Great Expectations

Scripture:  Luke 2:22-40

Radio host and author Garrison Keillor was once referred to as “one of the most perceptive and witty commentators and bout Midwestern life.”   For years he would share these observations and witty remarks on his radio show a Prairie Home Companion.  The last episode of the show aired years ago at this point, and the cultural relevance of Keillor is fading.  For instance, you know you are not young if you understand a reference to Lake Woebegone.  Despite that there are several Garrison Keillor quotes and witticisms that endure and can still be found easily.  Perhaps one of his most popular quotes comes from his book Leaving Home, where he stated “Nothing you do for children is ever wasted.”   Social scientists in numerous psychology and sociology studies have found there is a lot of truth to this.  For good or ill our actions towards children can have long lasting and formative effects.

I think one of the more fascinating studies that shows this is the Rosenthal-Jacobson study that illustrated what they came to call the Pygmalion effect.  In this study an academic competency test was given to all students in an elementary school.  The scores were not shared with teachers, but the teachers were given the names of some the students and told that these students showed potential from the test to be intellectual bloomers over the school year.  The same test was administered at the end of the school year, and those identified to the teachers as potential intellectual bloomers performed well above the other students.  The thing is the students that were shared with the students were picked at random with no regard to how they actually did on the first test.    The highlighted students were not really more gifted or intelligent than the group.   The difference in performance was less based in the ability of the students but rather based in how the teacher treated them.  Higher expectations lead to an increase in performance.  The teacher believed the highlighted students were better and treated them as such.  The result was a self-fulfilling prophecy where they really did become the highest achieving students in the class and this is the essence of the Pygmalion effects. When someone else believes we are capable of meeting a higher standard they end up helping us reach that standard.     If high expectations lead to increased performance, then it would be hard to get higher expectations than Jesus has placed on him in this morning’s scripture.  As we consider this morning’s scripture on the cusp of a brand new year, I have to wonder just what standard is our own faith being elevated to?

This morning’s scripture is a fascinating one.   We are told in the gospels that Mary and Joseph were righteous people, so they would have taken seriously the Jewish laws.   This morning’s scripture starts off very mundane with them observing these laws flawlessly but then it gets incredibly more interesting.  We are introduced to two unique people in this morning scripture.   Simeon and Anna only appear in this single story, but it feels like each of them have an amazing back story of their own.   I am left with so many questions about who these two people are.  For instance, what were the circumstances that led Simeon to getting a promise from God that he would live long enough to see the Messiah?   In the same way, Anna must have an amazing story to tell.   She must have been something of a local celebrity.   Unless she married late in life, she would have been widowed somewhere in her twenties.  This means she could have spent up to 60 years around the temple non-stop.  She would have been a fixture that people know and came to expect.   While prophetesses occurred in the Old Testament they were rare.  Yet, Anna appeared to earn that title.  In this morning’s scripture she starts preaching about Jesus then and there.   We have to remember that this was a patriarchal culture.  The fact that people apparently listened to Anna, shows how powerful, convicting, and full of truth her words had to be.   Simeon declares to Mary and Joseph how special their son is, and then Anna declares to all who will listen that the baby Jesus has a special destiny.

This story of the visit to the temple occurs only in the gospel of Luke.  It is easy to step back and from a bird’s eye view examine this scripture from a literary perspective.   From that perspective, this story serves as an epilogue of sorts to the birth narrative.   It reinforces that Jesus was not just another messianic pretender, but from the very beginning there are high expectations about what he can achieve.  It is easy to make that proclamation from a distanced view, but we get a more personal perspective when we step inside the story and try to see it from the parental point of view.

This morning’s scripture would have taken place roughly 40 days after the birth of Jesus because that is when the purification sacrifices of doves and pigeons would have been made.   Mary and Joseph knew Jesus was not just another normal baby.  From the miraculous conception, to angelic visions, to shepherds showing up when he was born there had been nothing normal about the birth of Jesus.   However, Jesus was still a human baby with all of the ups and downs that come with that.   At the point of this scripture Mary and Joseph were probably bleary eyed and really wanting sleep.   They knew Jesus was special, but I wonder if it was hard to keep that in mind when a baby was crying at three in the morning. . .again.   If they had forgotten at all just how special their child was, then Simeon and Anna did a great job reminding them.   They tell Mary and Joseph that their baby boy is the messiah, God’s salvation, a light for the gentiles, and the one who will bring redemption to Jerusalem.

Another question that this really raises for me is how this encounter impacted the way that Mary and Joseph raised Jesus.   Before he was even born both of them were visited by angels.  They were both told that Jesus would be called Son of the Most High, Immanuel, and that he would save people from their sins.   Just days after he was born and he was presented at the temple, two different people remind them that their child is the Messiah.  I cannot begin to fathom how difficult it would have been to navigate being in their parental shoes.

