Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Holy One. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of God is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Holy One.
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Will you pray with and for me? Holy One, you who bring us joy, give us the wisdom and grace to recognise your presence in our lives, and the courage to live as your people, not only at Christmas, but all year. In all your names, amen.
John the Baptiser. Sometimes he reminds me of the family’s eccentric cousin or grandparent or family friend. My extended family had a relative like that—a distant cousin who came every year for Christmas dinner, and brought a gift without fail, but sometimes they were—odd. A pillow in a shade of orange never seen in Nature is the one that stands out in my mind. And yet her heart was in the right place—she wanted to give the host a gift. And of course her gift was accepted with a smile and thanks and enthusiasm—that branch of the family was from Tidewater Virginia, where the art of gracious responses to awkward situations were invented.
I have a sense that John the Baptist’s question had somewhat the same effect on Jesus and his followers. Jesus has been performing miracles all over the place, and here’s John with a pointed question. He seems to be trying to get Jesus back on what he considers the “right track.” John’s heart is in the right place—he is longing for the coming of Messiah, the anointed one—because John thinks Messiah will set everything right, will bring down destruction on the heads of Romans and free Israel, bring in a new realm of justice and righteousness, everyone will repent, and the realm of God will be at hand.
But John doesn’t see Jesus doing any of this—he’s not planning a rebellion, or preaching against the Romans, or even calling for the people to repent. Jesus is just healing and feeding people—that’s not what John had in mind at all.
So he asks this question, which is almost threatening—are you Messiah, or should I proclaim someone else Messiah? In other words, you’re not what I expected, that’s not what Messiah should be doing.
But Jesus’ response is interesting. He doesn’t say “Yes, I am.” He invites John to look at the role of Messiah in another way—not as the avenger, come down to judge the people, to call them to repentance. On the contrary, Jesus acts to show God’s love for people—healing them, feeding them, and caring for them. It’s not what John expected, and so John isn’t sure he likes it.
Do we behave like John? Do we set expectations on God and God’s promises? We want God to do something for us, but we want it in a certain way and time, and when we get it, we complain because it wasn’t done the way we wanted it to be done.
When I was preparing for my internship, I knew just what I wanted and where I wanted to be—and I was. It was a wonderful placement, with a church that had trained many future clergy, and the congregation was very open to experimentation and new ideas, and best of all, my mentor was the pastor. And then suddenly she was appointed elsewhere, to a church in crisis where her skills were desperately needed. I complained to God that I had wanted a good internship, and how would I have that now, with Kay pastoring elsewhere, and a complete stranger coming in as pastor? And yet, Hattie, the newcomer, proved to be a gift—we were never close, as I was to Kay, and often her example was a negative one, what not to do—but most probably I would not have seen what “the wrong way” looked like, or understood just why it was wrong if I had worked with Kay as I wanted. Most importantly, I might not have learned how to speak up for a better way. In my discomfort with some of Hattie’s actions, I was forced to look at why I was uncomfortable and how and why I would do things differently. I also have learned from speaking with others since that she actually was supportive in ways I didn’t realise at the time—many interns did not have the opportunities that I had to lead committees and work areas and to implement projects stemming from my classes, such as the memorial garden I created. I did not want to intern with Hattie, but it proved to be rewarding and probably of more use in teaching me what I needed to learn.
What we expect from God and what God sends us are often very different. We think we know what we need and want, and that’s what we demand. When something else shows up, we’re disappointed and insist on a recount, on a return, on refusing it because it’s not what we had imagined.
And yet…. Often what we thought we didn’t want turns out to be wonderful. We think we are looking for certain things in a partner, and then meet someone who doesn’t have any of those things but takes our breath away. We have an ideal job in mind, and take something else, just to get us through for a while—and discover we actually love that “temporary” job. We have an ideal home in mind and insist to our real estate agent that we won’t look at anything else—but he shows us something else and we instantly feel at home.
My friend Lynn was married to a US Army officer, and he was sent to Germany. Lynn was distraught, terribly upset at the idea of uprooting her then pre-teen and teen-age daughters, leaving her family, going to a place where she didn’t speak the language, and had no idea of what the schools would be like, much less how to keep one of her daughters involved in the gymnastics she loved. I tried to encourage her, telling her about all the travel opportunities, and reminding her that Germany also had medalists in the Olympics, so they must have good trainers and coaches. I shared with her the wonderful experiences I had had there and how every much I enjoyed living in Germany. She was having none of it, sure it would a miserable three years of exile and determined to return to the States for visits as often as possible. They left, reluctantly, one June. That Christmas, when we spoke again, she had turned completely around. She loved their apartment, the neighbours were great, she was picking up enough German to shop at the local bakery and farmer’s market and butcher, the gymnastics centre in town was better than the one they had left, and they were already planning a trip to Paris for the summer and to Greece for the next winter. Lynn had found that their years there would be a blessing. When the time came for them to return to Virginia, she was as reluctant to leave Germany as she had been to go!
I think this experience speaks to two things. One is a willingness to have an open mind, to try new things even though we don’t think they are what we want or are looking for. John had an image, a picture, of how Messiah should be, and when Jesus didn’t fit that image, he was disappointed and felt that maybe he had been wrong. The other is that even when we don’t receive what we asked for, it is what we need. I would never have learned some of the lessons I needed to know if Kay had been my supervisor. Lynn’s family would not have grown as close as they did in Germany, travelling together and sharing new experiences. And if Jesus had come as the Messiah John wanted him to be, he would have shared John’s fate rather quickly. Instead of an overthrow of an earthly political system, Jesus brought news of a radically different way of living, a new way of interacting with other people and with ourselves, living to help and serve and heal and comfort and feed people around us, to make the world a better place not through violence or imposing our will on others, but through our example and our actions to others.
Jesus made a difference because he showed us how to care for others—not how to dominate them. He reached out to people, all people, not only the educated or the wealthy or even just the people who had a stable place to stand in society. Jesus spent time, a lot of time, with people who were the undesirables of his day—the tax-collectors, the sex workers, the ill—because sickness was seen as a curse from God—the people on margins of society, not the ones in the centre with the power. He spoke to women, to children, to people with physical challenges, and even to people who might be expected to hate him, like the Romans—and he healed and comforted and cared.
Quite a difference from the avenging Messiah that John envisioned—remember the winnowing fork and the fire from last week’s reading? Jesus is having none of it—“That’s not who I am,” he is telling John.
Jesus is not what John expected—and yet Jesus is the one to teach us how to bring about God’s rule—because God’s rule is about a realm where no one is hungry or cast out or scorned or considered “less-than.”
And that is the joy of this Advent Sunday—Jesus, our Teacher, has come to remind us of who we are and whose we are, and what it means to bring about God’s realm—not violent overthrow, not shaming and scolding and threats of eternal punishment—but love, healing, comfort and care.
Jesus was not what John expected—but Jesus was what we needed.
In all God’s names, amen.