About a year ago, I started getting mail and email headlined in big bright letters: “Defy Expectation!”
“Exciting!” I thought.
Well…. It’s fundraising material from my alma mater, Bryn Mawr College. I can’t really tell from the material what the development folks mean by that slogan, but I still like it. It does remind me of the energy and possibility of my undergraduate years.
And the phrase has gotten stuck in my head, where it rang like a bell this week, as I listened to Jesus.
Jesus has just been talking to messengers sent from his cousin John the Baptist to ask whether Jesus is, actually, the Messiah we’ve all been waiting for. He sends back a non-answer answer that amounts to “well, what do you think?”, and then turns to the curious folks around him and tells them that they are like children in the marketplace calling, “We played the flute for you and you would not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn.”
They seem to be complaining that when they were ready for a festival, for rejoicing with God, God sends John, all repentance and fasting and eating locusts in the wilderness,
and when they’re ready for mourning, or serious repentance, God sends Jesus, living it up with the sinners.
God’s prophets, it seems, keep failing to meet the expectations God’s people have for God.
Including Jesus. Maybe especially Jesus. Even expectations that he has set up himself, with his own teaching. This same man who keeps insisting that in order to follow him, we have to “take up your cross” – which is no easy lifting, even if it weren’t associated with death – and lose our lives for his sake, is now telling the crowds that they should join him, follow him, to get rest; that his work is easy, his burden light.
And Jesus doesn’t just contradict the expectations of the people of first century Israel.
Two millennia later, he keeps on messing with the expectations we’ve developed over centuries of living with his story.
Right in the middle of the gospel passage we read today are a few sentences skipped by the people who assign the readings, in which Jesus remarks about the places he’s just been visiting and healing:
"Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! …. on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum …. I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you."
We probably skip those words because that kind of blanket condemnation doesn’t sit well with the church’s expectations of Jesus today.
Jesus isn’t nice when we expect him to be, and he won’t necessarily condemn the people we’d most like him to condemn, either, even after all these years of trying to understand him.
And we want that of God, whether we know it or not. Because miracles are, in essence, the shattering of expectations. Radical forgiveness makes no sense. We need God to be in the habit of defying expectations, even if it disappoints us, sometimes, when that thing so terrible I just knew God would never permit it happens anyway.
There are ways to explain the fact that God seems self-contradictory, that Jesus doesn’t make sense, but no matter how good the explanations, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to contain God within our expectations, even limited, reasonable, mild ones.
In fact, I think this may be the first thing we need to know when we decide to actually follow Jesus, not just listen to him. That we’re going to have to let go of our expectations for good, and then over and over and over again. I believe that to follow Jesus, to join him, we have to actively discard our expectations. Perhaps even prepare to defy expectations ourselves.
Because our expectations can limit our ability to go with God, to see or understand where Jesus is going, what Jesus is saying.
Today, you heard Jesus invite us to “take my yoke upon you… for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This, he tells us, is how we will find rest for our souls.
You know, don’t you, that getting into a yoke means going exactly where the other person is going. And if we’re expecting to go left, it’s going to be a lot harder to turn right when Jesus does – so it’s probably better to proactively give up any expectations about where we’re going next, or where we’re trying to end up.
Years ago, when the idea first crossed my mind that I might be a priest, it seemed like a light, almost fun, idea. I couldn’t believe it.
I mean, I knew how it worked when God calls people – I’ve read the Bible: You hear a voice you can’t resist, one that argues down all your objections. It’s unmistakeable. And it’s usually a big scary deal, none of these little flutterings of speculation and delight.
I spent at least four years stubbornly waiting for a vision, or a Voice, or at least a certified letter – before I could let go of my expectations enough to start exploring the possibility of priesthood.
And then, over and over for fifteen more years, I’ve had to let go of my new expectations about call, and about God’s voice, all over again every time I’ve faced a major decision, a new opportunity, or the utter improbability of moving to New Jersey.
What expectations of God might you have to discard to free you to follow Jesus?
What expectations of God might be limiting what you can hear, or see, or do right now?
It’s not just our expectations about God, it’s our expectations of ourselves, and our response to what other people expect of us. Sometimes we need to surrender those expectations as well, and defy what other people expect from you, what you expect from yourself.
Sometimes, you have to be quiet, when people are expecting you to be the loudest voice, or speak up, when others expect your silence and agreement. Sometimes, you have to leave, or arrive, unexpectedly.
I’ve had to learn – no, to be honest, I’m still trying to learn – to let go not only of my own expectations of being right a lot of the time, but of my own and others’ expectations that it’s always possible to get things right.
I’ve learned – I’m learning – that with Jesus, sometimes failure is the only option, or the best option, because the alternative is not trying at all. Sometimes failure is the gate to resurrection; and you don’t have to get it right to find yourself in exactly the place God wants you to be.
And it is astonishing how peaceful that truth can sometimes be.
Maybe your expectations are built around other things, maybe you and people around you have gotten used to expecting you to fail, or expecting you to be the planner or the follower or the one most easily hurt.
And letting go of the expectations you have, I have, of ourselves, that it seems others have of us, as a good parent, son/daughter, friend, boss, whatever, allows us to rest in Jesus’ leadership of that relationship, to lay down the heavy burdens of expectation and carry instead the light burden of God’s guidance of our lives.
Come unto me, Jesus said, you that are weary, and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
God will give you peace beyond understanding. But it will not be – it cannot be – what you were expecting.