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The House of Expectancy

When we live in expectancy, rather than expectation, we are open to the person of Christ.
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Four Best Places to Live". See series.


Have you wondered what makes one person open to God and the next person closed? What makes Sally receptive, attentive, responsive to God's voice and presence, while Lisle, right next to her, is bored, apathetic, oblivious, couldn't see him or hear him if he stood face to face with her and shouted?

In Jesus' day, according to Luke, what spelled the difference was one thing. It was not upbringing or socio-economic class or educational attainment. In fact, as far as those were indicators at all, the least likely people were the most God-hungry, most God-attentive, and the seemingly best-positioned people were the most God-averse and God-obtuse. It was the down-and-outers, the lost and the loose, the bad and the nasty, who were pounding the sawdust trail to Jesus. The prim and the proper, the good and the decent, the pious and the religious, they just hid behind their newspapers and clucked their tongues, and wished it all would go away. In Jesus' day, who was open and who was closed to God hinged on this: who had John the Baptist gotten his hands on and doused in the Jordan. Not you? You were closed tight. You? You were wide open.

Now what does that mean, and how does that apply? We don't have John running around in his camel hair, eating his funny diet, shouting down caustic remarks, calling us a brood of vipers and telling us to get our sorry little butts down to the water. So what was the essence of John's ministry? Repentance. He called for repentance, which is the humility to see that what you have made of your life so far is not what God wanted you to make of it. You have to admit that. Repentance means you come to a full stop, turn around, and go full tilt in a fresh direction, this time not of your own choosing, this time not for your own ends, this time not by your own strength, this time not out of your own weakness, this time not for your own glory. This time on God's terms. That's repentance.

But I wonder if there was something else going on. Or let me put it this way: what precedes repentance? Guilt, I suppose. Shame, pain, loss. Becoming sick and tired of being sick and tired. Those things often lead to repentance. But is that it? Is that the deeper cause? What does Romans say? The kindness of God leads us to repentance. But I think there's something even before that.

The root of repentance: expectancy

What comes first, I believe, is expectancy. It is a renewal of hope and anticipation. It is a spark in the soul that makes you dare to believe that good can come from bad, that light can overcome darkness, that life can resurrect out of death. It's the small but tenacious belief that in spite of all that has happened in your life and all that has not happened in your life, what is going to happen in your life will redeem it all. That's expectancy. Thousands streamed to be baptized by John, even though his was a tough message. Brood of vipers! Turn or burn! But his was not, for all that, a message of hopelessness. It brimmed with hope. His words promised new life. He portrayed a God who longed to forgive and to restore. He proclaimed that a way was open to the life you always wanted.

The passage I read in Luke 7 is all about this kind of expectancy. It's also all about the opposite of expectancy. Do you know what that is? It might surprise you. The opposite of expectancy is not cynicism, or complacency, or apathy. Those things come later. The opposite of expectancy is expectation. It's the attitude that I'm owed. I'm entitled. I deserve. I demand. Where there is a spirit of expectancy, people open up to God. Where there is a spirit of expectation, people close up to God. That's my thesis. Let me now try to account for it.

Today we're going to look at what it means to live in the House of Expectancy. Of all the themes I've chosen for this series, this is the least obvious. The house of worship, the house of prayer, and the house of love are obvious. But expectancy? Why not the house of repentance? Or humility? Or obedience? Or servanthood?

Because I travel a lot these days, I get an opportunity to stand in pulpits, podiums, and lecterns all over the world. I have preached to people to whom I could have said almost nothing, and they would have met God and been changed. I have preached to those with whom I could have been as brilliant and anointed as Billy Graham, and I don't think it would have made an ounce of difference. They were not listening. As I've tried to understand that dynamic, I've gone through the usual list of suspects. Maybe I was off my game over here, on it over there. Maybe I had grieved the Spirit of God in some way, and I was preaching without divine aid. Maybe this group of people was accustomed to a style of communication so vastly different from mine, and I may as well have been speaking a foreign language. Maybe I'm too short, too bald, too young, too funny, too good looking. I don't know.

