Pastor Drew Williams
When I was growing up, we went on a lot of roadtrips, so I have lots of memories in the backseat of a little two-door Toyota, looking out the window at some stretch of highway as my parents tried to navigate with their Rand McNally fold-out paper road atlas.
Before GPS, many of us remember that the road trips didn’t always go as planned. There was no “estimated time of arrival” that updated when you hit a detour.
Sometimes, the map you were using wasn’t up to date, so things would look different than expected when you came up to the interchange.
And my parents were a good team, but they handled things very differently. My dad would be getting stressed, thinking about what would happen if we had a detour that took us way longer. We might be late to our destination. We might go down a road without a rest stop in case someone needed the bathroom. The two kids in the back might start whining.
My mom could feel that stress, and she could predict how my brother and I might react as well, so she would preempt all of that by saying something like, “Don’t worry, we’re just on an adventure!”
My brother and I would perk up, wondering what cool thing we might be doing now that we were on an “adventure.”
It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that whenever my mom said that, it was just code for the fact that we had gotten lost, again.
And even though I have now adopted this habit from my mom, the truth is that I am way more like my dad when things change from what I had expected. I usually get flustered and frustrated. I go into problem-solving mode, and sometimes brush past the people that are around me. All because my expectations haven’t been met in some way and I’m trying to “fix” it.
And then I remember my mom’s voice exuberantly declaring, “it’s an adventure!” and I think about the fact that I don’t have to get all consternated just because my expectations were different.
How do you react when things don’t happen the way you expect? Are you like me, trying to “fix” things, trying to change them to fit what you had previously expected?
Or, are you more of an adventurer, curiously meeting whatever comes?
Well, today, Jesus will be talking about the theme of expectation, and I think it might give us some insights into our own hearts as well as a path forward when we find ourselves “on an adventure.” So let’s read Luke 7:18-35.
Read Luke 7:18-35
John the Baptist had recently heard from his disciples about all the things that Jesus had been up to since they last saw each other. If you remember much about John, he was the one who was originally drawing crowds of people from all over Israel with his message about turning back to God in preparation for the Messiah to arrive.
Shortly after he baptized Jesus and proclaimed that THIS was the Messiah he had been talking about, John ended up getting on the wrong side of Herod and was thrown in prison.
And so this is where John is currently: sitting in prison. And even though the other gospels tell us that a few of John’s disciples ended up transferring over to following Jesus, there are still some disciples who visit with John frequently enough, attending to him and bringing him news of the outside. Perhaps these disciples have also stayed in contact with Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, who had originally followed John before he became one of Jesus’ first disciples.
So these unnamed disciples have just finished telling John all about what Jesus’ had been teaching and doing, including his recent interactions with the Roman centurion and the miracle of raising the widow’s son back to life in the village of Nain that we heard about last week from Pastor Chris.
So if we were to just flip back through the last few chapters of Luke, we’d get a pretty good sense of the update that John has just received. He’s probably heard about the fact that Jesus was run out of his hometown, Nazareth, for making some wild claims about how God’s healing work is open to people even outside of his chosen Israel. He’s heard some of the stories of how Jesus has cast out demons and healed sickness, proving his authority and power over these oppressive realities.
He’s heard the stories of how Jesus has fraternized with sinners, and how he doesn’t always hold tightly to the prescribed religious rituals of his day, like fasting and ceremonial washing. He’s heard about how Jesus teaches about God’s love and mercy. He’s heard about Jesus’ teaching on how the fruit of your life proves what kind of tree you are. That sounded a bit reminiscent to John of his own teaching about how if God’s people didn’t start producing the fruit of repentance in their lives, then the ax of God would soon be chopping down the trees that weren’t bearing fruit. Jesus’ version seemed to not lay as heavily on the judgment parts of John’s message, but to each his own.
John had probably heard about Jesus’ insistence that true Belief should manifest as faithful action. And then he had heard about his miracles that extended to the poor, the outcasts, the women, and even to the Romans.
And somewhere in all of the things that John had heard, something had left a question burning deep within him: “Is this the one we’ve been waiting for? Is THIS really God’s Messiah?”
Why is John asking this? Has Jesus not fulfilled some expectation of John’s? Is John disillusioned with how Jesus is behaving versus the ways that he EXPECTED the Messiah to behave?
It’s not too hard to look back at John’s teaching, back in Luke chapter 3, to see that John felt that God was bringing WRATH. John felt that if people didn’t change their ways, God was sending his Messiah with the express purpose of clearing out the useless junk, burning up the trash, and gathering up the good harvest.
