Sermons

Beyond Swimming Pool Expectations; Rev. Dee Ledger; January 9, 2022

I have to give John the Baptizer a lot of credit.  He could have let the praise of the people go to his head.  After seeing all those people gathered on the river’s edge to hear a word of hope to get them through their seemingly endless days in a brutal and uncaring empire, he could have just become one more puffed-up ego among prophets.  He could have seen all the expectation in the eyes of that crowd and thought to himself, “yes, I can do this; I can meet their expectations and then some.” 

But he doesn’t.

That is why I like him.  Yes, John the prophet gets in trouble with Herod for criticizing King Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife, and yes, John’s searing, royal rebukes quickly land him in jail, and eventually with his head on a platter.  And even as John is a bit of a rough-around-the-edges sort of person with his asceticism, his locusts and honey, and his “brood of vipers” speeches, well—I like John because, he knows that he is NOT the Messiah.

Even if you know this, we all have unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others.   John too.

Our eyes and speech often belie our expectations.  We want a messiah to come now and fix everything that we can’t.  It is tempting to put those unfulfilled expectations on another person, if not ourselves.  It is tempting to believe that another one can rise to the occasion in ways that we limit ourselves.  But it is even more tempting to believe that one can BE everything to everyone, that we can save the day or the kid, save the project or the family, pick up all the loose ends that have been dropped, satisfy everyone’s hunger at the same time, meet everyone’s needs, and juggle every expectation, spin every plate, without completely losing it.

That is why I like John…He knows what he can NOT do.

He knows that he is not the only one to save; he knows where his power ends and another’s power begins, where he must stoop and another must stand.

What about you?  Do you know that you are NOT a messiah?

It is tempting to think that we ourselves can fulfill all those expectations in our families, in our careers, and in our own lives all by ourselves.  John can’t and neither can you.  Sometimes we believe that one person can do it all—and even when we say we don’t believe that, that we don’t expect such things, we can still act as if it were true.

Sometimes our expectations are unrealistic.  Sometimes they are completely at odds in the same body or in the same family or in the same church.  And sometimes we are not even clear what expectations we hold for ourselves or for others.

John points to Jesus, knowing that he cannot clear the threshing floor or gather the wheat himself.  He keeps pointing to Jesus, knowing that he is currently stuck in jail and his time is short.  He points to Jesus and I wonder, did Jesus realize the pressure that John had just foisted onto his shoulders?  Did Jesus have a sense of just how much John and the crowds were counting on him?

Today is the Sunday when Christians far and wide hear about Jesus’ baptism by John.  With all this talk about Jesus’ baptism, we sometimes forget our own introduction to the faith.  We also sometimes personalize/individualize baptism so much that we forget how it links us to each other as a community united in purpose not for one moment, but for all moments.  And sometimes we mistake the swimming pool for the ocean, the rituals for a lifelong journey, the worship of Jesus for the movement of the church body in the world.

When my boys were learning to swim, they learned in shallow water, learned to move along the edge of the pool by putting hand over hand along the sides.  They moved cautiously and methodically as the water grew deeper by strides.  Teaching them to swim and move within the ocean was a whole different thing.  Where the pool had predictable sides with the depth marked in black print, the ocean floor could drop off at any point.  Where the water was clear and clean, the ocean was messy, salty, and filled with all manner of sea creatures, like horseshoe crabs creeping along the bottom or jellyfish skimming along the top.

One of the first things the kids had to learn was how to move sideways in the waves, against the current, instead of letting themselves drift out to sea.  They had to monitor where they were in relationship to the shore and learn to ride the waves or duck under them, and to avoid trying to stand in the surf.  All of this, in addition to swimming.

The point is—while swimming lessons in a clearly defined pool of water were important and necessary—they were not sufficient by themselves for navigating the ocean.  So too, the journey of faith. Churches can be like swimming pools with clearly defined depths, unspoken rules, and limited perspectives.  The ocean, like God, was vast and had its own temperament and its own rules.

The boys learned to rely on others in the ocean too—they knew always to be within reach of strangers and to never swim beyond reach of others.  They learned to respect tides, to watch waves, and to mind the strength of the surf.

This is all to say that the ocean upset all of their swimming pool expectations and stretched their both their swimming skills and their imaginations.

John tells the good people that he baptizes with water, but the one who was coming would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  It is the difference between the swimming pool and the ocean, or between the baptismal font and a life of faith with all of its unpredictability and its struggle.

In Dasha Kelly Hamilton’s poem, “Ocean,” she describes the ocean as pushing back, alive and vigorous…without regard, without warning, without reorienting the ones with swimming pool perspectives…The ocean rumbles its sovereignty…”  In this, the author senses the “full weight of freedom on [her] skin.”***

We, too, have such freedom.  We, too, sense God’s sovereignty in the ways of Jesus, in the ways of our realizing that no one person can fulfil the burden of a crowd’s expectations without the crowd voluntarily choosing to swim alongside.  We have freedom, but we often confine our perspective to smaller, less upsetting dreams and aspirations, to painted cement walls and consistent temperatures, as Dasha Kelly Hamilton might say.  Which is to say we often confine ourselves to controllable outcomes and predictable circumstances and jeopardize our freedom in the process.

John directs the crowd to expect something more than him—even more than Jesus.  John proclaims the Good News which, while embodied by Jesus, is something wholly more than Jesus or any one of us alone.

May we, too, resist thinking we can meet everyone’s expectations as mini-messiahs.  But may we also go beyond our limited expectations for the Church and others; may we appreciate the vastness of God and freedom with which we have been granted to go beyond the confines of pools and puddles and to see our baptism and our faith as an invitation to put down our comfort, our regulation of temperature and consistency, and take up God’s cause.

Amen.