Third Sunday in Advent

Advent 3 Matthew 11.2-11

We’ve all, I’m sure, had the experience of looking forward to something only to feel let down when it actually occurs. The experience of anticipation can be both exhilarating and terrifying. When we expect something is going to happen, we inevitably begin to associate certain feelings with our anticipation. We look forward to it; we long for it; perhaps we fear it. But no matter how we feel about whatever it is we anticipate, our feelings will affect the way we experience and the way that we understand the event when it finally happens: we end up being filled with a sense of satisfaction or fulfillment, or we’re overjoyed, or perhaps we’re frustrated and disappointed when it doesn’t turn out quite the way we’d hoped.

The season of Advent is all about anticipation. We look forward and we prepare for the coming of the Christ child at Christmas; we are also reminded to look forward and prepare for the return of Christ, when he will come, not as a child, but as a king.

And one of the things we are called to do in this season of anticipation is to reflect on the assumptions and expectations we have about the coming of Christ. We all know what’s it like to be disappointed when things don’t turn out the way we thought they would or the way we hoped they would; most often the reason we’re disappointed is because our expectations don’t match reality. The season of Advent is an invitation to make sure that the expectations and assumptions we have about the coming of Christ are accurate and reliable.

We see in this morning’s gospel lesson a clear example of someone who ended up experiencing frustration and disappointment because his expectations about the coming of Christ didn’t match up with the reality. John the Baptist had been imprisoned; his fiery preaching had finally gotten him into trouble with King Herod.

So there he was, sitting in one of Herod’s cells, probably chained to the wall, probably not getting much of anything to eat, probably thinking his life is about to be taken from him, just a few of his most loyal disciples for company, and quite understandably he started to wonder. Did I get this whole thing wrong? What’s Jesus doing out there? Why is it taking so long? What am I doing here, in prison? Maybe he’s not the one after all; maybe the messiah isn’t coming.

It’s helpful to remember that John had taken a very public and a very particular stand about the coming of the messiah. Not only had he proclaimed the messiah was coming; he told people exactly what was going to happen when the messiah arrived. John had said the messiah would take an axe to the root of a corrupt system, and all those who were found not bearing the fruits of righteousness would be cut down and thrown into the fire of judgment. The messiah would winnow the chaff from the wheat, and would destroy the chaff and restore Israel. When John told people that the messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, it was not intended to be a comforting image. The heart of John’s message was this: the messiah is coming, and we have good reason to be afraid of his coming.

So when Jesus came to John to be baptized and John recognized him as the messiah, God’s anointed one, John must have been ecstatic: here he was, the Lamb of God, the one who would finally cleanse Israel from her sin! But from the beginning Jesus acted in ways that perplexed John: Jesus submitted to receiving the baptism of repentance, and that didn’t seem right to John. He thought the messiah should baptize him, not that he should baptize the messiah. And when Jesus takes up his ministry and goes about teaching and healing, it must have all seemed a little confusing to John. Where was the judgment? Where was the promised restoration of the righteousness of Israel? Where was God’s promised redemption?

And then, to top it all off, John is arrested and thrown in prison for proclaiming the truth to a corrupt despot. Now it was personal. Had God abandoned him? Was he wrong about this whole thing? Sitting there in that dark prison cell with the rats gnawing on his clothes and doubt gnawing at his soul, John begins to question everything. Maybe Jesus isn’t who I thought he was; maybe I’m not who I thought I was.

There was a head-on collision between John’s expectations about who the messiah would be and the reality of who Jesus was. Jesus, it seems, did not turn out to be who John thought he would be.

But we have to be careful here, because I think it would be very easy for us to misunderstand what exactly it was that John got wrong about Jesus. It would be easy to think that John was wrong about the messiah because he expected a messiah who would judge the world; we might think that because Jesus himself said that he came, not to judge the world, but to save the world, it was John’s expectations about God’s judgment were what got him into trouble.

But I think this would be a mistake. John was not wrong about Jesus, and he was not wrong about the messiah. The messiah did come to bring God’s judgment to the world. What John didn’t see was that the messiah was not just an emissary or a representative of God, but was God in the flesh. What John hadn’t expected was that the messiah had come to take the judgment of the world upon himself; rather than allow the world to experience the consequences of its brokenness, the messiah would take that brokenness on himself. This is what John had not anticipated. Who could have imagined it? The judge was coming so that he could stand in the place of the condemned.

Very often we, like John, allow our understanding of who Jesus is to be confused by our own expectations. We allow our understanding of God and of Jesus to be shaped by our fears, or our insecurities, or our sense of self-righteousness. We want a God who makes sense to us, one whose actions are predictable and reliable. But when we do this, we find ourselves in prison, chained to the wall next to John, sitting there in the dark while doubt and fear gnaws at our soul. It may not be a physical prison; it may be a prison of our hearts, or our minds, or of our wills. And we worry that maybe Jesus isn’t who we thought he was; maybe God has forgotten us.

I mentioned earlier that Advent is a season of anticipation, the time we look forward to the coming of Christ. It’s a time during which we are invited to take stock of the expectations and assumptions we have and measure them against the truth of who Jesus is. And this is always a challenge because Jesus is always more than we imagine, and God is always ready and willing to do more in our lives than we either expect or even want.

Sorting out our expectations may be the most important thing we can do in this season of Advent. It’s very easy for us to assume we’ve got Jesus all figured out: we’ve heard the Christmas story a million times, we know all about his life and his ministry, we’ve heard about the cross, we know about his resurrection. We’ve heard it all before.

When we feel this way about Jesus, it influences our expectations and assumptions about what we expect Jesus can do in our lives right now. Having the sense that “we’ve heard it all before” usually means that we think of Jesus as a good man who lived a long time ago but who doesn’t really have much to offer to us today. Having the sense that “we’ve heard it all before” usually means that we’re not expecting God to do something in our lives.

So maybe what we need is a little shaking. Maybe we should remember the witness of our brother John: the kingdom of heaven draws near, the messiah is coming, repent and return to the Lord your God. Remember that John wasn’t wrong about who Jesus was; Jesus ended up being more than John hoped for, not less. That’s probably true for us as well.

When John’s disciples came to Jesus asking him if he was the messiah, Jesus told them, “Go back and tell John what you see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor receive good news.” If some part of your life feels like a prison, and if you find yourself wondering if Jesus really is the messiah, then the promise of Advent is for you. If you’re wondering if God has forgotten you and that perhaps you were wrong about God’s salvation, then the promise of Advent is for you. Or if perhaps you feel that you’ve got Jesus all figured out and that you know exactly what to expect from God, then the promise of Advent is for you. The kingdom of heaven draws near. The messiah is coming; make straight his paths. Repent and return to the Lord, so that we may be ready to welcome him when he comes. Amen.

11 December 2016
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Milwaukee, WI