And John could remember the day that Jesus was baptized. What seemed like a chance reunion with a distant cousin turned into an unforgettable day when John witnessed heaven open up, a dove flew down to Jesus, and a voice thundered out the declaration that “this is my Son.”
John’s life work had been pointing to that moment. And so, when he had heard the report from his disciples of what Jesus had been up to for the last few months, he had lots of expectations about how Jesus would have carried on the torch.
But instead, he’s got more questions. How could God’s agent of salvation have been opposed so heavily by God’s people? Why was God’s Messiah spending so much time with sinners, instead of clearing out the rebellious root?
He seemed to be saying the right things. He clearly had authority over the powers of darkness. And his powerful healing miracles were enough to bring goosebumps to John. And yet, Jesus wasn’t making the headway that John had expected him to. John had spent his life as a voice of warning and proclamation about God’s work and his coming Messiah, but had John gotten it wrong? Were they supposed to still be waiting? So he sends messengers with a question:
“Are YOU the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
You can almost hear the unease from the two guys that John sent to talk to Jesus. I bet they were a little uncertain about their question, so they make sure to pin the blame squarely on the one who sent them: “Uh, John the Baptist told us to ask you…”
And it’s interesting that Jesus gives the same response that he gives to almost every other question that is asked of him. He doesn’t directly answer them. And that’s normal for Jesus. Go look through all the gospels at all the times someone asks Jesus a question. He rarely ever gives a direct answer. Instead, he usually answers with a story or a question of his own.
In this instance, he’s just been in the midst of a healing marathon from the looks of it: he’s “cured many who had diseases, driven out evil spirits, and given sight to many who were blind.”
So he tells the messengers to “go back and bring John another report.” And then he pretty much quotes a couple of different passages from the prophet Isaiah about different signs of how you’ll know God’s Messiah has come: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”
Then Jesus tacks on a final message to John, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” We know this is probably directed at John, because this could also be read, “Blessed is THE one,” or blessed is HE who doesn’t stumble…”, so it’s pretty clear this is for John, saying “Don’t doubt. Look at the evidence and believe.”
Then Jesus turns to the crowd and again addresses the theme of expectation: “What did you expect to find when you went out to see John?”
Jesus isn’t expecting an answer this time. We know these threefold repeated questions are rhetorical from the way that Jesus words them. There’s no way that huge crowds of people would have actually traveled way outside the city limits to see something as commonplace as reeds. And they wouldn’t have gone all the way out into the wilderness to see some wealthy person dressed in expensive clothes, because people like that are found in palaces, not in the desert.
No, Jesus is using the repeated question to build to the likely conclusion, that everyone must have traveled out to see John because they expected that he was a prophet sent by God.
“Yes, that IS what John is, and actually the most important prophet, spoken of by the prophet Malachi: I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”
Jesus is, in a sense, validating John’s office as the one who God used to prepare the people for the arrival of his Messiah. However, Jesus is also doing something more, because he continues, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
Jesus is confirming the people’s expectations about John, that he was a great prophet, perhaps the greatest. But then he also at the same time is pointing forward to this new reality, the kingdom of God. And apparently, no matter what people expect about what it takes to get into the kingdom of God, no matter what they think about what types of great people are obviously shoe-ins for the kingdom of God, “greatness” means something different in the kingdom of God.
But Jesus doesn’t slow down to elaborate on that. He doesn’t give satisfaction to the curiosity of the people who are asking “what does that mean that even the least are greater than the greatest prophet of our time?”
In fact, Jesus rushes right onto his next thought about expectation, pointing out the type of people who have an improper expectation of God’s methods. In fact, Jesus seems to change the subject so quickly that Luke inserted a parenthetical to help us who are reading to follow where Jesus is going without getting too much whiplash. Because Jesus has just shifted from declaring that John is the greatest of the prophets, that the kingdom of God is a new and greater reality, and now is pivoting to talk about the people of this generation who are like fickle children.
Whoah, slow down Jesus. What?
So Luke gives us an editorial thought about how everyone listening to Jesus’ statements about John who had been baptized by John were in agreement about what Jesus was saying. But all the people who hadn’t been baptized by John, for example, the Pharisees and religious legal experts, rejected God’s purpose for themselves.
Rejected God’s purpose? Because they didn’t agree that John was a great prophet? Why?
