ADVENT 3, A
Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11
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.
Jesus is not living up to John’s expectations. Jesus often does not live up to our expectations either. From this perspective, the lesson is perfect for Advent. So, who are you waiting for this Advent? What are your expectations?
It seems to me that what we expect to see in Jesus, what we expect God to be, is always filtered through our own experiences in life. To give you an example: I would expect that a child who is beaten or otherwise badly treated by his parents will grow up wanting justice for what he has suffered. At least, as a child he will need to know that someone, somewhere, some time, will call his parents to account for their behavior.
My grandson is in prison. I know that what he is waiting for is to be set free and to be forgiven. For the poor and the downtrodden, their greatest hope may be to be treated as human beings, people as fully human as the rest of society.
Who are you waiting for this Advent? You might all answer Jesus, but each of you might mean something different by that. Are we, like the people of that time, waiting for a Messiah to free us from oppression? Certainly not at the same level as they were. Most of us have never even experienced the kind of oppression they lived with every day under Roman rule, although some people are fearful now we may live long enough to experience similar oppression.
Who are you waiting for this Advent? If you’re suffering with either physical or emotional ills, you may well be waiting for a healer. In this age we haven’t much faith in non-medical healing, but maybe we’d like to, if only. . .
Who are you waiting for? If you’ve experienced poverty or loneliness, you may be waiting for someone to stand with you: someone who sees your suffering, understands your heart, and will be there to help you overcome the odds. Or maybe you want someone to reverse the scales, someone to help you win the lottery so you can lord it over others for a change.
If you are burdened by the weight of your bad behavior or living with the consequences of your bad choices, you may be looking for a Jesus who takes away your sins and your guilt. Or you may be looking for someone who will show you the way to overcome the past, to live fully into a brighter future. Or maybe you just want Jesus to change you.
Who are you waiting for? If you’re already having a good life, with few sorrows and troubles, you may be just waiting for someone who can show you how to live more abundantly – not with more abundance, but with more joy, more compassion, and more courage. Or maybe you’re waiting for Jesus to confirm that your good life is the result of your being good.
Who are you waiting for? Perhaps at this stage in your life, all you want is to be able to live peacefully – not pulled by ugly emotions like jealousy or fear, not worried by financial concerns or the other cares of life, and not too attached to the things of this life.
Our concern should be 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, which was founded and grew in a culture that was not friendly to it. We are essentially in the same situation today 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!