Scripture Readings: Matthew 11:2-11, James 5:7-10, Isaiah 35:1-10
Christmas morning. The tree, decorated, and abundant gifts beneath, wrapped up with shiny paper and ribbons. As a child, I loved that fabulous display of possibilities. Anything could still be under that tree, waiting to be unwrapped! The possibility of endless fun with a new toy or book; the possibility of something wonderful to engage the senses; the possibility of others’ pleasure in the gifts I’d prepared for them. At that moment, this Christmas morning might still be the best one ever. The buoyancy of expectation was its own delight.
But, every year, about mid-afternoon, when the gifts had been opened, and the rituals carried out, deflation set in. All possibility had been unwrapped with torn paper and broken ribbon. There was nothing left to behold but regular old reality. Some gifts had already exhausted their fun or beauty. Some we had not wanted in the first place. The same old family dynamics had played out. We realized again we’d never be able to please Aunt Sylvia, and the oldest complained about how many gifts the youngest had gotten, and so forth. At this point, we head for a nap, thinking maybe we shouldn’t bother with Christmas next year.
Have any of you ever experienced these feelings? Has there been something about which you thought, even for a moment, “This is IT! The Big One! Everything will be better after THIS!” Christmas is a classic example, but there are all sorts of events in life which provoke major expectation. Weddings. Babies. Graduations. Retirement.
There are normal patterns of excitement and let-down, but I think, for people immersed in consumer culture, they become exacerbated. We are regularly pumped up for the “next big thing,” whether an electronic gizmo or a politician, only to suffer a sense of disillusionment when it doesn’t live up to the hype. Too many disappointments can engender in us a sense of cynicism or even despair, in which we refuse to engage any more in the buoyancy of hope for fear of being crushed flat yet again.
And here we are again, midway through December with its holiday flurry of hyped up expectations. We are also three weeks into Advent, the season of church life that is all about living into our hope in Christ. But what is the difference between Christmas hype and Christmas hope?
One of the things we are about in Advent is learning to distinguish between the two. For every year at Christmas, we are given anew a gift which really is the One. The Messiah. The Word made Flesh. Emmanuel—God with us. Yet are we able to fully receive this gift? The way we receive God’s gift to us in Christ Jesus may depend upon what we prepared to receive. What are our expectations of the “one who is to come?” And will those expectations get in the way of our receiving him?
Last week’s gospel reading gave us a sense of what John the Baptist had been expecting in the Messiah. In language of wrath and fire, John exhorted others to prepare for the coming day of the Lord, when the “more powerful one” arrived in their midst. Nothing short of radical repentance was in order. John lived his life the way he preached, his own life stripped to bare essentials, blazing a path to the kingdom as he relentlessly voiced his convictions, whatever the consequences. And consequences had finally come, as John publicly denounced Herod’s corrupt marriage and was thrown in prison. He must have known he would die there.
Stuck in place with nothing to do but think, this passionate prophet finds himself in doubt. The question John sends some of his own disciples to ask Jesus is classic: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It should comfort us that someone so convicted in his belief comes to a time when he must ask it. As has been observed, “It is easy to believe in God in the bright sunlight when all is joyful and free, but let the iron doors of difficulty slam shut, and doubt is there in the darkness.”[i]
But it is not only John’s life circumstances which pose such hard questions. It is also the content of Jesus’ ministry. When John hears in prison what Jesus is doing, it does not match up with his expectations of the Messiah. Where is the drastic trial by fire John had prophesied? Where is the separation of wheat and chaff? Where is the more powerful one, boldly transforming the world in a blaze of heat and light? Are you the one, or do we wait for another?
I’m not sure if the response Jesus sends back helps John much in his time of doubt. Jesus doesn’t answer directly. Typically, how Jesus responds when we ask him, “Are you for real, Jesus?” is to offer more questions. What kind of Messiah were you expecting? He asks us in return. Can you hear what I’m saying and see what I’m doing?
So Jesus asks John’s disciples to go out, listen and look, and then return to tell John what they have heard and seen. In chapters 8 and 9 of Matthew, we can read stories which correspond to the list Jesus gives. One by one, as Jesus encounters someone in need, whether or not that person is a sinner or outcast or Gentile, Jesus heals, Jesus cleanses, Jesus forgives. Jesus embodies God’s mercy and love.
