Message for Lent 2 on John 3:1-17 on March 5, 2023 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas
Our theme this Lent is Traveling Light, and this morning we are talking about Letting Go of Expectations.
I know some of you have heard me say that “expectations are pre-meditated resentments.” I was so startled when someone first told me this. Expectations are pre-meditated resentments. I have usually applied this to my own expectations—moderating them and even trying to eliminate them, so I do not become resentful, especially of those I love.
But this morning, I want to focus on expectations of us—and I began to wonder if this statement still applies. Are not those expectations also pre-meditated –at least by somebody—our culture, our parents or family, our school or workplace, our friends, our religious upbringing?
I’m not talking about basic human decency and societal functioning, but rather those expectations that weigh us down, the ones that may come with a trace or more of resentment, with disappointment, anger or tears, with hard conversations if we do not live up to them or agree with them. These expectations may leave us feeling that too much is being put on our shoulders which we never agreed to—the expectations that cause us to stress out, or avoid someone, procrastinate or fantasize about life being different—these are the expectations that are ripe for a good Lenten reflection.
Can you tease out those expectations and where they come from? Are they rooted in childhood, was it something someone said to you, or it is something you didn’t receive, or interpreted as important, and you now expect it of yourself, all the time?
During the Ash Wednesday service, I shared that I carry a heavy expectation of hyper-responsibility for everyone’s well-being in my family—even more so since my mom died 11 years ago. So, it’s not just for my immediate family, but for my dad, my siblings, even my cousins, and keeping extended family who live far and wide connected. No one told me to carry this, but I learned it from my mom, who learned it from her mom and so on. It’s part of being female in our culture, part of being Christian—not so healthy, even part of my training as a pastor—also, not always healthy. But failing them, not showing up when they need me, not having the right or helpful answer, worries me.
Even when we agree with and understand and want to live up to others’ and our own expectations, they can become a heavy weight that is difficult to carry.
Nicodemus in our Gospel reading carried so many religious and social expectations as a prominent leader in the Temple. As a Pharisee, he kept all 613 laws in Leviticus as perfectly as anyone could. In addition to that, he also adhered to an oral tradition of rules recorded in what’s called the Mishnah. He was so worried about someone seeing him with Jesus and behaving outside the expected norms of his position that he came to Jesus in secret, under the cover of darkness. What would happen if a colleague saw him talking to this rabble rouser? Would he be kicked off the council of the Sanhedrin? Would he disappoint his whole sect of religious leaders and bring shame upon his family? He risked everything by stepping outside the expectations of this societal role to have this conversation with Jesus.
But he comes anyway because he sees something holy in Jesus—something Godly, that does not fit into the box within which he has been living. Jesus has been healing people in Jerusalem, doing signs and wonders, so Nicodemus comes to him, knowing that apart from God, he could not perform these miracles. Nicodemus senses a freedom in Jesus’ power. In their conversation, Jesus affirms Nicodemus for already starting to see the kingdom in healing and new life, for already engaging in a new relationship with him, "‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."
This is not an instruction about what Nicodemus must do next –it’s an affirmation of what he already is doing by seeing the life-giving, Godly, miraculous nature of Jesus mission! Then Nicodemus has the courage to talk with Jesus about how Nicodemus sees God showing up in him! Nicodemus is already being reborn from above or reborn anew and entering the kingdom of God by engaging a relationship with Jesus! But then, he goes right back to arguing logical points—which I just love—because Nicodemus is like all of us—we see God at work and we totally get Jesus one minute, and then we are completely confused the next minute!
But Jesus just hangs there with Nicodemus, drawing him out of his rigid “expectations box” of how things are supposed to be, how life and religion, healing and relationships, God and leaders are supposed work according to good order and tradition, and he keeps pulling him toward being made new in a relationship with him, until Nicodemus’s whole box folds in on itself. This is not to say anything negative about the Jewish religion—Jesus was Jewish—but simply to let go of expectations that prevent us from a faith that has us boxed in rather than living in a life-giving relationship with God.
God does not want to condemn you Nicodemus-religious-leader for breaking the rules, God sent me to save the whole world in love, for love, through love. For God so loved the world, (the Greek says, cosmos) that he gave his only Son, that all those who believe in him, will not perish, have eternal life. We’re not talking about eternal life after we die, although that’s included—this is an all-inclusive package deal, but the point is, eternal life starts here and now! This is an experience of heaven that is felt now—this is what it is to know Jesus—it is to know and experience heaven here! That’s why healings, that’s why miracles, that’s why wine out the wazoo at the wedding at Cana, that’s why the peace that passes all understanding, that’s why Jesus says, have a relationship with me now—it’s an experience of heaven here on earth—stop waiting, Nicodemus! Stop waiting, all of us! To know Jesus is to experience heaven now!
Jesus is saying, “Step out of the expectations box, let it fold, stop trying to earn what you already have—and stop trying to do God’s job. You are already made new right here, right now in a relationship with me. You are still going to do all the things for which you are responsible –just do them in freedom, care for your family in joy, fulfill your work in peace, serve your neighbor out of love. Jesus can release you of the burden or resentment of false or unfair expectations you have put on yourself or accepted from others.
Part of my Lenten prayer practice is to put each family member I am worried in Jesus arms in my morning prayers and to trust God to take care of them in a way that I cannot. That frees me to love them without trying to do God’s job. Am I completely free of worry? My spirit is much lighter, but I’m human, I cannot say a I never worry. We are going for progress not perfection.
I want you to take one of the little prayer slips for the wooden cross in the entryway (you should have received one from an usher) and I want you to write down one expectation whose weight you are ready to release and turn over to Jesus so you can be born anew. No name—these are all anonymous. Either after Communion and before you go to your seat or after worship, you can put it in the slots in the wooden cross in the entryway to the sanctuary. Leave the expectation with Jesus on that cross. I will pray all these prayers and intentions during Holy Week.
If you want to take your Lenten reflections to the next level this week, you can step into the freedom of asking Jesus which other expectations in your life are really of God—and in line with your divine purpose. See if there are other ways Jesus can release you from unnecessary expectations of yourself and others into a renewed and deeper relationship with him.
Nicodemus risked everything to have a conversation with Jesus—that’s not true for us—we can talk to Jesus any day at any moment, any time. But making the life changes that come with releasing a significant expectation can feel very risky. That’s true whether it’s an expectation of yourself, or if it involves someone else, and requires a conversation or renegotiation. If you would like help in what’s coming up for you, please call or text me—my cell phone is on the back of every bulletin. I am happy to meet with you—talk through all the issues, and if more is needed, I know some great counselors and spiritual directors for referral.
Nicodemus shows us that to know Jesus is to know and experience heaven here! When we die and get to heaven all will be well. We won’t need Jesus’ grace and forgiveness once we are there—we’ll be swimming in it, like a fish is in water. We need Jesus’ love and life, NOW in this world, to free us from the box we are living in today. We need healing, freedom, strength, the peace that passes all understanding to help us through the challenges and difficulties of this life. We also need joy and some wine out the wazoo for the celebrations of this life!
All of that comes in a relationship with the living and risen Jesus Christ who renews and recreates us with love, freeing us to live as our true selves so we can let go of unnecessary expectations and travel lightly with him.
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