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Sunday, 22 August 2010

Great Expectations

Once upon a time, there was a young man called Jeremiah. He was from quite a good family – his father was a priest, although not a high priest, and owned a fair bit of land not far from Jerusalem. So Jeremiah grew up in a fair amount of comfort, loved and nurtured by his family. Perhaps he had planned to be a priest himself when he grew up.

But then one day, in about 626 BC, God came to him, and said: "Jeremiah, I am your Creator, and before you were born, I chose you to speak for me to the nations."

Jeremiah is shattered! “Lord God, you’re making a big mistake! I am a lousy public speaker and I’m too young for anybody to take me seriously.”

But God insists: .“Don’t put yourself down because of your age. Just go to whoever I send you to, and say whatever I tell you to say. Don’t let yourself feel intimidated by anyone, because I’ll be there as back up for you. You’ll be okay; take my word for it.” And Jeremiah is touched by God, and enabled to speak God’s word.

Some six hundred years later, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue one Sabbath day, as he often did. There was a woman in the congregation who was twisted and deformed – perhaps she had scoliosis or perhaps it was an arthritic condition. Certainly it was long-standing. We are told she had been like this for eighteen years. And Jesus suddenly notices her, and heals her. She is able to stand fully upright again, and starts praising God.

Well, that didn’t please the leader of the synagogue. Healing people like that on the Sabbath – wasn’t that dangerously close to work? “Oi,” he goes, “Stop healing people on the Sabbath! Now then, if you want healed, you come on any of the other six days of the week; I don’t want any Sabbath-breaking going on here!”

“Oh come on, mate,” says Jesus. “I saw you taking your donkey down to the drinking-trough earlier this morning, Sabbath day or no Sabbath day. If it’s all right for you to take your donkey to have a drink on the Sabbath, it’s all right for me to heal this good lady, whom Satan had bound for eighteen whole years!”

The leader of the synagogue had nothing to say to this, but the crowd really cheered.

I think it’s about expectations, isn’t it? God expected Jeremiah to proclaim His word to the nations. Jesus expected that the woman would be healed, Sabbath day or no Sabbath day. The ruler of the synagogue expected Jesus to keep the Sabbath. And Jeremiah and the woman? I don’t think they expected anything at all!

What does God expect from us? What do we expect from God’s people? And what do we expect from God?

Firstly, then, what does God expect from us?

Jeremiah was expected to go and proclaim God’s word. He had been specifically called for this purpose, and although he was horrified when the call came, and tried to get out of it, he ultimately accepted it, and trusted in God’s promise that “Attack you they will, overcome you they can’t”; a promise that was fulfilled many times over in the Biblical narrative.

I wonder what God is expecting of you? I know I am expected to preach the Gospel. Like Jeremiah, I was very young when I was called – about 15. Unlike him, I wasn’t able to answer that call for many years for reasons that I won’t go into now, but suffice it to say that for about the past 20 years I have known that this is what God has wanted me to do. This is what God expects of me. I am so grateful, every time I preach, that all I am expected to do is to provide the words; God does the rest!

So what does he expect of you? Some of you will know, definitely, what God expects; you are a steward, or a local preacher, or a musician. For others, it’s less clear cut. You have a job, perhaps, or are bringing up a family. Or perhaps that is all behind you now, and you are retired.

But whatever it is you do, you are expected to be Christ’s ambassador. You are a witness to him in everything you say and do. Now, before you start squirming uncomfortably, and thinking “Oh dear, I’m not a very good one, am I?”, don’t forget that Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit came, we would be his witnesses throughout the known world. Not that we should be, or ought to be, but that we would be. We are. You are an ambassador for Christ, and whether you like it or not, whether you know it or not, this is what you are, through the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells within you.

When God calls you to do something, whether it is some well-defined job like cleaning the church, or running a prayer group, or speaking forth his word, or simply praying quietly at home, or whether you’re called to be God’s person where you work, or where you live, God will enable you to do it, just as he enabled Jeremiah.

And so to my second question for this morning: What do you expect of God’s people? When someone says he or she is a Christian, what do you reckon they’re going to be like?

The leader of the synagogue was confounded when Jesus didn’t conform to his expectation of what a good Jewish man did or didn’t do on the Sabbath. Healing people? Seriously? No, no, that counted as work!

