Great Expectations

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Why isn’t everyone an optimist?

Surely it’s better than being a pessimist! As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman notes, “Optimists are normally cheerful and happy, and therefore popular; they are resilient in adapting to failures and hardships, their chances of clinical depression are reduced, their immune systems are stronger, they take better care of their health, they feel healthier than others and are in fact likely to live longer.” So what’s not to like about having a positive attitude toward life?

Well, for one thing, optimism often leads to over-confidence. Professor Kahneman calls this over-confidence, “the optimistic bias.”

If we have this bias, Kahneman says, “We view the world as more benign than it really is; we see our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and we see the goals that we adopt as more achievable than they really are; and we see the goals that we adopt as more achievable than they really are.”

In other words, if we always look on the bright side of things, we don’t see the dark side. We don’t have an accurate perception of reality. As a result, we are at a disadvantage in trying to live in a world where things don’t always turn out for the best.

Psychologists debate which attitude leads to better results. On the one hand, if you expect little from life, you’re less likely to be disappointed by bad fortune. On the other hand, a negative attitude toward the future will blind you from occasions of joy.

In fact, a negative attitude might have been Mary Magdalene’s problem when she arrived at the tomb of Jesus on Easter Day. Her soul certainly wasn’t filled with optimism! Her beloved teacher was dead and the only thing she could think of to do was to anoint his body with oil, as a sign of her devotion.

We can further imagine that when Mary gets discovers Christ’s body is no longer in the tomb, she feels worse. She can’t even pay her respects, so she begins to weep.

But suddenly, she sees two angels. They ask her why she’s crying. She explains her frustration—but before the angels answer, she also sees a man whom she takes to be the gardener.

Mary asks the man if he has moved the body of Jesus and, if he has, where she could now find it. But the man says her name, and suddenly she recognizes that the man is actually Jesus. He had risen from the dead and was appearing to her in a new spiritual form.

Mary Magdalene wasn’t optimistic when she arrived at the tomb. Her grief was just two days old, and still raw. Memories of Christ’s terrible death overshadowed any memories she may have had of the hints Jesus gave that he would return after death. She could see no hope – no future.

So the truth dawned slowly. But, soon, Mary was able to tell her fellow disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

Last month, I gave a talk to our governing board about what I call, the optimistic Gospel. I have been interested in this subject ever since I was a teenager, when my parents took me to hear the famous preacher, Norman Vincent Peale speak about the power of positive thinking.

I’ve been intrigued by this topic because by nature, I don’t think positively! Even during times in my life when I have nothing to worry about, I still find reasons to worry. On a day when everything is going smoothly, I’ll be especially anxious that something will go wrong!

Yet, after thinking about these issues for a long time, I have to admit that the Christian faith is optimistic. Of course, we hold that every person at one point or another sins. We acknowledge that evil exists.

Yet still, we Christians remain essentially, indubitably positive about life. And the reason is Easter.

Because Jesus rose from the dead, the whole world had changed forever. And so we’re blessed with the gift of spiritual optimism.

That doesn’t mean that we can have foolish hopes. As we pray for peace today, we recognize that conflict will still be possible tomorrow.

Yet because we are, as St. Paul says, “risen with Christ,” we know that it’s always possible that the power of God will break into our lives.

And this makes a difference–whatever you are by nature. If you’re naturally a pessimist, you’ll have to adjust your habits of thinking in a world where Christ rose from the dead.

As another preacher of the optimistic gospel, Phillips Brooks – who is portrayed in a life-size Tiffany memorial on the side of our church–often said, you’ll have to expand your horizons. You’ll have to strain beyond your usual ways to thinking to see the God who raised Jesus from the dead at work in the world.

Of course, if you’re naturally an optimist, you’ll feel right at home with Christian faith. But you, too, will still need to expand your horizons. For you can’t let your bright attitude blind you to the forces of darkness—and to your own responsibility for struggling against the evils of the world.

So, whatever outlook we were born with, we can have the greatest of expectations: Jesus Christ is risen. Death is no longer the end. God has power over the forces of darkness.

Jesus lives. We are all optimists now.

And now unto God the Father, and to the Risen Son of God, and to God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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