I didn’t know what to expect when Alan and I exchanged gifts for the first time.
It was Christmas of 2005 and we had only been dating since August. With a short five months of real relationship time under our belts, I wasn’t sure what kind of present Alan might think up. We had also been close friends for years before dating, so in some ways it felt like we had been together for half a decade. Would he give me a gift certificate to McDonald’s? Or a diamond ring? Either seemed possible. With no clue what to expect, I also had no clue how to shop for a comparable gift in return.
So I devised a plan: I’d get a bunch of little gifts and have them wrapped and ready. If he got me something small, then I’d only give him the Star Wars belt buckle. If it was a medium-size gift, then he’d get the Carhartt shirt, too. I didn’t expect him to get me anything really big, but just in case I’d keep a few extra gifts stashed in the back room.
The evening of our first exchange arrived. When Alan came in empty-handed, I braced myself for the worst; a card with cash in it, maybe? But then he asked me to hold the door so he could go back out and bring my present in. I stood there wide-eyed as he came back in pushing a hand-truck with some large item on it, covered in a garbage bag but decorated with a bow. “Merry Christmas!” he said with a big smile.
Alan had gotten me a TV.
(Needless to say, I gave him all the presents I had stashed.)
Occasionally life surprises us by not only meeting our expectations – but blowing them right out of the water. Especially this is true when we’re living life with God.
Take the disciples in Acts 1. They ask Christ a pretty bold question: “Lord, is now the time when you’ll restore the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6, paraphrase).
This is kind of like the prayers we offer for the United States – and during an election year, we’re offering more than the usual quota. “God, please be with us; please lead us to the right candidate; please divert us from the wrong candidate; please help our country!” When we pray for our country, we’re asking for something pretty big. We’re asking God to help 323 million people living in about 3.8 million square miles of land, with over 500,000 elected officials. That is a huge prayer. Just by asking it, we’ve got our expectations pretty high.
Likewise the disciples were asking God to do something big. There were about 2.5 million people in the region of Israel in the first century. I say “region of Israel” because Israel was under occupation by the Romans – thus the question about restoring the kingdom of Israel. The disciples are asking Jesus to do something for these 2.5 million people, plus the Jews living in diaspora (scattered across the world from the exile) who might also be vested in the outcome of Israel.
That’s a lot of people. That’s a big prayer.
But sometimes, you get even more than you expected. This is one of those times.
Jesus’ initial answer doesn’t sound very promising: “It’s not for you to know,” he tells them (see Acts 1:7). But then he lays this on the disciples:
“You’ll receive power from the Holy Spirit, and you’ll be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to all the ends of the earth” (see Acts 1:8).
See, they were asking about Israel. They were thinking big, about the grand plan for the 2.5 million people living in Palestine under the Roman Empire. They were hoping that God would help little nobody Israel become a nation again. But Jesus’ answer tells them, “Your expectations are too low. Think bigger. Think, the whole world.”
We don’t have reliable population statistics from the first century, but it seems clear to me that “all the ends of the earth” is way bigger than Israel alone. We do have population statistics for the modern world, so how about this for comparison: Jesus’ response to the disciples’ prayer for Israel is like if we prayed for the 323 million people in the United States and Jesus brushed off that question to tell us that he’s going to use us to work for the 7.4 billion people in the whole world instead.
That’s like expecting a ten dollar bill in a gift card and getting a brand-new 60” smart TV instead.
This is how God works – and we can’t forget it.
But I think we do, sometimes. We are used to being disappointed. It happens so much that we start to keep our expectations low. Mothers today might have learned from past experience not to expect a gourmet picnic meal with a long-distance child flying into town to surprise them. They expect a simple card in the mail instead. And what’s wrong with that, really? Why not expect less and be pleasantly surprised when we get more?
On some level, I’ll admit, this logic applies well to God. God answers some prayers and appears deaf to others. Some people are healed and others remain sick and die. Some countries achieve peace while most continue on too long in turmoil. Sometimes I can see that this has to do with our own free will, but other times, I confess, I have no idea why God doesn’t intervene and answer a prayer. After seeing all the bad things that persist in the world, it can be tempting to set our divine expectations low. If we expect little out of God, then we’ll be pleasantly surprised when God does step in and act.
That approach is tempting. It would let us rest easier, right? No more laying up wondering why bad things happen to good people, or why some prayers are answered and others not. Just keep our expectations nice and low.
But there’s a problem with keeping low expectations for God.
To start, this logic has flaws with who I believe God to be. Both Scripture and personal experience have shown me that God is all-powerful and God is incredibly loving. If that’s true, then expecting little out of God might be easier on our theological brains but it’s not consistent with who God is. It’d be like having a really great boyfriend who makes six figures a year… but doesn’t even remember to get you a present for your birthday. It just doesn’t add up.
No, as hard as it is to live with the mystery of why God acts sometimes and not others, we’ve got to live with it. Lowering our expectations isn’t the answer.
But today’s Scripture points to another reason to keep our expectations of God high:
We are often asked to participate in what God is doing.
The disciples ask Jesus, “Are you going to restore Israel now?” And Jesus answers them, “YOU will get the Holy Spirit, and YOU will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.”
The disciples themselves factor into the answer to their own question. If their expectations are too low – if they don’t expect God to reach the whole world – then they might not believe, they might not step up and be a part of what God is calling them to do. Their expectations of God have to be high so that they can jump in and participate in God’s amazing work.
No, friends, we have to have high expectations for our God.
God wants to be at work in us. Paul says that the one who started a good work in us is going to be faithful to complete it (Philippians 1:6). But there are parts of our lives that are so hard to change, we might set our expectations low. There are sins that we keep repeating so often – judging others, lust, addictions – that we think they’re incurable. God is doing a good work in us, yes, but let’s not get crazy about this. God can’t clean my life of that.
But yes – God can! And not only can God do that, but God is going to invite us to be a part of that change. We believe that God can make us more like Christ each day, and so we participate in that. We read our Bibles, build Christian friendships that hold us accountable, see counselors, do whatever we can to help God in God’s work in us.
We don’t sit back and wait to see what God might do in our lives, pleasantly surprised if something ever happens. We believe that God will work in our lives, and we jump in to work alongside God to get it done.
God wants to be at work in the world, today just as 2,000 years ago. Jesus has promised that God is working for “all the ends of the earth.” But there are parts of the world that are so troubled, it seems like they are unhelpable. Peoples’ souls are sick. People are fighting over power and land, food and water, money and stuff. People are doing that on the other side of the globe; they’re doing it here, too. God is at work in the world, yes, but let’s not get crazy about this. God can’t help those people.
But yes – God can! Jesus said, “all the ends of the earth,” and I believe him. Jesus also said the disciples would be the ones to go to those ends of the earth. As his disciples today we’ve inherited that call. We participate in what God is doing in the world. We are at work here, in Cherokee County. We visit people who are lonely; we volunteer with things like the Welcome Table (a free weekly meal). And even from here, we are at work for the ends of the earth. We go on mission trips or give money to support mission trips. When we see people suffering in a far away country, we pray for them with high expectations.
We don’t just sit back and wait to see what God will do in the world, pleasantly surprised if something ever happens. We believe that God will work in the world, and we jump in to work alongside God to get it done.
When God gives gifts to us, we don’t have to set our expectations low. We don’t have to buy lots of little gifts because we aren’t quite sure how good God is going to be to us. Our God is good… all the time.
If you believe that, then live like it. Live like God is going to walk through the door with the best gift ever, and you – you are going to help give it.