by Rev. Doug Gray
Maybe you have heard this classic joke. Once there were three monkeys sitting on the branch of a tree. Why did the first monkey fall out of the tree. Because he was dead. Why did the second monkey fall out of the tree? Because he was dead. Why did the third monkey fall out of the tree? Peer pressure. I remember as a teen hating all the peer pressure that was around me all the time every day. Some people expected me to be good—to do the right thing, to do my work, to be honest and helpful. Some people expected me to be bad—to cheat when I could, to break the rules when it suited me, to do what felt good. And there were all these “rules” that went with every group at school—people I could and couldn’t hang out with, things that “just weren’t done,” and things I had to do to be cool. With everyone else’s expectations pushing me one way or another, I found it hard to figure out what my motivations for doing anything were. Am I doing it because I think it’s a good idea, or because this person or this group think it is? Anybody else ever struggle with this? Yes indeed. In our passage for today, Paul wants to dig into this challenge for us. How do we escape the pressure of other people’s expectations?
First, remember your mountain-top experiences. Have you had a moment when everything seemed very clear to you? Perhaps a time when you felt really close to God? Those experiences are not an accident! They’re not random! God gives them to us to encourage us and to help us stay on the right path. During spring vacation of my 8th grade year, a bunch of folks from my school went to the Grand Canyon and hiked down to the bottom for a few days. When we got to the trailhead, we looked out over the Grand Canyon and it was amazing, breath-taking. You could look out and down, and see some of the trail, as it wound it’s way down into the canyon. You could even pick out a few features of that trail—a giant rock here, a stand of trees there, and the river far below. It was a 7.5 mile trail to the bottom, and my pack seemed awfully heavy, but I rejoiced when I passed the giant rock, celebrated when I stopped to rest at the stand of trees, and was encouraged when I could hear the river rapids near the bottom. In those moments when God makes things clear for us—singing a song to God and we discover we are singing about our life with God, being in prayer and Jesus comes as a strong Presence, or talking with others and we have an “Aha!” moment. Paul says to the Christians in Galatia, “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!...Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” Paul is reminding them of the vivid moments they had together—as God changed people’s lives, did miracles, and moved their hearts. Just like it was for the Christians in Galatia, so it is with us—our mountain-top experiences are not things we make happen, they come as a gift from God. When people’s expectations are pushing at us, remembering the mountain-top experiences keeps us focused on how God is leading us.
Second, grace is the road forward. Do you have any “bad old days”? One of my “bad old days” is the time in my life when I tried to make everybody happy. Someone said, “Can you do this?” and I said, “Yes!” Someone else said, “Could you help me with this project?” and I said, “Sure!” I did that with enough people and enough projects, that I discovered I was getting more and more stressed, worn out and sometimes very uncomfortable with who people thought I should be. The problem was that I believed if I made everybody else happy, that I would be happy, and I was miserable! I didn’t realize it, but I had found the curse that Paul talks about when he says, “…all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’” No matter how hard I tried, I could never please everyone, including my perfectionist self. No matter how hard I worked, I could never do it all exactly right. And into that space stepped Jesus. I remember getting to a point in those “bad old days” when the pressure was getting higher and higher until I just sat down on the stairs near my office and cried, pouring out my sorrow, worries and fear. “I’m trying to do it right, Lord!” And when I had finished sobbing out my heart, I had this sense of Jesus almost putting his hand on my shoulder, and saying clear as day in my heart, “I never said you had to do all of this.” All Jesus wanted was my love and my life. If I was walking with Christ, then I didn’t have to go every place for everyone, just the places Christ wanted me to go. When we look at the cross, we see Jesus Christ who became cursed, so we could escape the curse of everyone’s expectations. When we give our lives to Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes past everyone else’s expectations and begins to show us how to live with God and how to live for God! Grace is what frees us in the first place, and grace will show us how to love and live beautifully.
When we are surrounded by people’s expectations, we can find it really hard to know what is us and what is just going with what the people around me wanted. We may even feel like one of those monkeys in the tree. Into that that darksome and tangled mess shines God in Jesus Christ. Perhaps we have never really thought about the cross, never really considered not just the goodness and wisdom of Jesus, but the power of His sacrifice. Not everyone wants what is truly best for us—it’s really for them, so they can make a buck, so they can feel better about themselves. Even the people who truly love us can’t know my needs and dreams to the depths of my being. But God does, and God is in it, not so we can make God look better, but so we can become our own best selves. I learned that when I finally realized that Jesus had died for me—not just everybody. In the love of Christ, we find freedom from all other expectations, and then the Spirit comes and leads us from the mountain-tops into living lives that show that grace to others.