And sometimes we are confounded when we come across Christians whose standards of acceptable behaviour might differ from ours. Could they possibly be Christians at all? Do real Christians behave like that? Some churches have felt so strongly about some of these issues that they have even split up, causing enormous hurt and upset in their various denominations. Yet who are we to judge another’s behaviour? In fact, you might remember that St Paul suggests that if your brother is offended by something you do or don’t do, you should do it, or not do it, as the case may be, so as not to upset them, or, worse, to let them think it’s all right for them to do it, when it might not be at all all right, and might lead them away from God. We need to be sensitive to one another, and to refrain from judging one another. We probably have our rules that we live by, but we don’t have the right to force those rules on to other people, not even on to other Christians.

I suppose the thing is, we shouldn’t really expect other Christians to be like us! Many, of course, will be – that’s why you go to this church, here, because you find people you are comfortable with, people whose vision of what God’s people are like resonates with yours. But there will be others whose views you are less comfortable with; who perhaps strike you as rather puritanical, or rather lax.

Of course, when we know someone, we know what they are like, whether they are reliable, whether you can trust them. And we accept them, normally, for who they are. Just as God does with us. But we mustn’t be judgemental. Maybe they hold views that we find strange, or even unpleasant. Maybe they feel free to behave in ways we’ve been taught that Christians don’t do, or ways that we feel would be sinful for us. But it is not for us to judge. Our Lord points out, in that collection of His teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount, that we very often have socking great logs in our own eyes, so how can we see clearly to remove the speck in someone else’s? In other words, keep your eyes on what’s wrong with you, not on what’s wrong with other people! See to it that you obey your rules, and leave other people to obey theirs.

That’s something, I think, that the leader of the synagogue would have been wise to keep in mind, rather than criticising Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath, to say nothing of criticising the congregation for coming to be healed that day. He had rules he needed to keep, and he needed other people to keep them, too. But Jesus had other ideas. For him, healing someone on the Sabbath was as normal and as natural as making sure your livestock were fed, or your cow was milked.

So, then, God is free to expect anything from us; we should not, though, expect other Christians to be just like us. But what do we expect from God?

Jeremiah didn’t expect anything from God. When told that he was to proclaim God’s word, his first reaction was to panic: “I can’t possibly! I’m a lousy public speaker and much too young!” But God gave him the gifts he needed to fulfil his task, and sometimes Jeremiah had to actively act out God’s word, not just speak it!

The woman who was all twisted and bent over didn’t expect anything from God, either. She presumably went to the synagogue each week to worship, not really expecting anything to happen. But that particular Sabbath day, Jesus was there – and that made all the difference. After eighteen years she was finally free of her illness, able to stand up straight, able to walk normally and talk to people face to face once more.

What did you expect from God this morning? Let’s be honest, we come to church week after week, and on most Sundays nothing much happens! We worship God, we spend some time with our friends, and then we go home again. And that’s okay. But some weeks are different, aren’t they? Not often, but just sometimes we come away from Church knowing that God was there, and present, and real. I wonder why these occasions are so rare? Partly, of course, because mountain-top experiences like that are rare, that’s why we remember them. There’s an old story of two men coming out of Church one Sunday morning when the preacher had been rather more boring even than usual. The first man said, “Honestly, what’s the point? I’ve been going to Church more or less every Sunday for the past 30 years, and I must have heard hundreds of sermons, yet I hardly remember any of them!”

To which the second man replied, “Hmm, well; I’ve been married for 30 years and my wife has cooked me a meal more or less every night, and I don’t really remember many of them, either. But where would I be without them?”

Church, mostly, is about providing daily bread for daily needs. We don’t expect to see miracles each Sunday, or healings such as took place in the synagogue that day. But what do we expect when we come to Church? Do we expect to meet God in some way?

What do we expect from God? We know that our sins have been forgiven, right? And that God is gradually making us into the people he designed us to be. But do we expect more? Should we expect more? Neither Jeremiah nor the woman in the synagogue expected anything from God – yet God gave, bountifully, to both of them in very different ways.

Who was it who said “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God”? I can’t remember right now, but it’s really what I want to leave with you this morning. What does God expect from you? Are you trying not to hear something you think God might be trying to say? What do you expect from other Christians? Are you requiring a higher standard from them than from yourself? And what are you expecting God to do for you today? Amen.

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