Well, if we remember back to when John was baptizing people, we see that he was calling people to repentance. John was of the mind that God’s chosen people, Israel, had fallen away from faithfulness to God. They had launched out in different directions to pursue other priorities in their life. And they had turned to other powers and authorities to give them security in life instead of trusting in God to provide for them. They had turned to money to be their security. They had turned to networking and knowing the right people, even if it means fraternizing with the “enemy” Romans, in order to get ahead and stay in the inner circle. They had turned to systems of power, aligning themselves with different rulers or political leaders in order to feel like they were in the right group. And in all these things, their trust in God and their submission to him had fallen down the list of their priorities.
So John was calling them to repent, to turn away from those other sources of power or security, and to turn back to God, to turn back to putting their trust in the only true source of power, the only trustworthy source of security and provision. And they symbolized that with baptism by water, reenacting Israel’s journey through the Red Sea, going in as slaves to other masters, and coming out as free people, recognizing that they were chosen and loved by God.
And everyone who realized that their life had indeed taken a different course, that they had let other things take priority over trusting in God, they responded to John’s call by being baptized.
Not everyone did, though. There were some of the Pharisees and religious leaders who were there as well, but apparently, they didn’t feel the need to repent and be baptized. Maybe because they thought they already WERE following God the right way. Maybe because they already spent a majority of their time making sure to follow the right rules, making sure to pray the right prayers, making sure to give the perfect tithe in order to show they were God-followers.
In fact, they didn’t keep those things subtle or secret, either. They would have their prayer shawls with extra long tassels in order to catch attention. They would proudly display their religious accessories so that others would see and maybe that could start a conversation and maybe they could help those other people see the error of their ways and decide to follow God better.
No, THEY didn’t need to repent and be baptized. It was all these other people! THEY had been following God’s rules better than anyone else. That counted for something! And even though John seemed to be teaching about generosity and mercy, they were just glad that these SINNERS were finally seeing how messed up they were and maybe they would become good Pharisees after this.
But Jesus doesn’t seem to think that the Pharisees’ expectation was rightly placed. He’s about to call them out, which is why Luke inserts that parenthetical about those baptized by John and those not. Clearly, those baptized by John were the ones who had looked at their own life, realized that they needed to turn more fully towards God, and had repented.
But the ones who weren’t baptized? The ones who had rejected the need for repentance? They had, in fact, rejected God’s call to turn more fully towards him.
So Jesus gives a little metaphor for what those people are like: children. They’re like children whose expectations are never met.
And maybe he’s quoting a little limerick here, or he’s making up a song on the spot, but it’s quite effective at describing the moods of children. “We sang a happy song, but you weren’t dancing with us. We sang a sad song, but you didn’t cry.”
Gosh, that’s SO what kids do, right? A kid’s expectation is that you DO what they say, right? As soon as they can talk, they think they can boss you around. As soon as they can dress themselves, they think they can wear two skirts, rain boots, AND the ducky-towel-robe-thing from bathtime…to school! Or so I’m told…
Teenagers walk into the room saying, “Mom, I’m hungry,” expecting you to just stop what you’re doing, jump up, and wait on them hand and foot. Or maybe you’re in the season with grandkids, and maybe you’ve heard this come out of their mouths as soon as you see them for the first time, even before you get a hug, “What did you bring me?”
Kids have strong expectations. But honestly, so do we all, right? The only difference is that kids haven’t learned how to politely hide their expectations. They haven’t learned how to be subtle with how they slip them into conversation.
No, kids will say things like, “Come play with me,” and what they EXPECT is for you to enter into their imaginative world where you are the monster who chases them but ALSO needs a makeover, but you also have to be thirsty for some rainbow sparkle lemonade that is in the imaginary cup they are shoving into your face.
Adults, on the other hand, will say cryptic things like, “Oh wow, is Mother’s Day almost here already?” and you have NO IDEA what they’re expecting but you know you’ve probably got to get some reservations somewhere QUICKLY.
Or we’ll say something like, “We should get together sometime,” and that could carry with it the expectation that you’ve been really lonely and you’re really hoping to rebuild some connections with people and you’ll be crushed if they procrastinate on getting back to you.
We all have expectations, don’t we? And expectations aren’t innately good or bad, either. Expectations are just what happens when we create a narrative in our heads. We’ve created a new reality of possibility, of “what if?” But this new reality we’ve created in our head is fictional, it hasn’t happened yet. It’s what we’re imagining COULD happen, or SHOULD happen. It’s what we EXPECT to happen.
And when that fictional reality comes up against true reality, when what we EXPECT to happen runs into what ACTUALLY happens, sometimes they overlap and work out. Things turn out the way you expected, or better than you expected. The sunny day WAS beautiful. The awkward conversation with your neighbor wasn’t as bad as you thought it would be.
