Isaiah 42: 1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Let us pray: God of the unexpected. God of the manger, God of the cross and the empty tomb. God of what is and what we can scarcely imagine, we pray you would reveal yourself more fully to us this morning that through you we may come to see ourselves more clearly. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
You have heard it said that the secret to happiness is low expectations. This is the heart of Barry Schwartz’s research. Barry Schwartz is a professor of social theory and action at Swarthmore College and through his research, he has become convinced that our high expectations, our perfectionist tendencies rob us of joy. He says “as affluent, industrialized citizens with perfection the expectation, all we can hope for is that stuff will be as good as we expect it to be. We will never be pleasantly surprised because our expectations have gone through the roof.”  For if we expect perfection than the only emotion open to us is disappointment since chances are very good that we and others will always fall short from our perfectionist expectations. And it is this gap between who we and others are and who we expect ourselves and others to be that is the perfect breeding ground of much pain.
So the secret of happiness, Professor Schwartz says is to set the bar lower. Close the gap. Have lower expectations. Expect less and at worst you won’t be disappointed and at best you may even be pleasantly surprised. Low expectations, he says, are the secret of happiness.
I totally get that and wish that I had remembered it before heading into those family gatherings this Christmas season. How many of us headed into those family gatherings with great expectations that this year would be the year when everyone got along and no one was in a bad mood. That this year, would be the year, when everyone suddenly discovered that they do in fact love the fruit salad with the marshmallows that Aunt Mabel always insists on making and then always feels wounded when no one eats it.
Or maybe it was not even the high expectations we had for others that tripped us up. Maybe it was the high expectations that we had for ourselves, the high bar we set for ourselves.
How many of us still insist on telling ourselves, especially at this time of year when we resolve to do better, that if we try harder, work harder, meet that goal, achieve that status, that then – then! we will really know what it is to be happy.
Wouldn’t it be so freeing to once and for all set all of that aside? To set down our high expectations and just be content with what is? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take the pressure off and just be?
Only trouble is, that is easier said than done. For the problem lies not so much with our high expectations. After all what is wrong with setting high standards? What is problematic is what can be at the source of those expectation. What is problematic is when those high expectations and perfectionism arise as an attempt to fill a hole that is in the center of our being. The problem arises when our exceedingly high expectations of others and ourselves becomes a way that we try harder and harder to fill a deep yearning for love, acceptance and belonging that is in the very center of our being.
Henri Nouwen writes of this deep ache in the center of our beings. This sense that something is missing. Is it us? Are we fundamentally flawed? If we were better, wouldn’t the world be better? And given that the world is such a mess isn’t that evidence that we are?
The second chapter in the Book of Genesis, (you know the story where Adam and Eve eat the apple and are thrown out of paradise) give a narrative to this very real, very human ache that we feel that we have lost something precious and we just don’t know how to get it back.
And what is responsible for this hole in our hearts? I think it is the worm of shame that is not from God but that somehow has entered our lives doing its best to convince us that we are flawed. Whispering to us that something is wrong with us. Not just that we do wrong but that there is something fundamentally lacking in us. We try to cover it up, with expectations for perfection. But it is there.
And the power of shame is that we are ashamed of it and so we get stuck trying to fill the hole in our hearts on our own. We tell ourselves that we got this, that we should be able to figure out our own way back to the Garden. And if the ache persists well then it is because we just have not gotten it right yet. So raise the expectations, try harder, make it right!
So we try and try, pushing ourselves and those around us harder and harder, and we become more and more frustrated and disappointed, and when we fall down again and again we chock it up as proof positive evidence of how hopeless we really are and or how hopeless those around us are.
But there is of course another creation story. If the second chapter of Genesis tells the story of what we have lost, the first chapter of Genesis, the first creation story tell us of what we have been given. And what we have been given is blessedness and belonging. God creates and then blesses as Good all that is and that includes us.
It is this truth of blessedness that the prophet Isaiah calls forth to the people in the book from the Hebrew Scriptures today. Yes the people are in exile. Yes there is much that is wrong in the world. Yes, the people may have made bad choices and gotten some things very wrong but that does not erase the truth that God created them, created us for glory. That does not erase the truth that goodness and blessedness is our birthright and that God’s expectation is that glory, which is to be understood as the finger print of God upon us, is meant to shine through us!
And that is what is happening right there on that muddy river bank with that wild prophet John who is crying out in the wilderness that it is time for a new way of living. And right then, right before him the gateway to that new living which is nothing more than a return to that dawn of creation, true way of living, appears.
Jesus goes into the water and all the shame and pain that we as humanity carry is washed away and it becomes clear that he is God’s own, not lost, but claimed by God and not just claimed by God, but beloved of God. It will take the cross and the empty tomb before we too are able to see it, but it is there is this baptism. It is there in our baptisms that we are not lost but claimed, not flawed but beloved.
Despite how we fall down and fall away and trip up ourselves and each other, we are claimed by God as beloved! Hear me please when I say that being created for Glory, being claimed by God and blessed as beloved, does not mean that we will not make mistakes. It does not mean that we will not fall short. It does not mean that we don’t have to try hard and ask for forgiveness and forgive over and over again.
What it does mean however, is that we need not live with that worm of shame any longer. We do not need to live with that gnawing emptiness inside, that hole of loss and hunger that send us out seeking perfection in ourselves and others. What it does mean is that what we most need, we already have. We are loved. We are beloved. We are home. Was it Kierkegaard that said and what baptism reveals is that our biggest challenge is to accept that we are acceptable?
Baptism is the revelation of blessedness. Blessedness is something we may have lost track of but that is not lost to us. We are baptized only once but we must remember and reaffirm our baptisms over and over again. For it is such good news that we tend to doubt that it could possibly be true.
During our family Christmas gathering, when some were not getting along and some were in a bad mood. When no one like the fruit salad and Aunt Mabel was feeling let down again, I wandered into the bathroom. And there on the mirror were the words, “look who God loves.” And with that I was reminded and I saw that all the bad moods and uneaten fruit salads really did not matter. What mattered is what my brother and sister in law saw every morning when they step out of the shower and wipe the steam from the mirror. What mattered was remembering our essential belovedness. Remembering our baptism.
If we can accept our belovedness and remember our baptism, then the world becomes a far less disappointing place and much more exciting place. Compassion starts to overflows judgment, humor overrides harshness and joy topples anxiety. We begin seeing not the deficits in ourselves and those around us, but instead we start to see with the eyes of forgiveness recognizing we are all doing the best that we can.
And this is what I find remarkable, as we live belovedness, that hole in our hearts starts to get smaller and smaller. As we live belovedness we find the courage (and you remember that the root word of courage is of course heart) we find the courage to start stepping out, living boldly, loving bravely because we no longer are afraid of failing, because we no longer are trying to measure up or meet our or others expectations. And as we begin to live as God’s beloved we begin to have high expectations! High hopes!
Why shouldn’t everyone have a safe and dignified place to live!
Why shouldn’t people be judged by the quality of their character and not the color of their skin?
Why shouldn’t girls and women be treated with the rights that is befitting of their full dignity of beloved children of God?
Why shouldn’t the air be clean and the water run fresh!
This is our expectation! Our High expectation!
So hear the good news today. We are created for glory. We are God’s beloved children, with whom God is well pleased. May this our original blessing burn brightly within us. May it ignite hope and high expectation for how together with God we will work tirelessly to continue the ministry of Jesus in this dear world that God has entrusted to us. And may the worm of shame return to wherever it came from, finding that it no longer has and never again will — have a home in our hearts. Amen.