Giving Up Expectations

John 3:1-17

          Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.]

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spiritgives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘Youmust be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.


  1. Lent – giving up
  2. Last week in looking at giving up control and trusting in God, we considered how much in life we actually do control. It seems that control is part of our DNA and it is difficult to really relax our control of ourselves, family and friends.
    1. And I continue to struggle with Ann’s question to me — “What are you going to do about control?” What control are you going to give over to God for Lent?
    1. I suspect also that you may be struggling about turning control over to God.
  3. Talk about expectations – for the new worship service leader.
    1. We have been working on the possibility of a new worship leader for a long time. My expectations were very simple — a highly qualified 30s something person would come galloping into the parking lot on a white horse ready to save us. Everything we needed would be done as we have dreamed.
    1. But now we have the possibility of a person who cannot sing or do music – but can really lead. We have an ordained elder who can help us bring the music and worship structure together and a 79-year-old energetic Hispanic leader who can bring the Hispanic population to us. And Jennifer is rolling with laughter as to what God is doing to us! God probably is also!
  4. So goes my expectation of a neatly packaged solution to our visions for worship.
    1. I was really mistaken – God obviously had other plans and I did not even recognize them
  5. So, in what way can giving up our expectations be helpful in bringing us closer to God and becoming more faithful followers of Jesus?
  6. Well, just like last week, when the “giving up” had more to do with our disposition than our decision, more to do with our attitudes than our actions; so it is with our expectations.
  7. Let’s see how this morning’s Scripture reflects control of expectations.
  8. Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
  9. Nicodemus came out at night to see Jesus, because he couldn’t stay away.  He’d seen something in Jesus the first minute he was with him. Everything he learned in school told him to dismiss this Galilean peasant, but he couldn’t sleep.  Something in him wouldn’t let him stay home.
  10. He comes to Jesus, “by night,” this Nicodemus. Now, night, in the gospel of John, is more than night. It’s ignorance, seeing but not seeing, a time of confusion and not knowing.
    1. Which makes it all the stranger to find a man like Nicodemus in the dark.
    1. Nicodemus who is called a “leader” of the synagogue.
    1. Nicodemus is “us,” those of us who think we are “in the know.”  
  11. Look at his first words to Jesus –“Rabbi, we know…” He speaks out of a self-confident, secure world where there are some who know, and are certain, and sometimes so smug in their certitude that they radiate it.
  12. They know the “absolute truth” about human beings — that people are born once, grow old, and die.
    1. That’s it. Right?
    1.  Yes, Nicodemus is likely proud about how he knows the limits of things, what is possible and what is impossible.    “Jesus, can we talk, teacher to teacher?” he says.  
  13. “Now we know that you, Jesus, must be from God, for your works seem certifiably divine.”
    1.  “Not so fast,” says Jesus. “Nobody knows what is possible with God unless one is born from above, reborn from top to bottom by the Spirit.”   — changed by the Spirit!
  14. With that Nicodemus is dislodged, dislocated. It isn’t what he expected.  
  15. “How can this be?” he asks — which sums up the rest of Nicodemus’ conversation, which amounts to an awkward attempt to put back together the pieces of his world-view that Jesus seems to have blown apart and scattered.  
  16. So, what’s this all about? 
    1. Well, old Nicodemus came to Jesus to get a few things nailed down, more rigorously defined, settled. 
    1. And here Jesus is launching out into dangerously wild, unexplored territory ruled not by what we know, not by conventional wisdom, but rather by the Spirit. 
    1. The word in the Greek for Spirit “pneuma,” in fact, means wind.  How can you tame the wind?
  17. Smugness means arrogance or self-satisfaction or even conceit. This attitude is pervasive today.  People with that attitude seem to get a lot of attention in this country. 
    1. Talk radio is full to brimming over with it. Just listen to it. “I have all of the answers to today’s problems seems to radiate from talk radio of TV.  
    1. But it’s not just the media. Normal people in this country, taking their cue from the media, disagree on things with 100% certainty, too. Don’t we?
    1. Sadly, we often dismiss other opinions entirely out of hand.
    1. Consequently, when we do discuss matters with those who have different opinions, we often end up talking past one another, just like Jesus and Nicodemus.  
  18. Let’s admit it, there is that in every one of us that is attracted to something so categorically smug as “God said it, I believe it. Done!”  
    1. But let us not forget -Nicodemus, who had everything neatly nailed down, still found himself attracted to Jesus.   — Nicodemus’ attitude and expectations have been changed!
  19. This attraction was a mystery to Nicodemus. 
    1. He couldn’t see how what Jesus had to say might fit into his predetermined program of thought—his expectations was that Jesus is just another Rabbi and they could have a good theological discussion., and yet there was something about Jesus that he could not ignore.     
  20. Too often we look at this text and emphasize Nicodemus’ apparent thick headedness: “Teacher, how is a man to be born again?  Can he enter into his mother’s womb a second time?”   
  21. Focusing that way, we miss our own ignorance. 
    1. To his credit, Nicodemus summoned the courage to follow an instinct. 
    1. He’s someone who wants more from life than the settled and prepackaged and generic.   
  22. To his eternal credit he is beginning to understand that God summons us from the future, not the past.
  23. Yes, and the future always requires some getting used to. 
    1. Sometimes it requires that we follow an instinct; something that is not nailed down tightly. Our expectations are tested and adjusted!
