We have heard a lot in the lectionary these past few weeks from the prophet Isaiah and his prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah who would save his people. It is chilling to hear these words spoken some 700 years before Jesus’ birth during the season of Advent when the coming of the Christ child is so readily on our hearts and minds. When we study closely these prophetic writings we get quite a varied tale of the world to come upon the birth of this exceptional child.
Some of the texts like the one this morning give us a wonderful picture of the Messiah as the healer of the world: the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a deer, the tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy, streams shall break forth in the desert! Other texts highlight the fact that there will be peace all over the earth, between all people, and even peace between the animals. Isaiah tells us that our swords will be beaten into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Even the lions and zebras will get along together. The poor will no longer be oppressed, sorrow will turn into joy, the dead will even be raised, and the whole world will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord.
In fact, we are given a rather idyllic and fairy-tale picture of the world. I keep searching the Hebrew and the Greek to find that phrase that would fit in so well here of, “And they lived happily ever after…The End.” But it just is not there. It is in the light of texts like these that we have to ask Jesus the same question as the disciples of John the Baptist, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
The US and Britain are at war in Iraq. There are thousands of people being massacred by rebels in Darfur. Most of the world’s population is starving. The rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. The deserts keep increasing in size and the rain forests keep diminishing in size. We can find no cure for the many diseases such as cancer and AIDS that are ravaging the people of the world. With such grim circumstances in the world, who even cares about the animals getting along with each other–if we can’t do that why should we expect them to? “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
The question of John the Baptist is every bit as rational and reasonable now as it was 2,000 years ago. We might think that too much time in prison has made John a bit loopy in the head. After all, he heard the voice of God tell him quite plainly when he baptized Jesus. Je preached with fervor and emotion about this Jesus the Messiah. Why all of the sudden is John doubting that Jesus is the Messiah?
We are told in chapter 11:2 of Matthew that all this was brought about by the sentence, “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing…” John had a very distinctive style and he was extremely strict in his religious observances. he heard news that the Messiah was eating and drinking with sinners, even to the point that he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. He heard that he had called to be a member of his inner circle a tax collector of all people! He had heard word of these fanatical stories about the unending love of God for all people, not just the Jews! John couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t Jesus that had gone a bit loopy in the head. let’s compare the two figures of Jesus and John the Baptist for just a moment:
John the Baptist:
*lived in the wilderness
*ate locusts and honey
*didn’t drink alcohol
*preached grim justice and judgment
*lived in towns
*always around people
*accused of being a glutton and a drunkard
*drank alcohol and even turned water into wine at a wedding
*preached unending love and mercy
Jesus simply was not acting the way the Messiah should act! He was associating with sinners, he was partying with outcasts, he was welcoming Gentiles, he was breaking all kinds of laws! He didn’t fast like John and his disciples. We may climb on board with my favorite hymn writer William Chatterton Dix and ask, “What child is this?” Jesus is just not acting the way John would have expected the Messiah to act.
Advent is all about expectation, but if we carefully examine the Old and New Testaments, one thing becomes blatantly clear–Jesus did not fulfill the expectations people had of him. People expected the Messiah to be all things to all people. They expected him to bring salvation to the world, they expected him to bring salvation only to the Jews. They expected him to bring peace to the world, they expected him to bring a conqueror’s sword to the world. They expected him to comfort the afflicted, they expected him to afflict the comfortable. They expected everything of him. We expect everything of him. We expect his imminent return when he will come back and set things straight once and for all.
If we have learned nothing else from Scripture, I hope that we have learned that Jesus did not come initially as expected. He was born in poverty not royalty. He was born of questionable circumstances and not in regal expectation. he was executed as a common criminal and not enthroned as a prince. He died a horrible death and was buried quickly, not with pomp and circumstance and visiting dignitaries in attendance. Jesus even told us himself that he will return unexpectedly too. Most take this to mean that he will come back when nobody is expecting him to. But it could also be understood to mean that he might be coming back in a manner that we might not expect him to as well.
John the Baptist expected Jesus to be more strict in his observance of the Jewish laws. Many scholars think that the Jews expected Jesus to be a political messiah that would overthrow Rome by military might. Still others expected an even more different Messiah. It is as though God didn’t listen to our expectations when he came upon this earth two thousand years ago. But we must remember, it is not about what we expect of God–but about what God expects of us! Prepare the way of the Lord. Amen.