be a great leader… one who was trained in weapons and warfare… he would have to be ruthless with the Romans. And with John preaching powerfully out in the wilderness, these were people who were there to size him up. "Is this the one who is going to crush the Romans? Will John the Baptist meet our expectations?" John also had expectations for the Messiah. "His winnowing fork is in his hand to gather the wheat and burn the chaff." Jesus did not meet any of those expectations… he was a disappointment to a lot of people. Even John had doubts about Jesus when he saw what he was actually doing, and later ask Jesus "Are you really the one?"
And that’s the thing about expectation; unmet, it leads to bitter disappointment, and anger, and frustration, emotions a LOT of people feel in America today. Expectation is about outcomes… the outcomes we want. Expectations have already plotted a route through all the complexities of life and landed on an endpoint… a place where the expectant-one expects to arrive. Often, those outcomes include expectations for the person who carries them. "When we crush the Romans, I expect to be at the Messiah’s right hand… I expect to be in his favor, so that I can enjoy the wealth that comes with power". So, a lot of expectations, at least about the Messiah, had to do with power. It’s like that line in the Lord of the Rings… "nine rings were gifted to the race of men, who above all else, desire power". There’s a lot of truth in that line.
I wonder how things on that river bank might have been different if, instead of expectation, the people gathered there were full of hope.
Expectation comes from the head, it comes from the ego. Hope comes from the heart. Expectation covets powerful outcomes; hope is not interested in outcomes or power. Hope is coupled with faith. It is the kind of faith that doesn’t just believe in God’s existence, but faith that God HAS done, IS doing, and WILL do what God has said would be done; setting things right. The ego looks far into the future and expects a day that will finally be better than today. Hope lives in the present, today, in the here and now. Hope-of-the heart believes that at any moment, we can have an experience of God and join in God’s work… that we can see Jesus in the eyes of one we meet in the store… that, living in a world infused and enchanted by the Spirit, we can experience that spirit during a walk in the woods, or during a quiet moment of prayer and solitude. Hope is a gift of the Spirit; it is a grace that we get, not because we deserve it, but because we are loved.
If only those people on the river Jordan had been heart-centered and full of hope instead of expectations. Maybe, instead of looking for a ruthless, war-fighting Messiah, they might have sensed a Messiah full of healing power. Instead of a conqueror of Rome, they might have seen one who would share table-fellowship with the tax collectors, prostitutes, and others on the margins. Maybe instead of a future where they would have helped the Messiah put gentiles on the cross, they might have followed a Messiah who himself would hang on a cross.
They might have been a people who had a right-relationship with their egos. Ones who, as heart-centered people, would have put the head in a servant role to the heart, rather than letting the ego think it is in charge. Being heart-centered means being in Spirit-communion, because the heart is the place where the Spirit dwells in us. There is in the heart, a kind of "direct knowing" that comes from the presence of the Spirit there. They might have been able to let go of things… let go of expectations… let go of outcomes… let go of power and of being right. They might have presented open hearts to Jesus and invited him in. If they had come in hope and with open hearts, they might have heard when God said to Jesus "You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased", as something said to THEM as well as well as to Jesus. They might have heard that they are also beloved children of God, with whom God is well pleased.
They stood there on that river bank full of expectations and most missed their chance with Jesus. But WE can be a heart-centered people full of hope today. We can open ourselves to God’s belovedness, and we can believe that it is true. We can be ones who look critically at the world, knowing that the world is cross-shaped. Hope can give us spiritual freedom, knowing that the way with Jesus doesn’t flee from the cross or fight it, but rather follows him through it, and that we are never alone along the way. "God is with us" every step of the way. We can know that the Holy Spirit literally dwells in our heart-space, and that there is never a time, never has been a time, when we have been alone, even when our egos try to convince us that we are. And hope can give us hearts full of love.
Faith, hope, and love… these three emotions abide is us if we can set our egos aside for a bit and put our egos into right relationship with the heart. We could be in a place where we might ask one another, "Where did you experience Jesus today?", and receive an answer because hope is always on the lookout for Jesus. And hope like that never disappoints, because Jesus IS present and active in the world THROUGH us, setting it right.
I know that this sounds impossible, and to the world it is foolishness. "What about all the injustice in the world, all the loss, all the suffering?" Well, all of that is true. It is no accident that the cross is the central symbol of the Christian life… the world IS cross-shaped, and we DO suffer on it, deeply. And, the gospel, the good news of Jesus, is that resurrection lies on the other side of that suffering and we can follow Jesus through all of it. That’s a hope and a liberation that we can live with.
My prayer for you during this Epiphany season, is that you will strive to be heart-centered and to invite Jesus into your open hearts. I pray that you will hear the message of his Gospel, that you also are beloved children of God deeply loved and celebrated and never alone. And armed with that very-present hope, you will see and hear and feel the infinite ways in which Jesus’ healing is at work on you and on the cross-shaped world all around you. Amen.