Because here is the tricky thing about having higher expectations of children: When done correctly, the Pygmalion effect kicks in and higher expectation leads to higher performance.  However, when done wrong the opposite can happen.   In the Pygmallion effect experiments the teacher is told the child is gifted, and then treats them as such.  However, the child is never told this.   Telling someone they are special or gifted can actually have the opposite effect.  It can create a fear response, where the fear of not living into the expectation of them prevents them from ever truly trying to reach their full potential.  This is called gifted kid syndrome.   Gifted kid syndrome is when a child that’s endowed with above-average abilities becomes exhausted as a result of too much pressure from unrealistic expectations they set for themselves or others place on them.  This creates a tightrope because holding people to higher standards can help them live into their full potential, but communicating those standards to heavily can cause people to internalize unrealistic expectations that leads to burnout.  Clearly, Jesus being the son of God probably helped but it must have been a challenge for Mary and Joseph to walk that tightrope as they raised savior of the world.

I think we face the same tight rope walk in our faith.   The Pygmalion effect happens when other believe in us and push us to our best, and the gifted kid syndrome happens when we are paralyzed by the fear of not reaching unrealistic expectations.  When it comes to our faith practice too often we end up letting fear, guilt, and shame win out.  Often we know what to do in faith, but we struggle to do it and we let that struggle burn us out from even attempting.  For instance, we might know that reading the bible is important but we struggle to carve out consistent time daily to do it, so instead of reading the bible when we can it just collects dust.  Or we know that giving is important, we know that a tithe normally is supposed to be 10%, but we also know in our budget how impossible that number might feel.   So instead of giving what we can, we just don’t give at all.   Or we know that sharing our faith is important, but the one time we tried it did not go so well so instead of trying again when we feel up to it we decide we just are not gifted at evangelism and keep our testimony to ourselves.  Perhaps, you identify with one of those examples and have found yourself there before.  If not, then likely you have your own example, you have your own unrealistic expectation about how you should act as a Christian, and you beat yourself up time and time again because you cannot achieve it.

As we begin a new year, with all of the potential and possibility that represents I want to encourage you that it is time to let go of the shame, to let go of the guilt, to let go of the fear, and to let go of the unrealistic expectations.   Because those don’t come from God.  They come from us, they come from letting voices that are not God’s speak too much into our lives.  We do not have to give those unrealistic expectations and the shame from falling short any more oxygen.   We can let them go.   Our faith, following Jesus and believing in God, is not a zero- sum all or nothing proposition.   It is a long obedience in the same direction, and every step forward is a victory- no matter how small the step or how long it took us to make it.  So stop beating yourself up.  As Psalm 139 states, “You are fearfully and wonderfully made” and the works of God are wonderful.   You are enough as you are.

In this morning’s scripture, two people spoke into the life of Jesus about the potential that he would grow up to have.   I like to think that Mary and Joseph were able to foster those expectations in a way that helped Jesus grow into him.   Just like Simeon and Anna spoke into Jesus’ life about the potential he would have, Jesus speaks into our life about the potential his disciples have.  We find this throughout the New Testament.  In the gospel of John Jesus tells his disciples, “Very truly I tell you whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”   In the book of Acts, Jesus tells them that they will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth”, and in the gospel of Matthew Jesus gives his followers the task of making disciples all of the nation and Jesus gives this commission with full confidence it can happen.

The expectations that God has for us are high, but God also believes that we can meet those expectations.  Remember the Pygmalion effect works because the teacher believes the higher expectations are reachable, and helps the students get there.  When Jesus told the disciples they would do greater things and be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, he also promised the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus gave the great commission to make disciples he also said “I will be with you always.”

So once again as we begin a new year, with all of the potential and possibility that represents I want to encourage you to dream big.  To imagine how much is possible with God, imagine how you can make a difference, how you can be more Christ-like, and how you can make disciples.   Imagine and dream not to create unrealistic expectations, but rather to know that with God those dreams are possible.   Do it knowing that God already believe you can reach those great expectations.  Do it knowing that the Holy Spirit can and will empower you and the Christ himself will be with you always.

So as we turn the page into a new year on the calendar may it be one that you approach with great joy and great expectation.  May you not beat yourself up over the past, but realize this year and every day of this year is a new chance and a new opportunity to take a step-no matter how small- to be more Christ like or make a difference in this world.  May you know that God already believes you can do it, and as we journey in faith together in 2024 may we encourage each other, may we spur one another on, and by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit may God use us to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

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