Exceeding Expectations: A sermon based on Luke 3:15-22
I’d like to start with a question to those of you who are in high school or fairly recently graduated… I wonder if over the Christmas holidays you went to some family gatherings and if anyone ever asked you this question:“So, what are you going to do when you graduate?” I hated that question when I was a teenager, mostly because in high school I did not have any clarity about what I wanted to do after I graduated. The question for me that often followed that one up was, “are you going to be a teacher, like your mom?” My mom’s a teacher, she has four sisters that are all teachers, my dad’s brother is also a teacher and so is his wife, so there are a lot of teachers in my family. My mom and all the other women teachers in my family would talk about how wonderfully being a teacher fit with being a mom because you would be off when your kids were off. And in the midst of this talk and all these teachers, I experienced pressure. Pressure to say that I was going to be a teacher, like my mom. Pressure not only to become a teacher but also to get married and have children because that would fit so well with being a teacher.
And there are so many areas where we can feel pressure of the expectations from others or from ourselves. Pressure to be in a relationship by a certain age, or to know what we want to do for a profession by high school graduation, if not before. Pressure to be fit, to maintain an attractive figure, pressure to listen to the right kind of music, pressure to get good grades, pressure to fit in with the right crowd, pressure to know the right thing to say, or be reading the right books, pressure to be funny, pressure to be taken seriously. Pressure to be a "man’s man”, pressure to provide a certain standard of living for your family, pressure to perform in sports or at work, pressure to keep peace in your family, pressure to have well-adjusted and well-behaved children, pressure to be useful, pressure to be “pulling your weight”, pressure to eat the right kinds of food, wear the right kinds of clothes, pressure to make sure others are happy, pressure to at least have the appearance of having things under control.
The world that we read about this morning in Luke 3 is heavy with the pressure of expectation. At the time of Jesus, the Jewish people had not been an independent people since they returned from Babylon. They had been ruled by one foreign power or another for hundreds of years with very briefs breaks here and there. There are so many promises of Israel being restored and the Jewish people expected that. They expected the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people to have political and military independence. They expected to come to a place where they were not ruled by another world power. And they were waiting for someone who would lead in this. You can feel the expectations in our text. All the people were coming to John the Baptist in the desert, wondering whether he would be the one to lead the rebellion. John says he’s not the Messiah, but the Messiah will be coming soon. John then gives a powerful picture of what the Messiah will do. He will baptize with the Spirit and with fire, his winnowing fork is in his hand to clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. You get the picture of a figure who’s going to come storming onto the scene, and get active right away by getting rid of the Romans and gathering up his people and place them in the safety and security of their own nation and land.
John the Baptist too, seems to have expectations for things to change politically. He probably modelled with his own life the type of life he expected the Messiah to live when he showed up on the scene. For example, John the Baptist openly criticized Herod for the divorce of his first wife so he could marry his brother’s wife with whom he had an affair. He probably expected the Messiah to come on the scene and pick up where he left off. After all, the Jewish people longed for a ruler who acted justly for the sake of the people and didn’t openly have affairs with married women or others for that matter. The Jewish people longed for a king who wasn’t a puppet for Rome. The culture was a pressure cooker of Messianic expectations. After Herod locked up John in prison, its easy to imagine that John would have expected that Jesus, as the Messiah, would stand up to Herod, storm the prison and free him. John’s ministry was only 3 years long in total—one year out in the desert and two in prison before he was beheaded. At the end of Luke ch. 7, Luke describes how John sends word from prison to Jesus and asks him whether he is the expected one or if they should be waiting for someone else. You can feel the sense of disillusionment in this question as the months and years go by while John sits in prison and this figure who he expected to clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into the barn hasn’t yet made any major moves, as far as John could see.