Two thousand years later, Christians in church, schooled as we are in the “right answers” of faith, might assume Jesus’ doings were a clear sign of the Messiah. We only have to point out the way Jesus’ list also corresponds to God’s promises in Isaiah 35, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” But how would John have perceived these doings? Do they confirm for John that Jesus is the Messiah?
Truly, they were mostly small things, accomplished on an individual level for small people. A centurion’s servant. An anonymous hemorrhaging woman. A twelve-year-old girl. One preacher notes, “Jesus does not respond by saying what is happening at the level of nations or governments or populations or lands. He says look closely and see what is happening in the lives of people. I am at work on a very intimate level. Someone who was blind can now see. Someone else who was lame can now walk. Yet another person who was deaf can now hear. Someone who’s had the good news brought to them and now feels hope.”[ii]
It is as if every time Jesus touches someone, he is planting a tiny seed. Faith like a mustard seed, which can move mountains, Jesus later tells the disciples. But is this the kind of Messiah John was expecting?
Not if John, like many of us, is looking for a straightforward “yes” or “no.” Not if John is looking for a cataclysmic, world-transforming explosion of light. “Instead,” notes one poet, “we are given nights punctuated by days, and days punctuated by nights.”[iii] Maybe that’s why Jesus concludes his answer, saying, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Because we do take offense, don’t we?
Many of us continue to think we want a Messiah who, obviously and explosively, goes about incinerating wickedness. But we don’t get a fire-bolt wielding judge. Instead we receive a compassionate Savior who reveals the truth of our lives as he suffers the consequences of our sin. Others want a Messiah who tells us how to fix it, and then gets out of our way while we get on with our lives, or maybe a mountain-mover who will do it all with no effort on our part. But we don’t get a motivational speaker with a step-by-step formula, nor do we get a release from our responsibilities. Instead Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into us, transforming us from the inside out to become his partners in his ministry of reconciliation.
Still others of us actually suffer from diminished expectations. Maybe our hurt and despair have gotten the best of us, and all we hope to unwrap in Jesus is a little “analgesic” to “take the edge off.” [iv] We don’t really expect to find ourselves or the world transformed in any way. But following Jesus is not about avoiding pain. Instead we get a Healer who walks decisively with us into the heart of every kind of pain and imprisonment, suffering and death we can experience, refusing to look away. He takes all that pain and redeems it, so that new life for all creation begins.
Jesus Christ is the “more powerful one” who is coming. But let us be clear about how he uses that power. In Jesus Christ, we receive a God who deems human beings so precious, that he comes to be with us as one of us. This God will not violate those he loves by forcing his way upon us. Rather, in Jesus Christ, God touches us with mercy and partners with us gently, patiently working God’s transforming grace upon all things.
It turns out that Jesus is not so much a gift that we unwrap. He is a gift that unwraps us. He unwraps us from any illusions or hype we may have heaped upon him—or upon ourselves.He unwraps us from self-protective layers of cynicism or self-righteousness. He unwraps us from long-held grudges, from simmering anger, and from sinking despair.
I have seen him unwrap a young woman from her expectations of perfection, to let grace and freedom in. I have seen him unwrap a man from deep despair, to let light and laughter in. I have seen him unwrap men and women, young and old, from barriers of old wounds which keep healing relationships at bay.
Today Jesus is inviting us to be unwrapped from any glittering or glum expectations which might get in the way. What have you been expecting? What superficial wrappings do you need to let him open up, so that new life can grow in you?
Together, let us look closely, and hearing what he is saying, seeing what he is doing, following where he is leading us, let us have patient hope in the tiny seeds he is planting, and receive him fully, the true, enduring, hope of God’s tender mercy, startling salvation, and transforming love.
Let us pray: Holy God, Holy Jesus, Holy Spirit, clear our ears and our eyes so that we may truly behold the new life you offer. Let us see and hear what you are doing, and help us to go and tell others, that they might know the gift we are all given in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.
[i] Mark E. Yurs, “Matthew 11:2-11: Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010, 71.
[iii] Kim Stafford, The Muses Among Us, 45.
[iv] Mary Hinkle Shore’s phrase on “Pilgrim Preaching,” http://maryhinkle.typepad.com/pilgrim_preaching/2004/12/are_you_the_one.html