It's a little rough... but here goes:
Isaiah 35: 1-10; Matt 11: 2-19
If Charles Dickens hadn't pinched it first, I think I'd have titled this sermon 'Great Expectations'...
Great Expectations -
the hope that something quite extraordinary is going to happen.
That sums up Advent.
It's the waiting time.
The time when we identify with Mary all those years ago in her time of waiting.
We wait with expectation to celebrate the mind-boggling idea of God coming to us,
to be with us,
to be one of us:
God coming to us on our own, very human terms.
Expectations that are great?
Expectations of greateness?
What is greatness?
And what happens when the expected...
The Third Sunday of Advent traditionally focuses on John the Baptist -
a man we heard a bit about last week...
a man who knew a lot about waiting and expectaion:
His entire life had been spent waiting for the fulfillment of God's word,
and his ministry was one of preparing the people of God for this event.
In our Gospel passage for today, we see John coming near to the end of his life and ministry -
imprisoned for speaking out against Herod's lack of moral character:
prisoners of conscience are no new thing.
But there he is,
languishing in jail at Herod's mercy.
John had spent the greater part of his life living out of doors in the wilderness - we'd say in Australia that he'd 'gone bush'.
William Barclay, commenting on this passage, describes John's situation like this:
'he was a child of the desert; all his life he had lived in the wide open spaces, with the clean wind on his face and the spacious vault of the sky for his roof. and now he was confined in an underground dungeon. For a man like John, who had perhaps never lived in a house, this must have been agony.'
Quite poetic for a commentary! Barclay tries to enter into the mind of John, and, if John wore shoes, to walk in his shoes.
What was in John's mind when he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask the question:
'Are you the one, or should we expect someone else?'
What was John's expectation of who the Messiah should be?
Of what Messiahship should be about?
Were his great expectations of a warrior-hero, coming to liberate Israel from the Romans?
Or, since his role was that of a prophet,
a forth-teller of God's truth,
did he expect the messiah to be a mighty judge,
who would bring the divine fire of purifying judgement on the nation -
and we saw a little of that last week....
Did John ask because he was impatient
and wondered if Jesus was ever going to get on with the job?
Sometimes, because we know the story
because we've heard it so many times,
are so familiar,
we flick through the pages of the Gospels seeking for theological truths
but in doing so,
the people on the pages become like mere characters in a book:
we lose sight of the dirt-under-their-nails very human people -
everyday, ordinary, people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
In asking the question of Jesus, was John, this wild-man of the wilderness,
who didn't know if his next day would be his last,
was he wanting to know that he hadn't got it wrong?
That his expectations
his hope in Jesus
hadn't been in vain?
Did he need to know that at this end-point of his life
that it hadn't all been a useless waste of time?
if the question was about his own faith and hope
and a need to seek confirmation of this hope
confirmation of his life's mission in his last days?
What were his expectations?
Whatever his psychological state of mind,
whatever the reason for the question,
I hope he found the answer he needed in Jesus' response.
At other times when such questions were asked of him Jesus was likely to say:
'happy are they who believe without seeing'
but here, Jesus shows great compassion in his reply:
'tell John what you hear and see -
the blind receive sight,
the lame walk,
the deaf hear,
and the good news is preached to the poor.'
Jesus is quoting the prophet Isaiah to John -
the last and greatest of the prophets.
And in doing this,
gives John what he needs to know:
Jesus is the one expected -
and the proof in the (Christmas?) pudding,
is the fulfillment of the prophecy.
What Isaiah never saw in his own lifetime,
John has seen in his -
though perhaps not quite in the way he'd envisaged or expected.
If John had to slightly revise his idea of the Messiah -
if even John the Baptist felt the need to ask if Jesus was the one -
how did the people of Israel imagine the Messiah?
What were their expectations?
Under the yoke of the Roman Empire,
longing for independence,
did they dream dreams of Messiah as a great freedom fighter?
I wonder if the people of Israel would have coped better with Jesus if he'd just done 'the decent thing'...
had conformed to the stereotype of what great deliverers should be like?
But then, from their very own history,
they should have known not to try and force God into a box,
because sometimes, God is a little like the jack-in-the-box
that you know is there,
that you know will appear,
and yet who still manages to surprise and startle when the lid finally springs open.
and yet the unexpected.
Can we really blame the people of Israel for maybe having these expectations of a mighty super-hero Messiah?
Don't we ourselves often define greatness as who the strongest is?
Now, if we were God, we'd probably plan this whole coming into the world business quite differently.
We'd arrive on the world stage as the big strong warrior-hero type
overpower those pesky Romans
make a real name for ourselves,
possibly even set ourselves up as Caesar -
be at the top of the hierarchical power pile -
that'd convince everyone we weren't to be trifled with...
But our God...
is the God of surprises.
The one who turns our value systems
Who completely makes a nonsense of what we think of as great and powerful.
God defies our definitions.
Perhaps even laughs at our definitions
and challenges us to redefine them again and again and again.
Matthew goes to great pains in the Gospel to point out exactly where Jesus came from:
his lineage certainly contains a few surprises,
and who would think that a virgin would or could conceive?
And that the Messiah would, like us,
have to undergo the whole messy, undignified birthing process?
Yet, the prophets foretold it.
Who would think that the Messiah would be found in a stack of hay in a stable...
and not a grand palace?
Who would think that the 'little baby Jesus' could possibly be 'Immanuel' -
God with us?
I remember a conversation with a friend a long time ago.
Said friend was saying with some feeling that she was sick to the back teeth with the idea of the cute 'n cuddly 'little baby Jesus' -
helpless, sweet, inoffensive.
An anaemic, watered-down religious symbol for people not quite comfortable with the grown-up Jesus.
In many ways, she had a point... but...
let's not sneer at the idea of 'little baby Jesus' too readily:
without 'little baby Jesus' there can't be a Christ crucified.
Without 'little baby Jesus', we lose Jesus' humanity.
Without Jesus' humanity we lose the idea of the God who feels our pain
who knows us utterly,
identifies with us completely...
and who, in turn, we can identify with.
Without 'little baby Jesus' we lose the wonder of God who turns the meaning of greatness on its head
by coming to us as a helpless, gurgling baby
dependant on the hospitality of the human heart to take him in...
God needing us...
as much as we need God...
a mutual bond of relationship forged in fleshly incarnation.
The expected, yet unexpected coming of God-all-powerful
who comes as God-all-vulnerable
in that tiny scrap of human flesh:
'little baby Jesus'
and who, by doing so, puts hope in the heart of humanity.
We come full circle at Advent:
back to the waiting time
to the having of great expectations...
the hope that something quite extraordinary is going to happen...
when the expected is completely unexpected.
And what could be more unexpected than the idea that a helpless dependent baby could be the God who created the universe?
The God who comes to deliver us
by becoming one of us in our frail humanity?
No wonder John felt the need to ask the question of Jesus:
'are you the one?'
May the God of surprises teach us to expect the unexpected,
and fill us all with joy this season.