Sermon
April 16, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Mark 11:1-11     When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.' " 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?" 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

    "Hosanna!

        Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

        10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!

    Hosanna in the highest heaven!"

    11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

 Psalm 118: 1 - 2, 19 - 29

1    O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;

        his steadfast love endures forever!

    Let Israel say,

        "His steadfast love endures forever."

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,

        that I may enter through them

        and give thanks to the LORD.

     This is the gate of the LORD;

        the righteous shall enter through it.

     I thank you that you have answered me

        and have become my salvation.

     The stone that the builders rejected

        has become the chief cornerstone.

     This is the LORD's doing;

        it is marvelous in our eyes.

     This is the day that the LORD has made;

        let us rejoice and be glad in it.

     Save us, we beseech you, O LORD!

        O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!

     Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.

        We bless you from the house of the LORD.

     The LORD is God,

        and he has given us light.

    Bind the festal procession with branches,

        up to the horns of the altar.

     You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;

        you are my God, I will extol you.

     O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,

        for his steadfast love endures forever. (NRSV)

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Sermon: Not Exactly As Expected

 What do you expect me to say this morning?

 Do you think I expect you to answer?

 How long do you expect me to wait before I keep going?

 Expectations are a very interesting and important part of our experience of life.

 Just before this past Christmas my father-in-law died.  We expected it.   He had been very sick.  But, nonetheless, it was hard.

 Just after Christmas we were looking to have a little diversion and amusement.  It was a very snowy day and we decided to head downtown and see a movie.   It looked like there was a new comedy playing with some very good actors - Walter Matthau, Meg Ryan, Lisa Kudrow, and Diane Keaton.   The ads showed some funny and goofy scenes and we were all ready to settle down in the darkness, escape from reality and have a few good laughs.

 I don’t know how many of you have seen this movie - it’s called Hanging Up - but it was no comedy.  It’s about the struggles of a family with their father who is manic depressive and suicidal and about his eventual death.  Needless to say, it was not exactly as expected.  Rather than the relaxation we so desired, we were required to reprocess all the pain and despair of the past months and years, and we left the theatre somewhat in shock and bewilderment.  How could they have presented this movie with those ads and coming attractions?  Our expectations set us up for a real let-down.

 The way expectations influence experience has been regarded as so profound that there is a school of spirituality among different religions that sees expectations as a great source of human suffering and warns against indulging in them.  Expectations are seen as a projection of desire and desire leads to discontent and discontent leads to misfortune.  As one Eastern sage wrote:

There is no great sin than desire,

No greater curse than discontent,

No greater misfortune than wanting something for oneself.

Therefore those who know that enough is enough will always have enough.

 I think I’ll have to get that laminated onto the dash of my new Chrysler Town and Country Van, as soon as I find the right one with the leather interior and the rear air conditioning.

 But sometimes expectations work the other way.  Sometimes they come not out of desire but out of fear.  Sometimes our expectations are so low that the genuine experience can’t help but be better and make us feel good.

 Expectations are interesting in our economy.  Look at what they do to the stock market - or maybe you don’t want to look.  It is a little frightening when you think how many millions of dollars can be at stake when a major corporation posts numbers that are a few tenths of a percent off the expectations of the street.  It can be the same company producing the same product with the same work force responding to the same need, but if expectations get skewered, all hell breaks loose.

 Well, all hell breaking loose may be one way to look at the events which we remember in church during this next week.   Thursday night we will have a service here at 7:30 to recall the Last Supper of our Lord with the disciples, and Friday at noon we host a community service in solemn remembrance of the passion, crucifixion, death, and burial of our Savior. 

 We inaugurate Holy Week with our observance of Palm Sunday today, and certainly Palm Sunday is all about expectations.   In a very real sense the scene of Jesus riding into Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowds is a set-up for the drama that is about to unfold.  All the events ahead will be played out in stark contrast to this first scene, in contradiction to the expectations that are given shape and voice by the raising of palm branches and the shouts of “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

 Let’s set the scene.   Jesus has been in the countryside preaching, teaching, healing, and casting out demons.  Disciples of the most important religious figure of the day, John the Baptist, have visited with him and believe that he might be the one the people have been waiting for - he might be the one the prophets of old spoke of - he might be the one to rise up like Moses or David or Elijah and rally the people of Israel to throw off their oppression and once again take their place among the nations of the earth, so that all nations will turn to Jerusalem and see the vindication God has accomplished for his chosen people. 

 Psalm 68 is a good expression of this expectation:

Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered;

let those who hate him flee before him.