After a while, I began to sense that all of those things were, if factors at all, only minor ones. My conviction now is this: what makes the difference is whether people have a spirit of expectancy or not. Where that's present, God almost always shows up. Where it's not, he rarely does, though my friend Gary Nelson told me about the time when he was a youth pastor in a church on the prairies and was asked to preach. It was Pentecost Sunday, and so Gary chose the most obvious topic, the Holy Sprit. Being a young preacher, he committed a young preacher's sin: he decided to tell the congregation everything he knew about the Holy Spirit, starting in the opening verses of Genesis, and ending in the closing lines of Revelation, with the cry for the Spirit to come. An hour into it, he was just half-way through. Most of the congregation was rehearsing their afternoon nap. Gary got to the opening chapters of the book of Acts, describing the descent of the Spirit on the first church, and he said, "And with a mighty rushing wind, the Spirit came!" At that exact moment, all the windows of the sanctuary imploded. Turns out, a tornado had been moving toward the church and had created a vacuum inside the building. The tornado descended just as Gary announced the descent of the Spirit. He never had a more attentive audience.

Generally, however, it's those with a spirit of expectancy who see the hand of God. That's biblical. Jesus Christ himself could do few if any miracles in the place where there was no expectancy, no faith, and no sense that good could break forth amidst the tragic and the ordinary. What opens us to God is repentance, and underneath repentance is God's kindness, and underneath God's kindness—what tunes us into that—is expectancy, a sense that God is for us and not against us, that good can come from bad. Let's walk through this passage in Luke and see how this works.

John the Baptist's expectancy becomes expectation.

The story begins with John the Baptist's disappointment. John, according to Matthew's version of this same story, is in prison. It's a confinement he will not survive, and I think he knows that in his bones. So he sends his disciples to ask Jesus a question: "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" The difference between expectation and expectancy is captured right here. The people, John among them, had been living in a spirit of expectancy. God had promised to send the Messiah. God would reclaim his people as his own. That belief fuels hope. It carries them through the darkest times. It gives them joy in the midst of overwhelming sorrow.

But somewhere along the line—this is well-known history—their expectancy shifts to expectation. Expectation dictates terms. It sets conditions. It insists that the future look a certain way. Their expectancy about God's Messiah narrows to an expectation about what that Messiah will look like and what that Messiah will do. The premier expectation is that the Messiah will look like a warrior and will destroy Israel's foreign occupiers, the Romans.

John the Baptist has not fallen into those popular expectations, but he's begun to shift toward his own expectations. They are deeply personal, as often ours are. John expects to get out of jail. John expects to have one of Jesus' extraordinary miracles come his way. John expects all this good news Jesus is declaring to the poor to translate into some good news to come to him, then, there. Jesus disappoints John's expectations. Should we expect someone else?

Expectations set us up, almost always, to be disappointed, and once disappointment sets in, it quickly hardens into apathy, bitterness, suspicion. Expectancy, on the other hand, sets us up, almost always, to be thrilled. When we live in that attitude, we're rarely disappointed. Expectation says, "This specific thing must happen for me to welcome it." Expectancy says, "Something good is going to happen—I'm not sure what—and I'm here to welcome it."

Expectancy and expectation are different.

There are actually different words in the Greek that illumine this distinction. The first word is apokaradokia, and it is usually translated eager expectation, such as in Romans 8:18-19.

Things aren't as they ought to be—this world is riddled with pain and sorrow—but the whole creation lives in this state of apokaradokia—eager expectation, edge-of-the-seat anticipation. Creation itself has a tingling sense of the extravagant goodness on its way. Paul's whole point in this passage and the verses that follow is that the sons of God—that's us, the peculiar people-not only join creation in that eager expectation, but in some astonishing way are that expectation's fulfillment. Creation is waiting for us to arrive, to become fully what God intends. When we live in expectancy, it's hard to be disappointed.

In contrast to that passage is Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20. A landowner needs harvesters for his vineyard. He goes out at first light, hires day laborers, and promises them a fair wage—a denarius each. Then he makes four other trips to town at roughly three-hour intervals to hire more workers, each time promising to "pay what is right." At day's end, he starts paying the people he hired last, the ones who only worked an hour, paying each one a denarius. The laborers who'd been working all day then expected to receive more than a denarius, even though that's what was promised. The word expected is nomise. It's a very different word from apokaradokia. Nomise means to assume. To feel entitled. To feel owed.

Romans describes a spirit of expectancy—apokaradokia. We don't know when. We don't know how. We just know that God is up to something very good, and when it bursts forth, whatever pain we've had to endure will seem as nothing. In contrast, Matthew describes an attitude of expectation and entitlement—nomise. Those first workers formed in their minds a distinct and narrow picture of what ought to be, and anything more than that or less than that, anything other than that, disappointed them. It must be this. It must be now. If not, I'm picking up my marbles and going home. The posture of expectation is this: arms folded, eyes narrowed, brow knit, face closed and set. The posture of expectancy is this: arms open, eyes wide, ears cocked, face attentive and mobile.

