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Expect What You Pray For

How many of you have booked a holiday this year which is still to happen? Are you looking forward to it? Do you expect to have a good time? Do you anticipate any problems or glitches with the arrangements? Most of us are fortunate enough to be able to make plans for some kind of break away during the year, whether it is a modest trip to stay with friends or back packing to the ends of the earth. Whatever the trip, we will hope for a good time with new experiences; a pleasant change from everyday life and to return home refreshed with greater vim and vitality for our regular lives. I know that for myself, I often get as much pleasure out of the planning and anticipation of a holiday than actually going. It was Robert Louis Stephenson who coined the phrase: ‘To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.’ (Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers 1881) Hope and expectation not only sustains our dreams of the perfect holiday, they also give us the reason to keep going on the greater journey of life. Without them, in some measure, we would not get out of bed in the mornings. They are vital qualities which support human existence. When they evaporate due to illness or circumstance, then life can seem very dark indeed.
Christian faith is centred on hope and expectation. In the first part of a letter addressed to the Ephesians, Paul speaks in powerful and profound words about the basis of Christian hope. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God has done something amazing to break down the cosmic powers of evil and darkness and to establish the kingdom of his Son in their place setting him in a place of ultimate rule and authority. (Ephesians 1.20-23) This happened to make it possible for all humanity to have a place with God in his kingdom, not just the chosen few. With this comes hope and expectation not only for this life, but in the world to come. Elsewhere Paul says: ‘If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.’ (1 Corinthians 15.19) Hope in Christ is most emphatically about a life of fullness devoid of the effects of pain, evil and suffering beyond the physical or mortal life that we experience now.
But how real is this hope and expectation with in us who claim Christian belief? You hope for your holiday to turn out well, but how much anticipation do you have of God doing something good in your life today, next week let alone in the world to come? How far do you comprehend the breadth, length height and depth of the God in whom you believe, in his Son who died for your sins who is ever present through the Holy Spirit?
The Gospel passage for today, opening verses of John Chapter 6 tells of two incidents in Jesus’ life both of which we might call miracles, but John refers to them as signs. Although John is quite selective in the number of miracles which he records in his gospel, and certainly mentions some which don’t appear in the other gospels, both these are told elsewhere; indeed, the feeding of the five thousand is the only mentioned in all four gospels which gives it a particularly strong provenance.
How do we view these miracle stories today? Is there a temptation to say that as five loaves and two fish are not normally sufficient for five thousand people therefore it could not have happened? Other theories are concocted. May be everyone only had a tiny piece of bread like in a communion service or perhaps the real miracle is that they all found that they had enough food in their bags anyway and decided to share it. Humanly speaking, these are perfectly good explanations. They allow us to hold on to a story whose moral is perceived to be about sharing resources while squaring it with the normal reality of the world in which we live.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that we lose the sense of expectation and hope which Jesus was engendering in his disciples and the crowd. The whole point for John and the other gospel writers in recording these events is that they changed the perceptions and expectations about Jesus. John writes: ‘When the people saw the sign which he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is come into the world.’’ (John 6.14) Before the loaves and fishes got into Jesus’ hands, expectation was low. Philip had expressed it in realistically: ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for them to get a little’ (John 6.7). If Jesus only conducted a symbolic act or encouraged them to share, would Philip’s expectation and hope in Jesus have risen? I would suggest not significantly. It was the bountiful provision of far more bread and fish than the crowd could eat such that the doggy bag was in fact twelve baskets full which made the difference; that made them dare to believe that he might just be Messiah material; that God might be at work here.
The second story is possibly a conflation of accounts in the other gospels of Jesus stilling the storm and walking on the water. Either way, Jesus demonstrates mastery over elements of which there was a traditional fear, both water and storm. His actions are way beyond what they might normally have expected. Their hopes dreams and expectations are being expanded immeasurably.
So back to Paul. He is praying for his readers that having read his theological explanation of all that God had done in Christ, things which were way beyond what was claimed of the other deities of the Roman world, so they would have their horizons broadened as to who God is and what he might accomplish in and through their lives. He writes: ‘I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all fullness of God.’ (Ephesians 3.18-19)
What a wonderful thing to pray for someone! Have you prayed that for special people in your life…that they may be able comprehend to have an expectation and a hope of what God can do that vastly exceeds the normality of human life?
So, this brings us to apply these thoughts to our daily Christian living. I believe it is in the area of prayer they have a practical application. How expectant are you when you pray? Are you as hopeful as when you are planning that holiday, day out or birthday party? Do you really believe that Jesus is Lord of sea and sky, of loaves and fishes? Is he really ‘head over all things’? (Ephesians 1.22) Then we can pray to him in confidence, hope and expectation. Not simply for things that we might want to make life more comfortable but everything that will usher his kingdom into the hearts and minds of those us. If our expectations in prayer are low, we will not be disappointed! If they are high, we may be challenged when things are not quite to our plans but we will be drawn deeper into the ways of God who holds us in the palm of his hand having sacrificed himself to make salvation and hope possible.
Anyone already been on holiday? How did your expectations work out? May we pray in hope and expectation as we grow in our comprehension of the love of God.
Trinity 9 29.07.2018

Rev Jonathan Smith

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