ADVENT 3, A
Have you ever had very high, or very specific expectations about a person or about an event, and then were so disappointed when the reality didn’t match those expectations? Think about it for a moment. How much was your experience of the reality shaped by your expectations? In other words, did your expectations ruin your experience?
Today’s Gospel is all about expectations, specifically John the Baptist’s expectations of Jesus. John is in jail while Jesus is carrying out his ministry in Galilee. John hears what he’s doing and begins to have doubts. That’s why he sends one of his followers to Jesus to ask, “Are you the promised Messiah or not?”
As he is wont to do, Jesus does not answer directly, but instead says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Clearly this is meant to suggest the passage from Isaiah that we also heard this morning and with which John would have been familiar.
How could John possibly be disappointed in Jesus, who is doing such amazing things? Well, it does depend, doesn’t it, on what John’s expectations were. So let’s step back a moment and look at what John has said to indicate those expectations.
We all know that John tells people to repent of their sins and to be baptized. Just keep in mind that this is a call to return to the path of righteousness and the rules of Jewish purity. He also says in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that the one who comes after him will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire. In Matthew and Luke he also says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
And also this: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cue down and thrown into the fire.”
John expects Jesus to preach repentance, to preach judgment, and to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Clearly this wasn’t happening. In fact, quite the opposite — Jesus was eating with sinners, he wasn’t baptizing at all, and he occasionally said questionable things like, “but I say love your enemies.”
So John wonders if he made a mistake. By answering as he does Jesus tries to show him that his mistake was in his expectations rather than in his naming Jesus as the one so long awaited. In other words, John’s preconceived notions of what the Messiah would do were causing him confusion and doubt.
In considering this situation with John, I was reminded of the problems in the early church around the question of the 2nd Coming. The first generation or two were certain it would happen in their lifetimes. The next two generations had to try to tap dance around the assertions of the first two because they clearly had been wrong.
And now consider the state of Christianity today. Some preachers and televangelists are still beating the drum for the 2nd Coming happening any day now. Jesus will return and permanently fix all the wicked people. Because these folks have such expectations, they see the signs wherever they look.
Other churches draw circles around themselves in order to insure and protect their “purity” so as to be safe if it does come, and still others are focused instead on carrying out the mission of Jesus in this world. This last is clearly where Holy Trinity and the Episcopal Church stand today. And in fact, I’ve seldom heard much about the “End Times” in Episcopal Churches. And while I have known a few Episcopal priests who preached hellfire and damnation, it is certainly not the norm.
Here’s how I look at it. The Bible predicts a 2nd Coming, when Jesus will return to reign on earth, but is hasn’t happened so far and we can’t know, as Jesus himself told us, the time or the hour when it will happen. The Bible promises us a life after death, but there’s no way to know what that will actually be like. So why worry or argue about it?
What we do know is that Jesus taught us how we should live our lives, here and now. It only makes sense to focus on that and trust in God to take care of the rest of it. Will there be judgment or will there be reconciliation and grace? Take your pick, but since we can’t know for sure, focus on what we do know.
For one, we know that if we create expectations about things that we can’t verify, we are bound to be disappointed. More importantly, all that blather about such things distracts us from things we can know and do. Our focus must be on what Jesus expects of us rather than on what we expect of Jesus.
And what does Jesus expect of us? To go out into the world and do as he did: feed the hungry, proclaim good news to the poor, restore sight to the blind, restore prisoners to their families and communities, and so on. We are to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. The rest we have to leave to God and must assume that God will manage it all, so that we don’t have to.
Our concern is this world, not the next. Our question is not “When will Jesus come again?” Instead our question is “How can we help to bring the Kingdom of God into reality?” “How can we transform ourselves and our communities into a beloved community?” “How can we become God’s people in this place and time?”
These are the questions asked by the early church that was founded and grew in a culture that was not friendly to it. We are essentially in the same situation and that’s why the church at large is talking so much about being a “missional” church. It’s much easier to do mission when we quit worrying about numbers, when we quit worrying about the size of our Sunday School or how many new members have joined, or how many babies we’ve baptized.
Let’s not set up false expectations for ourselves, but instead do what we in fact know how to do – go out into the world to do what we can, leaving the rest to God, go out into the world to make it a better place for everyone, and go out into the world rejoicing! AMEN