3rd of Advent — 16 December 2007
St. Michael’s, Mount Pleasant — 9:00 am
A: Isa 35:1-10 Ps 146:4-9 James 5:7-10 Matt 11:2-11
“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?”
What were you looking for? What do you want?
Jesus’ question to the people, asking them why they had gone out to hear John the Baptist, is a good question for us, too — especially now as we think about and in a special way prepare for the coming of the Lord, as we are doing in this Advent season. What are we looking for? What do we want?
Folks in Jesus’ time were a lot like folks today, and like folks today, they didn’t know what they wanted. And there wasn’t any pleasing them. The religious leaders — people like the Pharisees, respectable, righteous people — didn’t like John the Baptist, because he was weird and harsh, an ascetic who fasted and lived alone in the desert and called them “a brood of vipers” and told them that God didn’t give a hoot whether they were descendents of Abraham or not. On the other hand, they didn’t like Jesus of Nazareth either, because he didn’t fast or live in the desert, but went to dinner parties and befriended sinners. There’s just no pleasing some people. Jesus himself remarked, “We played music and you wouldn’t dance with us; we made lamentations and you wouldn’t mourn with us; John fasted, and said he was coocoo; I go to dinner, and you call me a glutton. Ah well.…
In his own way, John the Baptist had been popular for a while. Why? Because he told people what they wanted to hear? Certainly not! John the Baptist was no reed bending in the wind of popular opinion. Was he personally attractive, a trend-setter in his lifestyle? Not at all. He wasn’t part of the better levels of society — he had no money, no political office, no social status — and yet John had immense influence. The people flocked to him, because they perceived that he was, or at least might be, a prophet. He proclaimed God’s will for the people — God’s stern and righteous will. Okay then, if this man is a prophet of God, let’s do what he says: repent, prepare yourselves for the breaking in of God’s Kingdom into this world. Part of John’s message is that he is the forerunner for God’s Anointed One who is coming soon. So be prepared to hear and to follow this One when he comes.
But even John himself has his doubts — especially as he lay imprisoned in Herod Antipas’s dungeon, where his outspoken prophesying had finally landed him. Nothing much seemed to be happening that John could see — the Reign of God didn’t seem to be breaking in yet — at least it didn’t seem to be breaking in to John’s prison cell. And he began to wonder whether he had been right — was his cousin Jesus really after all the One who was to come after him, the Anointed One, the promised Messiah of God? So he sent word and asked. (A mark of his faith, even in the midst of his doubt: he didn’t just sit there wondering and whining, he asked.) And Jesus sent word back: “Take a look. What do you see? What are you looking for? What do you want? What the prophets said about the coming of the Messiah — it’s being fulfilled! All the things Isaiah talks about, for instance — the blind see again, the deaf hear again, the lame walk, the dead live — God’s Kingdom is breaking in, is it not? Tell John what is happening — and you are blessed if you don’t get all out of joint about me and what I’m doing.”
We all have our ideas, our preconceptions, about what God is like and about what God should be doing in the world. We all have expectations for God to meet. And when God doesn’t meet our expectations, we can get very upset about it! We have carefully constructed our own neat little system of reality, and demand that God fit into it. We have written a script for our lives, and we expect God to pick up the cues and read the lines assigned.
And of course, God doesn’t. God doesn’t. God is not a tame household deity. And so Jesus says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” — who doesn’t stumble over me — who is not all hung up by the fact that I don’t fit into your neat little religious system.
This was the problem that folks had in Jesus’ time. Jesus didn’t fit their preconceptions. Jesus wasn’t the kind of Messiah they expected. He wasn’t the kind of Messiah they wanted. He didn’t follow the script they had written for God. He wasn’t the Divine Super-King who drove out the Roman occupation army and made Israel the Top Nation in the world. He wasn’t the great Super-Priest who uttered the sacred words to make everyone immediately good and holy and obedient to the Law of Moses, Pharisaic Edition. Jesus really just wasn’t what they were looking for at all. He was not what they wanted. And so in the end they turned against him and had him killed.
We really shouldn’t be too surprised. God made it pretty clear, through the prophets, just what it was God was up to. (That’s what a prophet is, by the way — not someone who foretells the future, primarily, but someone who proclaims to the world just what it is God is up to.) This morning we heard from the prophet Isaiah some of what God’s Kingdom is all about: sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute — and not, I think, just the healing of our physical handicaps, but the healing of the spiritual handicaps that we all have, that all our world has. Strength to the weak, firmness to the feeble, water in the desert — life to the dead. That all sounds nifty enough — but the breaking-in of the Reign of God is not a spectator sport where we can sit in the stands and eat hot dogs. We must let our eyes be opened, let our ears be unstopped, let our tongues be loosed to sing God’s praises — let our dried-up hearts become wellsprings of God’s love — let our dead souls be really enlivened! God comes to save us, but God comes with vengeance and recompense, says Isaiah. God is no marshmallow. The Reign of God is upon us, but in order to enter God’s Kingdom we have to turn away from the petty little kingdoms we have built for ourselves. We must repent: we must change our lives; we must turn around.
What place do we make for God in our lives? Yes, and that’s just it! We do “make a place” for God in our lives — but God cannot be fitted into a place in our lives! It is God who is the source and creator of our lives and our world and all that is and has been and ever will be. God has no “place in” our lives, it is we who must allow ourselves to be given a place in God’s life, to be fitted into God’s system, to follow the script that God is writing.
Jesus is coming. Are we ready for him? Are we ready for the real Jesus as he really is, and not just the Jesus we would like him to be? Is Jesus the one we are really looking for? Is Jesus the one we really want?
© 2007 William S J Moorhead