The theme of my sermon today is ‘expectation’.
In the second Act of Shakespeare’s Henry V, the Chorus describes the scene that is taking place in preparation for war against France. He declares that the ‘youth of England are on fire’ and ‘Expectation’ sits in the air. Expectation that the French will be defeated. This expectation was fulfilled in the victory of the English at the Battle of Agincourt, led by the king himself. Yet, as we learn from the Chorus in Act V, Henry is free of ‘vainness and self-glorious pride’ as he gives, and I quote: ‘full trophy, signal and ostent, quite from himself to God’.
What I believe Shakespeare is saying here, is that God may allow our expectations to be fulfilled on the understanding that we view them in the light of his purpose rather than our own. This requires a certain humility which we learn from the Chorus that Henry possesses.
I do not believe from this perspective that we cannot enjoy and feel a sense of achievement in meeting expectations. What I do believe is that we need to acknowledge that God is the source of all good outcomes.
In today’s Gospel reading, we learn that the rich man, having affirmed with Jesus that from his youth he has obeyed the commandments given by God to Moses, now expects that Jesus will confirm that he has done all he needs to to inherit eternal life. To his astonishment, this expectation signally fails. It fails because Jesus finds his weak spot which is pride in his possessions. The thought of having to sell what he owns, and give the money to the poor, is too much for him. He had probably spent many years accumulating these possessions and it is just too big a leap for him to give it all up. Pride will not permit.
We can all have some sympathy with the man. It is not easy to contemplate giving up what you possess, particularly if you have worked hard to get it. It may be though that it is not so much wealth itself that is the issue here but the fact that an accumulation of wealth without any reference to giving to the needy is an accumulation without reference to God. God expects us to give. In today’s reading from Amos there is a condemnation of the rich ‘trampling on the poor’ and putting aside ‘the needy in the gate’. If justice is not established in the gate then there will be ‘wailing in the squares and the vineyards’. In the Old Testament narrative Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Solomon are enabled by God to acquire wealth but, as Amos writes, they must assist the poor. To give is to avoid greed and pride in possession because we adhere to God’s purpose.
So it is that the pride of the rich man is not rewarded with the promise of eternal life whilst the humility of King Henry is rewarded in battle because he put God first.
To put God first is to see that it is not us but God himself who is the provider. This provision is plentiful. As Sean Doherty expresses it in his book ‘Living Witness’ whilst Scripture alludes to the dangers of money, we must not miss the message of Genesis 1 and 2 which is that God himself is the abundant source of material gifts. God wants humanity to prosper but not by pride in possession that prohibits giving.
Pride then is not God’s way. In today’s Gospel reading there is no pride in Jesus when he denies that he is the ‘Good Teacher’. His response is ‘why do you call me good? No-one is good but God alone’. It is this humility that runs contrary to the expectation of the people of Israel that the Messiah would come enthroned in majesty not being amongst the poor and the lame, healing and teaching, and certainly not ending his life naked on a Cross, left to die. Yet it is this death that is a fulfilment of God’s expectation of Jesus that he must die in order to save mankind from the power of sin and assure humanity of eternal life.
As Jesus had to go this way, so he asks his disciples to follow his example. They must, as today’s Gospel reading makes clear, leave everything and follow him. This is why it is so hard for the rich man to behave in such a way as to inherit eternal life. Jesus knows this when he says: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’.
As I have contemplated this theme of ‘expectation’ in the Bible, the word ‘reversal’ comes to mind. It appears that what God expects of us can be a complete reversal of our expectations. The Messiah a King enthroned on earth in majesty? No. Inability to break the law on the Sabbath? No. As Jesus says his disciples can pick grain on the Sabbath as ‘the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath’. After the Crucifixion, the body of Jesus in the tomb to be seen by Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome? No. The tomb was empty. At the end of today’s Gospel reading we are told that there is a major reversal yet to come: ‘the first will be last, and the last will be first’.
What a turning upside down of expectations there are then in the Bible. Assumptions are overturned, leaving people amazed and afraid. God does this though not for us always to be afraid but to gently steer us towards the goal of eternal life. This eternal life is the gift of his love for us. Jesus looks at the rich man and loves him, and part of that loving is knowing his weak spot. Here we have an echo of Hebrews where it is written that God judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart. You cannot hide from God.
Today, as we draw nearer to the time of the great conference on climate change, let us fervently hope that the expectation of people for action is rewarded. As we are the stewards of creation it is an expectation to be met as soon as possible as it is surely one desired by God who desires that we live abundantly.