John the Baptist began with expectancy. When he was still in his mother's womb, he leapt at the sound of Mary's voice, such was his apokaradokia. When John first saw Jesus begin ministry, he was wide open with expectancy—Look! Behold! There he is! When Jesus came to get baptized by John, he at first balked, but then—against his expectations—obeyed. God showed up powerfully: the spirit descended, the Father spoke. When John lived in expectancy, he was never disappointed. But somewhere, somehow, John's expectancy shriveled to expectation. Apokaradokia shrunk to nomise. We see over and over in the gospels this same pattern: people approach Jesus, not with apokaradokia but with nomise, not with expectancy but with expectations. Almost always, Jesus fails to meet their expectations. Almost always, they turn away, angry, bored, bitter.

In this passage of Luke, Jesus says: Tell John things are happening, but not the ways he prescribes or imagines. And so tell him blessed are those who do not fall away on account of me. Tell him blessed are those who don't get so locked into their expectations that when I fail to meet them, they quit, and go looking elsewhere.

Jesus then turns to the people and uses the moment to teach on the difference between expectancy and expectation. He doesn't use those terms, but I think that distinction gets to the gist of what he says: When you went out to see John what did you go to see? What were you expecting? A reed swayed by the wind—some milquetoast easily influenced by public opinion, bending to whatever winds were blowing? No. Did you go to see a man dressed in fine clothes—some blowhard trying to bend others to do his will? No. You went to see a prophet. You traveled into the hot dry desert to see and hear someone who spoke for God no matter what the cost. You got more than you expected—and less.

Turns out not everyone actually wanted to hear from God. They wanted to hear God as long as God was saying what they wanted to hear. If God had something else to say, they rejected it. They're like those people who are never happy. You play them a ditty, they won't dance. They think you're frivolous and irreverent. You play them a dirge, they won't cry. They think you're gloomy and pessimistic. Show them a holy man living life to the hilt, they call him a pagan. Show them a holy man living close to the bone, they call him a demon. They have narrow and exact expectations, and they're always being disappointed.


Which kind of person are you? One who lives in expectancy? Or has your expectancy withered down to mere expectation?

In 1916 a strange plague swept through America and Europe. Within a year, it killed 5 million people. The history of this has been nearly lost, because around the same time the Great Swine Flu broke out globally, killing 20 million in 4 months, 100 million by the time it had run its course. So not many remember the Sleeping Sickness of 1916. The scientific name is encephalitis lethargica—listlessness of the brain. Its symptoms were seemingly non-lethal: sleepiness. But not just any kind of sleepiness: the victim became virtually comatose with slumber. They couldn't wake up, not on their own. Someone else could wake them, but only with near violent effort, and then only for a short spell. You had to shake them and shout at them and dash them with ice water and prop them up to get them half roused. The few moments they were awake, all Sleeping Sickness victims exhibited the same trait: utter and unalterable apathy. They cared about nothing. They just wanted to go back to bed. They suffered no pain. No memory loss. No depletion of body function. No impairment of vital organs. But waking, they were listless, and sleeping, they were as dead. Scientists hadn't a clue what caused the sickness. Worse, they had no remedy. Almost all victims died within months.

As far as we know, the Sleeping Sickness only visited earth once, but its spiritual equivalent is with us always. The good news is, we know what causes it. It's what happens to those who live in an attitude of expectation, of nomise, and have those expectations repeatedly disappointed. After insisting so long on this thing happening and it not happening, they settle for nothing. Cynicism and apathy take over. That's the cause of spiritual sleeping sickness.

But better yet, we have a remedy. It's called expectancy, apokaradokia—living in this broken, messed up world with eager expectation. What nurtures apokaradokia is closeness with Jesus. Jesus never gave his disciples exact descriptions of what was going to happen. He just kept saying: Follow me. Trust me. Though in this world there will be much trouble, take heart. I've overcome the world. The good that is your future will totally outweigh the trouble you have to go through to get there. Just keep living in that spirit of eager expectation. Follow me.

A Sunday School teacher told her seven year olds about becoming Christians. Then she handed out pencils and slips of paper and invited the children, if they were ready to trust Jesus, to write, "I accept Jesus." Many children did so. But one little boy got the wording muddled. Instead of writing, "I accept Jesus," he wrote "I expect Jesus." That's the spirit.

Stop expecting things from Jesus. That causes spiritual sleeping sickness. The antidote is simply this: Expect Jesus. You'll be fully awake, fully engaged, and life will never look the same.

Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The root of repentance is expectancy

II. John the Baptist’s expectancy became expectation.

III. Expectancy and expectation are different.