It’s in the midst of these pressured expectations of the Messiah and for action that Jesus comes to John to be baptized. In each of the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Jesus’ baptism is an important moment where God speaks to Jesus about who he really is, before he begins his public ministry. What’s a bit odd about the story in Luke is that this moment seems to be happening in the hustle and bustle of life. You wonder whether the words that came from heaven were heard by everyone or maybe just by Jesus and John or maybe even just by Jesus. In any case, Luke tells us that as Jesus was praying, the Holy Spirit came on him in the form of a dove and a voice came from heaven.
With the weight of the expectations of all the people around him, you might expect the voice to say, something like, “You are my warrior, who is strong. With you I will free the nation of Israel from the oppression of the Romans.” Or maybe, “You are my teacher, who is wise. With you, I will show people the true path to me.” Or maybe, “You are my prophet, who is bold. Through you, people will hear my voice.” But God doesn’t speak any of these things. Instead, God speaks to Jesus the identity that Jesus holds close throughout his time on earth. The people weren’t waiting for a loved son. They were waiting for someone who was going to do something. This identity would not meet the expectations that people had of him, one that would indeed be quite confusing to others, but dear to Jesus. God says, “You are my son, whom I love; with you, I am well pleased.” As we read on in the book of Luke, it becomes clear that this is the main way that Jesus sees himself. In his intimate prayers to his Abba, his Dad, in his trust and obedience, in his passion and love for his Father and for his Father’s children, Jesus lives fully out of his identity as a loved Son.
This doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t also engage in some of these other roles. He is a teacher, he is a prophet, he is a warrior, he is the King of kings. But Jesus is first the loved Son of the Father, and it’s this identity that shapes his life. For Jesus, being a loved Son shaped how he oriented and lived his life. Being a loved Son meant talking often with his Father. Being a loved Son meant not needing to gain approval from others by doing what they wanted of him. Being a loved Son for Jesus meant that he wasn’t swayed the pressures of what other people wanted him to be. Jesus knew that he belonged to God and that God delighted in him. He knew that a huge part of being a loved son meant having a relationship of total trust to his Father. Trust when the work of redemption he was called to wasn’t what people expected. Trust even when the road of obedience led to a humble cross and to what looked like sure defeat.
Part of the unexpected work of Jesus that he accomplished in spite of the fact that people were looking for other things from him is that through Jesus, we all become loved sons and daughters of the Father. Through Jesus, the words of God to Jesus at his baptism are words he speaks to each one of us. This identity that totally shaped and directed Jesus’ life, which freed him to be just who God called him to be, to not be swayed by what other people expected, and made meaning of each and every part his life is also the identity that is ours through him.
Because we are also loved sons and daughters, we can have a close relationship with God, our loving Abba and Dad. We can talk to him about anything, just like Jesus did. We can rely on him for everything, just like Jesus did. And we can trust him through all the unexpected twists and turns in our journey, just like Jesus did. Even when the life we’re living is not the one we expected, or the one our parents expected or the one our friends expected, or when frankly, the life we’re living doesn’t fit in with what anyone expected.
For many of us, it takes practice to accept this reality. It takes practice living in the reality that we are loved simply because we’re loved. Maybe that’s why we pray. Jesus was praying when he came up out of the water and saw the heavens open and heard those wonderful words of affirmation from his Father. I wonder if Jesus might be showing us a different way of coming to prayer. What if in Jesus’ baptism, Jesus is inviting us to be washed clean of all the pressures and expectations of getting it right. What if in Jesus baptism, he’s washing us clean of all the perfectionist and legalistic ways of living, thinking that our worth is tied up in what we do, achieve or become. What if we viewed prayer as an invitation to soak in the unconditional love of the Father? Can you think of a way that you might pray in that way this week? It could even be something as simple as, “Father, please show me today how I am your loved child. Help me to trust you."
Our world and our lives are full of very real and powerful pressures. That was the case in Jesus’ life too. But these pressures aren’t enough to sway the purposes of our God who knows, loves, and delights in his children. Our loving Father has got each one of us in his hands. He invites us to trust him, just as a child would. Just as Jesus did. Let’s pray.