But sometimes when our expectations come up against reality, there is dissonance. Things don’t go according to your plan. Things don’t measure up to what you had hoped. The visit with your family was rough. You didn’t get the recognition you deserved for all your hard work. The pastor rambled on longer than you wanted… or so I’m told.
But how do we react when God doesn’t meet our expectation? Jesus points out two ways that people react in our story. We can be CURIOUS or CONTROLLING.
The Pharisees and religious experts react by being CONTROLLING. They react like children, complaining and coercing in order to try and get their original expectation to be fulfilled.
We CONTROL when we hold so tightly to our expectations that we try and FORCE reality to change to meet our expectation. That’s when it becomes coercive. That’s when it becomes manipulative. That’s when we run the risk of putting more emphasis on our EXPECTATION than on the people or situation that we meet.
And we ALL know people who would fall in that category don’t we? Who make it very clear what their expectations are, and even more clear that they expect YOU to fall in line.
It’s very relatable for us to understand how we react when people fail to meet our expectations…
But how do we react when GOD is the one who fails to meet our expectations?
Honestly, most of us expect God to operate in certain ways. We expect him to be there for us. We expect him to take care of us. Actually, many people I talk to just expect God to stay in the background until he’s needed.
But when God doesn’t do what we expect in the WAY we expect, we think he’s FAILED.
How could God let my baby get that diagnosis? Why won’t God ever answer my prayers? I’ve kept up my side of the bargain, God, why haven’t you kept up yours?!
And when we approach our expectations with God the way Jesus points out in this story, like children, like the Pharisees, as one who is coming to CONTROL… Then we run the risk of being exactly like the Pharisees and rejecting the opportunity to be connected to God’s work because we’re too busy trying to stand off to the side and dictate our expectations.
But this isn’t the only option. Jesus points out the other option for how we approach God when our expectations aren’t met: we can be CURIOUS.
Curious just like the people who went out to see for themselves what this John guy was up to. Curious just like John and his disciples, coming to Jesus to ask about why things seemed different than their expectations.
When we approach God with curiosity, we’re not trying to coerce reality to align with our expectations. Instead, we’re trying to realign our expectations based on what we find out.
When COVID first hit, and it disrupted every single part of our life and society, some people reacted by lamenting all the change and loss, fighting against it. Some people reacted by retreating into themselves, or distracting themselves with new hobbies or interests. And others reacted by asking, “God, what are you trying to teach us by taking away all that is familiar and comfortable to us?”
Some people asked, “what does this make possible?”
Now, I’m not just saying that Jesus is teaching about the power of positive thinking. I’m not saying that the answer when things don’t go our way is to “always look on the bright side of life.”
But I AM asking you to reflect on how you react when God doesn’t meet your expectations? How do you react when it seems like God has failed?
Do we clutch and grasp at control, trying to coerce the situation in front of us to align with our expectations? Do we react like entitled children, pouting when life doesn’t conform to our desires?
Or do we act like curious children, willing to learn from this new experience?
Because, the truth is, life with God is not always the road to prosperity. God can and does bless through hardship sometimes. Will we receive that? Can we see God at work when things go differently than we had hoped?
That’s really what the elephant in the room is when things don’t go our way, isn’t it? It’s whether or not we TRUST that God is still working and whether or not we trust that his way is best.
When God fails to meet our expectations, how we react shows whether or not we trust him.
So what if we committed to being curious? What if each of us chose to curiously approach God, open and ready to hear from him, even if it realigns our expectations? What if we approached each other with questions like, “I’ve been going through some stuff recently, but what do you think God is trying to show me?” Can you imagine how incredible the conversations would be when we give each other the opportunity to proclaim the gospel to each other?!
Can you imagine how much our faith would increase when we give each other the opportunity to approach God TOGETHER in prayer? To be humble and curious together?
Maybe that’s something to try the next time something goes differently than you had expected. Try asking the question, “what does this make possible?” or “Where ARE you working, God? Because it DOESN’T seem like you’re making THIS thing in front of me happen in the way I had expected.”
The good news is that God is always at work around us. God is always inviting us to join him in this work of redemption and reconciliation. And we get the CHOICE to hold onto control of the way WE want things to go, or we can curiously follow the Father, learning from him as he leads us along the path, picking us up when we stumble, teaching us to join him in this kingdom life of healing and wholeness.
Because, honestly, the question shouldn’t be “what does this make possible?”
“what ISN’T possible for the One who creates,
heals, and saves all of us?”