Matthew 11 2-11
Advent is a time for reflection, waiting and listening. It is also a time we can air our disappointments, doubts and our expectations.
That is exactly what we find John doing – he is asking the question ‘Are you the one?’ After all he had done his bit. He had lived in the wilderness getting prepared for his role as a prophet. He had worn a terrible wardrobe and lived on an even worse diet. He had proclaimed an unpopular message of repentance, all preparing the way for his cousin Jesus.
Up to that point John believed that Jesus was the one. Now the doubts are creeping in. Just imagine it is three o’clock in the morning John is in prison where it’s dark and lonely. He is a man of the wilderness, of open places, used to being in the wind and the sun. Now he is locked away in a dark and airless cell and he begins to worry and question everything he has believed in.
On one level it started when he criticized King Herod. “It is not lawful,” John said, “for you to have your [brother’s wife]” So Herod arrested, bound, and imprisoned him. That’s the historical answer but Holy Scripture always invites us to seek and listen more deeply, to discern the spiritual meaning.
Herod may have put John in jail but John’s own expectations have also imprisoned him. Herod’s jail, the bricks and mortar, are an external symbol of the inner prison in which John now waits. The interior prison of disappointment and disillusion, he is also confined by his own unmet expectations of the Messiah.
Not unreasonably John was disappointed. He heard about what Jesus was doing and didn’t like the sound of it at all. Where is the man of fire sweeping through Israel? Where is the axe, the fire, the winnowing fork promised by the prophet? Where is the wrath of God on sinners in the midst of cleansing lepers, giving sight to the blind, and raising the dead?
Maybe John was thinking 'not long now', and Jesus will topple Herod, become King in his place, get me out of prison and give me a place of honour. But with hindsight we know that wasn’t going to happen. That might have been John’s plan but it is as if Jesus is working from another script. In his reply to John’s question ‘are you the one’, he explains all that he has been doing, but does not mention the release of the prisoners, I wonder if John noticed! At that moment all John could see was the wall of his cell – and probably wondering why Jesus wasn’t coming to set him free.
Jesus is busy befriending sinners and tax collectors, people the Jews regarded as outsiders and unclean. He was healing the sick and associating with lepers of all things, he was getting a reputation and was getting himself into trouble with the authorities, and this was not supposed to happen. Sometimes we try to confine God’s work to our expectations. But that is not who God is, nor how God acts.
Maybe we thought God would make our lives easy and instead he has called us to live more spiritual life. Maybe we wanted God to eliminate our suffering, and instead we have discovered God standing with us in the midst of our pain. Maybe we expected God would make us important but he has called us to identify with the least, the last, and the lost. Or maybe we wanted God to make us strong but he called us to discover His strength in our weakness. We hoped God would destroy our enemies but instead he has commanded us to love them. As I have said many times before, this is the topsy-turvy way of the Kingdom that turns our expectations on their head.
Back to the reading - Jesus knew he was the one and he has turned the page and is one step ahead of John. For mercy comes after judgment, and healing comes after sorrow. Jesus knew he was the Messiah who would heal the sick, raise the dead and set the people free. The cousins were different. John had his puritanical, unbending, scary preaching of repentance.
Jesus was compassionate, gentle and humble but their message was the same, as Jesus also preached repentance but he took it a step further and offered us grace.
Sometimes we can point the finger, letting our attitudes and prejudices hang out, demanding judgement for wrongs done to us or others, when we should be offering mercy and forgiveness and living in the light of God’s grace. James gave a word of caution in his letter that we heard just now - ‘do not grumble against one another’.
There is a lot in our world to be worried and frightened about. There are plenty of problems to occupy our minds at three o’clock in the morning. Perhaps we also wonder if we’ve got it wrong about God, love, hope and new life. Maybe like John we would also like to ask, “Are you the one?” is there really a God? Was I right to believe and trust in him?” Faith has many questions, most of which can’t be answered at three o’clock in the morning.
I think Jesus would give us the same answer he sent to John. Look around you and see what’s happening. Wherever people are reaching out to each other in peace, God is at work. Wherever the weak and vulnerable are cared for, God is there; when hope is offered to those in despair and goodwill is shown to enemies, God is there and his kingdom is breaking into our world. The kingdom of God is here, we are part of it, and in Jesus we see and hear what life in that kingdom is all about.
When we look around and there is still oppression, injustice, personal and national calamities, there is the temptation to ask the question ‘Are you really the one?' that is the time we to need to look and see the grace and mercy of God. Not in the spectacular, that was evident in Jesus time; but in acts of grace, mercy and kindness to one another and in answers to prayer, for God is very much alive and living in the hearts of his people.
What are our expectations this Advent and Christmas? I am sure we expect to celebrate Christ’s birth with the familiar stories, carols and traditions. This year may we all be open to being touched anew by the poignancy of God coming among us as a vulnerable baby. Maybe we expect to see him in those who are with the homeless in shelters and on the streets, spending time with lonely, isolated and forgotten people, visiting prisoners, speaking out against injustice and tyranny. For that is where we will find Jesus.
Finally what are our expectations of Christ returning in glory “to judge the living and the dead?” the statement we say in our Creed each Sunday. Or is that something we tuck away in the back of our minds because we don’t really think it will happen, and when we make our Advent response ‘Even so Come Lord Jesus’, maybe there is the temptation to add the rider ‘but not just yet!’
So many expectations. This Advent, more than ever, we need to listen to John the Baptist calling us to prepare for the coming again of one who is more powerful, more holy and more gloriously loving than we can imagine. For if we are prepared when Christ does come again we won’t need to ask, “Are you the one?” Our hearts will know that he is indeed the one and we will worship him who is Christ the Lord. Amen.