Third Sunday in Advent Luke 3:7-18

What Do You Expect? Harsh words from John, part of what I like to call the hairy-scary stuff of Advent. And how do those hearing such imprecations respond? “The people,” Luke tells us, “were filled with expectations.” What are our expectations? What are yours and what are mine? What do we expect? Expectation can be a double-edged sword, professor Karoline Lewis points out. It can be full of anticipation. But it can weigh us down so much that there is no possibility of digging out. Very bright children with perfectionist tendencies sometimes have trouble in school because they think like chess players. They see so many possibilities multiplying exponentially from each decision that they are paralyzed and unable to begin. Expectations can generate a sense of false optimism, which quickly fragments into despair when we realize those expectations are too good to be true. Expectations are heavy. They are frequently lodged outside our-selves, laid on us by others and beyond our control. And we tend to freight our expectations, as well, with our own hopes. That becomes perilous, because we often cannot detail a foundation for those hopes. Then we find expectations that we cannot meet because they are unfair. Expectations are dangerous creatures as well. They can elicit hope when there is no grounds for believing in hope. Recently the PowerBall lottery jackpot rose to $1.6 billion. That means that 800 million lottery tickets were purchased, each one with the expectation of scooping the pot. You and I can set such expectations in place without acknowledging the contexts (that is, the 799 million-plus people who also bought tickets) that make them impossible to achieve. Perhaps the expectations to which we are accustomed are now all up in the air with this strange wilderness preacher. Especially in Luke, when God threatens to appear, expectations are being overturned right and left. Expectations about God, and our relationship to God, are turned over in the presence and ministry of God-with-us, Emmanuel. Given the way this past year has unfolded for the people of God at St. Michael’s, our expectations about God and about God’s activity in the world are uncertain and might be impossible. Can we hang on? What does it look like not just to survive but to thrive? We all of us over the course of the past year have had expectations that did not get met. We have seen our hopes dashed. We have walked with the decline and passing of a beloved pastor. We might just be in the mood for some abrasive talk from this wilderness weirdo. Here is the promise – we are able to give witness to God’s truth in the face of systems that try to suppress that truth. Change is here. Expectations are being upended. You and I and all who believe in the world-changing Gospel of Jesus are able to testify to this gospel even in the face of a world that rejects it. Our expectations are not God’s expectations. And God’s expectations, unlike ours, are grounded in God’s promise. If we have ever wondered if we really need Advent, here is our answer. Advent names and exists in the tensions we experience here in the world. Advent claims God’s expectations in the face of the world’s false ones. Advent says that whatever expectations we have of God will be met, because with God all things are possible. John calls his listeners to repent, a word that translates as “turn around.” We are invited to turn around in the face of the tension be-tween word and world. Times were hard for those hearing his message. Rome had its boot on the neck of the faithful Jews. Times can feel hard for us as well. What are our expectations? For all the voices calling for change, for all the signs of change in the world, there is still a great deal of momentum to keep to the course that we are on. The story is told of a couple of preachers who stood at one end of a bridge holding signs saying, “The end is near,” and, “Turn around.” Driver after driver ignored these zealots, and driver after driver plunged into the water. After about the fourth splash, one preacher turned to the other and said, “Maybe our language is too metaphorical. Maybe we should just say, “The bridge is out.” What would you and I hear if John were preaching to us? John preaches fire and brimstone to his audience, and they appeal to him for instruction? Would you and I hear and heed his message? We can place our expectations on Jesus, because he will sort us out, and it will involve winnowing forks and fire. Nobody, it has been said, expects the Spanish Inquisition. Luke’s Jesus, even before his arrival on stage, delights in upending the usual way. Perhaps John’s words, harsh as they are, contain an invitation to hear the winnowing and the fire as tools that will sift our unrealistic expectations, our ex-pectations that perch with trembling fragility on false hopes, the expectations that call for everyone else to change and adapt to please you and me. Numerous scholars and theologians have pointed out that Luke’s Jesus repeatedly turns people, lives, and traditions upside down. Last year in an Advent sermon at Trinity Elms, Bishop Tim suggested that maybe instead he was turning the world right side up. The invitation to have winnowing forks and fire sift and purify our expectations make sense when we realize that they have been upside down all along. When we yield to the siren song of the world’s culture and believe that we can have it all; when we decide that we are the center of the universe; when we insist that the rules don’t apply to us; when we judge the beggar on the corner and the refugee at the border because we have money and a home – it may be that we are being invited – urgently, strongly, with winnowing fork and fire, to turn around. To look at the world and the people around us in a different way. To recognize that we have within us the power to help bring about the Kingdom of God in every encounter we have with another person. And when you and I do that, maybe – just maybe – our expecta-tions will turn not on a pivot of self-centered cares but on the hopes and dreams of God.