A People of Expectations
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Rev. Louis Timberlake
January 10, 2016
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Today is Baptism of our Lord Sunday, which means it’s the Sunday we remember Jesus’ baptism. It’s also the Sunday that many of us remember our own baptisms. Now, if you’re like me, you don’t exactly remember your baptism, as you were a baby at the time. But, you remember that the event took place and there were people who prayed over you, who made a commitment to you, who spoke of God’s love for you.
The former pastor of my home church in Athens, GA used to tell the story of when he went to college at Stetson University—which is probably the only university in the country named after a hat. At the time, Stetson was affiliated with the Florida Baptist Convention. Now, my pastor grew up a Methodist in small-town Georgia, so, like most Methodists, he was baptized as an infant. But, then he went to college with the Baptists. One day, one of his friends asked him if he had been baptized. He replied, “Yes, I was baptized as a baby in the Methodist church in Thomaston, GA.” To which they replied, “Well, then you haven’t really been baptized. You need to experience a REAL baptism.” To his Baptist friends, baptism meant being of a certain age and it meant not just sprinkling a little water, but going completely under. Subsequently, they somewhat forcefully encouraged him to experience a “REAL” baptism.
Now, we don’t re-baptize in the Methodist tradition. We believe that God’s grace works the first time, whether you are a baby or an adult, and regardless of the amount of water. And, that’s what baptism is about. It is about God working in our lives to transform us. Maybe you’ve heard it referred to as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” It’s not magic water. I don’t know that it’s really that effective against vampires; I haven’t had the occasion to try it. But, it is an outward and visible sign of something that God is doing in our lives. And that’s what John’s saying here. He’s saying, “Look, I’m baptizing you with water, but there’s something much greater going on. God is interested in far more than people getting wet. It’s about much more than the water; it’s about the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.
You know, one of the most interesting parts of this passage is in the first three words. I mean, that whole part about the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and voice from heaven is pretty spectacular, but, often, we get so caught up on the spectacular that we miss something important. And the important part is those first three words, “As the people.” It doesn’t sound important. But it is, when you look at it in relation to the rest of the chapter. You see, the chapter opens up with John the Baptist. He is journeying throughout the region, baptizing people and telling them to repent. He’s the original fire and brimstone, street corner preacher. Verses 7-8 say this: “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor;” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.’”
He’s saying, basically, “You claim to be God’s people simply because you are descendents of Abraham, but being faithful to God isn’t about who your parents were; it’s about whether you do the will of God. It’s about your fruit.” It’s like standing up in church and saying, “You claim to be a Christian because you go to church, but, when you leave this building, you don’t live like it.”
Now, remember, this is John talking, not me.
He is calling people out for coming to be baptized simply because it is the thing to do. Well, my cousin went, my neighbors went, I guess I’d better go too. And John is saying, “You’re missing the point. It’s not about the water. The water is an outward and visible sign of the grace of God at work in your heart. But, God doesn’t force anybody. If you resist God’s grace, God’s going to let you. So, it’s not about getting wet, it’s about opening yourself up to God, so that God can change your heart.”
So, why does “as the people” matter? Well, when he’s talking to those he calls a “brood of vipers,” the scriptures refer to them as “the crowds.” But, in what we read earlier, when he’s talking to those who think he’s the Messiah, the scriptures call them “the people.” In the Greek, there’s a big difference between these two words. I won’t bore you with the actual Greek, but the word translated “crowds” is often used to refer to people that are unfaithful to God. But, the word translated “people” is often used to refer to God’s people, to those who are faithful.
This is why it’s important. It’s making a distinction here between two groups of people. One group he calls out for being hypocrites. The other group is referred to as being “filled with expectation.” The faithful are the people with expectations.
Speaking of expectations, maybe you’ve heard the story about the butcher who was working in his shop one day when he noticed a dog wander in. He shooed the dog away, but it came back. He then noticed that the dog had a note in its mouth that said, “Can I have 12 sausages and a leg of lamb, please?” He also noticed a fifty-dollar bill with the note. This butcher didn’t refuse money, even from a dog, so he prepared the order, put the bag in the dog’s mouth, and took the money. It was about the closing time and the butcher was so curious that he decided to follow the dog. He followed it the down the street and to a crosswalk, at which point the dog used a paw to press the button and then waited patiently for the light to change, before crossing. The butcher continued to follow the dog to a bus stop and was amazed to see the dog stop to look at the bus schedule. The dog then used its paw to flag a bus and got on, showing the driver a ticket that was attached to its collar. The butcher couldn’t help himself, so he got on the bus and paid the fare, just to continue following the dog. A few miles down the road, the dog got up and wagged its tail to stop the bus, getting off the bus with the butcher close behind. The dog trotted to a nearby house, opened the gate, and headed towards the front door. At the last moment, the dogs changed its mind and veered around the side of the house to another door. It scratched once at the door, then stepped back and waited. A moment later, a man opened the door, started cussing at the dog, and smacked it on its nose. At this point, the butcher rushed up and yelled at the man, “Stop, what are you doing? This dog is brilliant! It should be on television!”—to which the man responded, “You call this brilliant!? This is the second time this week that this stupid dog has forgotten its key!”
It’s all about expectations. In the butcher’s eyes, this dog exceeded all expectations. In the owner’s eyes, the dog fell short. Often, we run into trouble when we don’t clarify our expectations or when we don’t know what is expected of us.
What does it mean to be a people of expectations? In this passage, it seems to mean that they expect God to do something. They expect a Messiah, one who will come from God to make things right. There’s a lot of injustice in the world. Evil prospers. Good people suffer. People in power abuse that power. Far too many live in poverty. There’s a lot in the world that just isn’t right. And, the faithful people here expect God to do something to change it. To bring justice. They have faith in God to make it right.
As a high school student, I went on a three-day spiritual retreat called Chrysalis. It was the teenage version of The Walk to Emmaus, if you’re familiar with that ministry. I remember, around the end of the weekend, we had a worship service at an outdoor chapel on the property, looking out over a lake. At the end of that service, they gave each of us a cross. I still have mine. As they put the cross around each of our necks, they said these words: “Christ is counting on you. Are you counting on Christ?”
Baptism is about expectations. When we are baptized and when we remember our baptism, whether it happened as an adult or as an infant, we claim to be a people of expectations. We expect that God can and will do something in us that we cannot do for ourselves. And, we expect the God can and will do something in our world that we cannot do by ourselves. When we are baptized and when we remember our baptism, we are saying to God, “I am counting on you.”
The thing is, our God also has expectations. Baptism isn’t just about what God does in us and for us; it is a commitment that we will strive to live differently. When we are baptized and when we remember our baptism, we acknowledge that God has expectations of us. To grow in faith. To be the hands and feet of Christ. To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. We are counting on God, but God is also counting on us.
So, may we be a people of expectations. A people who expect God to do great things in our hearts and in our world. And a people who embrace the expectations that God has of us to open ourselves to God’s grace and to be vessels through which that grace enters into our world.
- When were you baptized? If not as a baby, do you remember anything about the event?
- What does baptism mean to you?
- What does it mean to have expectations of God? What do you expect of God?
- How do your expectations of God shape your faith?
- What does God expect of us?
- What does it look like for us, as individuals and as the church, to embrace those expectations?