As smoke is driven away, so drive them away;

as wax melts before the fire,

let the wicked perish before God.

You ascended the high mount,

leading captives in your train

Because of your temple at Jerusalem

kings bear gifts to you.

Awesome is God in his sanctuary,

the God of Israel;

Blessed be God!

 Now, coming in the from the countryside, Jesus is entering the great city of Jerusalem, the high mount of God, the place of the sanctuary where God is awesome in power.  He’s not entering the city at just any time of year, but at the time of the great festival of Passover when the city is jammed and full of agitation and tension.   And he is not entering on foot, but riding on a donkey, recalling the words of the prophet Zechariah:

 

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!

Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!

Lo, your king comes to you;

triumphant and victorious is he,

humble and riding on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

 So Jesus is riding not only into the city, but into the imaginations of a people, into expectations that are grounded in ancient tale and prophecy and have been rising to the surface like magma in the veins of a volcano on the verge of eruption.

 These expectations are red hot, these expectations are volatile, these expectations, once roused, will not easily be put back to sleep. 

 The authorities are aware of these expectations - keenly aware.  They do not want the people riled up; they do not want riot in the city.  They are aware of these expectations because they share them; they have read the prophets, they have heard the preachers, they understand the potential for trouble. 

 So Jesus rides into expectations from two sides - from those who would oppose him and from those who would follow him.  And he is about to act in contradiction to the expectations of both.  The result of his action leads the authorities to arrest, try, and execute him.  And it leads his followers to betray, desert, and deny him.  How dangerous it is to fail to meet expectations once they have been raised.

 What was it about the people’s expectations that blinded them to the truth that was right before their eyes.   They could not grasp the nature of the Lord’s power; they could not accept the gift he wanted to give them.  Instead of welcoming him they killed him; instead of confessing him, they abandoned him.  How stark the contrast between the shouts of praise and hope heard at the gates of Jerusalem on this happy day and the cries of agony soon to be heard on the cross.

 It seems to me that there is a lesson here about missing what life has to offer because it fails to accommodate our expectations; a lesson about missing what God is doing, about missing the gifts God wants to give, because we are blinded by our preconceived ideas of how it ought to be.  

 This lesson has application far beyond the stained glass windows of church.  Expectations affect relationships between parent and child, between husband and wife, between employer and employee, between friend and neighbor - we even have internal expectations that profoundly color our sense of self, our capacity for joy, our level of stress and peace of mind.

 Specifically in our faith journey as Christians we face a challenge about our expectations of God.  We can see that on the path to Jerusalem Jesus was trying to shape the expectations of the disciples, but they resisted.  We read in Matthew that Jesus tells them what to expect when they arrive in Jerusalem, and what response this brings:

Matthew 16:21-23     From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you."  But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

 Jesus wants them to understand that God has come among them as one who freely chooses a path of humility and service, and that this will run so counter to the accepted expectation that this humble service will lead to suffering and death.  And he warns them that if they open their eyes to this vision of God, then they too will share this fate.  As Matthew continues:

Matthew 16:24-25     Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

 What is our expectation when we come to God?  What do we think God expects of us?  Perhaps that is the more pertinent question, and especially the more pertinent question as we enter Holy Week and recall again the courage Christ displayed and sacrifice Christ endured so that this Gospel message might be proclaimed from generation to generation even to this day in this place to you and me.

 What do we think God expects of us?   Is this how you expect a sermon to end?   
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Let us pray.

 O Holy God, whose glory is revealed in quiet humility and whose strength is revealed in selfless service, grant us who have gathered here today a new and life giving insight into the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Let the words of our mouth and the meditation of our hearts

be acceptable to you,

O LORD, our rock and our redeemer.

Almighty and ever living God, in our tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great compassion and humility.  Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his example, to take up our cross, and to give our lives to love and service in his name. 

 May we remember each day to turn to you in prayer and to raise our voice in solidarity, support, and supplication for those in need of encouragement, healing, justice, peace, comfort and consolation. 

 We pray for all families which are estranged and torn asunder, for hearts that have been broken and hopes that have been shattered.

 We pray for those we name in the quiet of our hearts:

 We give thanks for those wonderful moments of joy which bless us with new life.

 God grant that loving and being loved, serving and being served, blessing and being blessed, we may be prepared while we dwell on earth for the perfect fellowship of those above, dwelling with Christ in Paradise.  In that hope and in his name we offer this and all our prayers.  Amen

 May God grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit; may Christ dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. May you know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can expect or imagine,  to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen

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