What did you expect?
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For December 11, 2016, the 3rd Sunday of Advent
Based on Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11
The gospel lesson is about expectations. John wants to know if his expectations for the Messiah are being fulfilled. Jesus answers with what he expects his ministry to be about. Jesus then asks the crowd what they expected from John. Through all of this we are asked, “What are you expecting from your leaders? What are you expecting from Gods presence in your life?”
You knew this beforehand. You knew his reputation. You knew he was critical of government. You knew he was an outsider. You knew he promised to upset the establishment. Why are you surprised that he has attracted extremists among his followers? Why are you surprised that those who quote him are advocating social disruption?
You say you like people who surprise you, who force you to think outside the box. I do too. I like experiencing other people’s creativity and insight. I find surprises entertaining, even delightful.
I’m not sure about the surprises John the Baptist keeps presenting. You just don’t know what you’re going to get from him. I mean, I think I’d be glad that he was part of my neighborhood, but I’m not sure I would want him as a neighbor. I’m definitely sure I would not want to live with him.
That has nothing to do with his clothing, his diet, or his bathing habits. I’m just not sure I want to always listen to his criticisms of others. I’m definitely sure I don’t want his criticisms aimed at me. Too often his words have a cutting edge. I like to think I am open to criticism, but I don’t like to be blindsided. You never know what you’re going to get with him.
You went out there to see John. What did you expect? He’s much more than a flag in the breeze. He’s more than a reed shaking in the wind. What did you go out there to see? Did you go to see for yourself, to confirm the rumors you have been hearing? Did you go to see for yourself just how he dressed? Yes, camel hair and a leather belt. Did you go perhaps to watch him eat? Yes, honey and locusts. Did you think maybe you’d get a glimpse of his pet rat?
Just what did you go to see? Were you attracted because of the speculation that John is actually Elijah? Elijah, that ancient miracle world, the prophet of old who did not die but instead stepped onto God’s fiery chariot – Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, comin’ for to carry me home – Elijah who is supposed to return to this earth as the herald of the messiah, coming back before the Day of the Lord. Did you expect John was Elijah, and did you go out there expecting to be one of the few who see the messiah at the day of judgment?
What did you expect? But why wait for the end of time? Why wait for the fulfillment of God’s plan when God is at work now, in the present?
Maybe you do get that. Maybe you went to see John because of his reputation as a prophet. You say you want to encounter a genuine prophet of the Lord. Yeah, it’s fun to listen to the prophets as they critique power, and to listen to them go after those who are in power, who abuse power. Did you only expect the prophet to critique your enemies? Did you not consider that the prophet might critique you? When you went to see John, where you willing to receive his message of transformation? Did you expect his call for repentance did not apply to you? You knew he was going to criticize those in power. You knew he has been calling for change. Are you going to deny that you have power? Are you going to deny your privilege? Are you suggesting you do not need to change? You and I are part of a system that benefits some while injuring others. You and I need to repent, and you and I need to call the entire system to change. Did you not consider that you were – you are – among those who are in need of being critiqued for your power? Did you not consider that you, me, all of us have strayed from God’s ways?
Some of you will take John’s arrest as evidence he has strayed from God’s ways. Does having a criminal record mean God’s ways have been abandoned? Can you trust someone with a criminal record to help you understand God’s ways? Would you be willing to call a pastor who has been to prison? I know: you want a pastor who will comfort and assure you and help you to grow. But sometimes those very goals – comfort and assurance and growth – conflict with one another. Will you reject a pastor when the challenges of growth are emphasized more than acts of comfort and assurance? Will you reject a pastor when they call for repentance more than assuring you? It’s frustrating to have a leader who is always calling for yet more change; how do we discern when they are prophetic and not just annoying?
What did you expect from John? What do you expect from the fullness of God’s realm when the Messiah returns in glory? What do you expect from your next pastor? What do you expect from this community as it lives out a message of hope and grace and transformation?
This is Advent. This is a season of expectation. This is a season of dreaming dreams and envisioning what it means to be the church. In all of those acts, may you and I and us together glorify God.