What have we seen?
Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
December 16, 2001

I believe that all of us have had a time in our life when we had great expectations. Some of us have had multiple great expectations. Your presence here indicates to me that you still have great expectations.

My hope is that you are able to figure out what your great expectation is rather than simply have it be a sense that things will be better. The clarity of your expectation will be helpful.

New relationships can bring great expectations. New jobs can bring great expectations. A change in social realities can bring great expectations. Even illness and war can bring great expectations. We find our hope encouraged in many different ways.

This morning we have heard Isaiah bring to us a great expectation for the whole people of Israel. The people who had been in captivity, dragged away from their land and livelihood, will return home. The sign of their being on the right road home will be all manner of healings of people and of the land.

Even as we have all had great expectations we have also had great expectations dashed. The first meeting that went so well is never repeated, the engagement goes bust, the marriage turns into divorce. The job turns into a dead-end instead of promotion, the security of a regular paycheck becomes the uncertainty of being laid-off, the personnel around you change and the job just isn't the same anymore. Just when we thought we had it all together our body is in an accident or a disease enters, when we thought we could count on another being around for as long as we desired they die. This list of dashed expectations can go on and on.

So the very highway of return turns from joy to bombs. In Palestine/Israel we see forced return of the state of Israel leading to bombings and counter-bombings. Isaiah's great vision of the people who were taken away returning with joy and gladness to drive out sorrow and sighing has fallen on hard times. Let us pray for the people and the land of Israel/Palestine.

In our prayers let us be specific about the expectations we have and what will be signs to us to that those expectations are drawing nearer. For instance, I pray for end to overt violence so the quiet voice of reason might be heard. It is hard to find a solution when yelling and hurt are happening. I pray there will be experiments where Israelis and Palestinians will work together in business and agriculture. I pray there will be plan put in place which will not focus simply on settling old debts but will give opportunity for building new experiences of cooperation.

The loss of great expectations is not just an issue for the ancient Israelites. It was also a reality for the early Christians.

Our brother James encourages us to keep our expectations high, even as they are being delayed. In his day Christians expected Jesus to return each day. If it turned out that Jesus did not return on a given day, then surely he would return tomorrow.

For James the sign of the return of Jesus was not disaster, but reconciliation. James was big on living as though Jesus had already returned. We were to call on one another when in trouble because the congregation would mobilize to be helpful. If illness struck people of the church would come to anoint the one who was sick and prayers would surround them.

I have a great expectation that as a congregation we will study healing ministries and that many will join me in going to visit and to pray with those who are ill. This is a different picture than us going as individuals to bring a word of good cheer. It is a concerted effort by the whole body to gather together because one of our sisters or brothers is ill and that hurts us all as well as them.

James was also big on fair business where the laborer was worthy of their hire and the rich would not increase the gap between themselves and the poor but would go out of their way to bring people up to a living wage and then go beyond a living wage to a wage of plenty.

In conversation with people who are dealing with giving on a national level we are finding these days that people are not giving as much to the church or charities. It is not just that them money has been transferred to New York to deal with the airplane missiles in the World Trade Center. People are expecting hard times to come and think they can get by easier if they store their own resources away. Unfortunately that doesn't work because wealth is always a communal issue, not a private one. If you want the strongest economy for yourself it is necessary to have the strongest economy for everyone.

So, when I hear of people who made $400,000 now being reduced to only $200,000 who are cutting back on their giving to keep their own standard of living up it lets me know that their expectations are all out of whack and so are an opportunity for prayer.

And when I got the report from the WAFER Food Pantry last Thursday that they had set another new record -- serving over 900 people in La Crosse in the month of November, it is a time for me to pray with James.

For instance, my great expectations lead me to pray for the rich who think they got their wealth only through hard work and perseverance without considering how dependent their wealth is on keeping wages and benefits for others as low as possible. I pray for the rich to at least tithe, to give 10% of their income, and not to to simply look at increasing the dollar amount of their giving according to the rate of inflation.

My great expectations lead me to pray for the poor who see no way out of their current and constant hunger, where their resources won't even cover the basics of shelter and food and clothing. I pray for the poor to receive more than charity, more than a food pantry, more than a weekly free meal. I pray for them to be incorporated into our lives so we will finally know the Christian image of those who have much do not have too much and those who have little will not have too little.

In line with Isaiah and James, what great expectations are you praying about these days? What are you spending your time and energy and resources on seeing change?

All of this brings us to John the Baptist and to Jesus. John has great expectations of his cousin Jesus. Jesus was to be the great Messiah who would put everything right with a wave of his hand. And here was John in prison instead of helping to lead the country to of Israel to being the number one power in the world. John asked a very important question at this point. How do we know you are the Messiah, the Christ.

Jesus responds in terms of everyday events in people's lives, not in great political or economic events. People are being cared for. The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the wretched of the earth learn that God is with them.

Even in the midst of our own fears and dashed expectations we can ask about the meaning of life. Advent is a time of double-checking our expectations. Are they still bursting into bud and fruit or have they dried up? It is not unusual for us to be fooled into lesser expectation than greater expectations. It is not unusual for us to be fooled into false expectations. So, double-checking our expectations along the way is important. It is particularly important if we are feeling trapped in the circumstances of life.

Let us pray:

O God who expects a better tomorrow from us,

Plant and nurture within us a great expectation that will call us to invest our life in seeing it come to pass, if not for ourselves for the next six generations;

Help us separate our expectations from our results for we know that the greatest of expectations lead us beyond results into the deep meaning of life;

Gift us with patience so we can keep seeing beyond the current limits of life and be bold to keep trying to bring heaven on earth.


Copyright 2001. Wesley White, Pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church. 1022 Caledonia Street, La Crosse, WI 54603.

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