  24. Consider also the case of the novelist, Dan Wakefield. He once wrote in The New York Times Magazine about his return to faith in mid-life. He described an encounter with Henri Nouwen in which his preconceptions his expectations as to what the spiritual life was all about. He was confused and could not grasp that God was always with us in the good and not so good times. Why didn’t God heal me was the expectation.   
  25. He is quoted that he told Henri Nouwen that he had read and appreciated his work but that it had dismayed him to read of Nouwen’s anguish . . .  it made me wonder with discouragement what chance a neophyte Christian like myself had in pursuit of the spiritual when someone as advanced as Fr. Nouwen experienced anguish and confusion in his relation to God.  
  26. Father Nouwen responded sharply that, contrary to what many people may think, “Christianity is not for getting your life together!”  God is after bigger game than that. Too often our puny expectations hold us back.   
  27. Learning is a wonderful thing, but sometimes to learn something we have to first unlearn something else.  That is, we need to give up a rickety belief we are holding on to. 
    1. To be born from above as Jesus says, is not merely to learn a new thing.  It may require a certain amount of unlearning too.
  28. Perhaps it’s true, as Jesus said, that sometimes God hides secrets from the wise and reveals them to the simple.    Sometimes but not always — there is a saying that in order to truly grow up, in the second half of life we need to ask ourselves if the expectations that governed the first half of our life were really worthy, whatever they were.  
    1. In the second half of life we should be mature enough to see some truth in what you once saw as untruth, and we should also be able to see some untruth even in your Truth (by Carl Jung).   
    1. Our expectations have to mature – no charming experienced worship leader is going to appear on our parking lot — a team of curious, skilled people have appeared who want to make solid our vision.   
  29. “To be a follower of Jesus the Christ is to be willing to have our expectations redefined, our “God boxes” dismantled, to be blown by the Spirit into places one would never have dreamed of going.”  (Tom Long).    
  30. You know, we hear nothing of Nicodemus after this night.  We hear nothing more from him until the end of John’s Gospel.   At that point, Jesus, the one to whom he came at night with questions, is dead; crucified. And among the few daring to be near him now was Nicodemus. 
    1. He is there, at the end, not as interrogator but as a disciple, not as a visitor in the night, but as someone now following the light. 
    1. In fact, Nicodemus doesn’t say anything. He comes bearing a gift to help embalm the body of Jesus.
    1. He comes to honor him, maybe even worship him.
    1. He offers not questions or answers but sweet-smelling spices whose aroma is carried by a wind that blows where it wills, even today.
  31. When Nicodemus went to Jesus at night, there were many expectations piled on to that encounter:
    1. First, he had to go at night, because he feared what his friends would say if they knew he (a devout religious professional) was seeking out this crazy man who spoke in riddles and prophecy, who was healing and forgiving sins and all sorts of things that he was not authorized to do.
    1. And clearly Nicodemus did not have his expectations met in Jesus.
      Even though he had heard and believed that Jesus was the Son of God, still what he got from Jesus was new and not expected. Be born again? What? How can that be?
    1. When Nicodemus is talking to Jesus, he has a hard time understanding what God’s grace is really about, because he is used to thinking in terms of religious structure. Sometimes we just can’t know what’s going on or what’s coming next.
  32. God doesn’t guarantee any future circumstances or uninterrupted prosperity, but we can trust that God will be with us through whatever circumstances we face, and that God will work with us to make the best result out of even the most hopeless of places.
  33. This makes me wonder….do you think that perhaps Jesus takes Nicodemus to this challenging place of new birth BECAUSE Nicodemus was believing, that is, he did acknowledge that Jesus was God’s son?
  34. I do suspect that people who know the Lord personally have an openness to the twists and turns of life, missed opportunities or muted expectations that really might be blessings.
    1. I wonder if people who trust in God have a firmer footing when things don’t turn out as they expected. Because God is all about exceeding our expectations.
  35. We are hard-pressed to find a story in the Bible that ends up with God standing by watching as people’s lives disintegrate around them leaving them in a hard place with no hope. It is not in God’s nature to leave us in such a state.
  36. When we give up our expectations, we become more open to whatever God has in store for us more open to something different.
    1. When we give up expectations, we are actually more obedient to God
    1. When we give up expectations, we allow God to expand our hopes
  37. I’ll be honest. For me, I wanted, sometimes I still desire and long for a God who will just fix things.
    1.  Sometimes I pray to God in a kind of angry protest — God, if you are so powerful, and strong, why can’t you fix this?
    1. Why do you let young black and brown bodies die so easily?
    1. Why do you allow the rich to flourish and the poor to be forgotten?
    1. What kind of a king sits there and does not bring down some good law of the land and make everything better?
    1. I want a Lion to swoop in, take charge and roar, take all the bad people out and protect the good ones.
  38. Instead, Jesus came and let evil kill him, didn’t fight back and forgave them. Was gentle and meek.
    1. Why?! Do you not see this fractured world Lord?
    1. Are we not your children that you would protect at any cost?
  39. Upon seeing this fractured world, seeing God’s creation, God’s children suffering, God’s response was…. Jesus.
  40. So maybe, Jenifer’s laughter really is a celebration of a new opportunity for worship the exceeds our expectations and in fact – blows our mind with the possibilities of making future disciples for Jesus.
  41. Thanks be to God.