Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
December 12, 2010, 3rd Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 35.1-10; Psalm 146.5-10; James 5.7-10; Matt. 11.2-15
It is hard to know what to expect in this life, especially when we witness such violence and dark things. We will be disappointed many times throughout our lives. We wonder along with John the Baptist in this season of Advent, Jesus, “are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” Like John, we don’t always see or understand the deeper purposes of God. Whatever our expectations are of Jesus and our hope in eternal life, we can be sure that we will be far from disappointed.
Grace and peace to you from the One who loves us more than we can imagine or ever expect, Jesus Christ our lord.
Have you ever been disappointed? Have you ever had expectations of something or someone and they let you down? Perhaps you’ve really wanted something for your birthday or Christmas and you open the present and it is something you’d rather give to your dog as a chew toy. Since it is my sister, Jessie’s birthday today, I need to tell this story. When Jessie turned 6 my brother, Eric, and I thought it would be hilarious if we would take one single piece of bubble-licious gum and wrap it in a box, which we’d put in another box and wrap, and so-on-so-forth. We ended up with the box that was almost bigger than Jessie. Can you imagine what might be going on through a 6-yr. old’s head as to what might be in that mysterious, beautifully wrapped present just for them, especially if all they wanted up to that point in life was a My-Size Barbie?
Jessie was full of expectation and the excitement on her face dwindled with every smaller box she opened, as mine and Eric’s excitement grew because of our genius plan. Finally, Jessie got to the tiny box that held the one piece of bubble gum. I will never forget the look on my poor sister’s face when she finally discovered that the huge present was only a meager piece of gum, but more-so that her older brother and sister were jerks. Now the piece of gum wasn’t the only thing we gave her, don’t worry, and I’m pretty sure she has forgiven us by now. So I know at least one person here, Jessie, who has been disappointed.
In the Gospel reading today we learn of John the Baptist’s disappointment and questioning of Jesus. If we can think back to our reading from last Sunday, John’s prophecy was that Jesus would baptize those who repented with the Holy Spirit and those who would not repent, Jesus would judge and destroy. What is important to know is that the Jewish people had been oppressed for centuries before Jesus came on the scene. They had always had a more powerful people ruling over them and they had very limited freedom. For people who are oppressed and ruled over, it is common and natural to want to see the oppressors and enemies fall. This was the hope of many of the Jewish people. Many of them, along with John the Baptist, expected the Messiah to come with vengeance who would kill the wicked and drive out the Romans who oppressed them. Finally then, they could have justice and live in peace, with Jesus as king on the throne in Jerusalem.
But this was far from what was happening with this Jesus. In fact, John ended up being put in prison by Herod. It was from prison in which John sent some of his friends to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John’s reality of imprisonment was one of desperation. Would he die there before he would see freedom for him and his people come? If Jesus was the Messiah, then why was he in prison? Why were he and other people still suffering? Why were the Romans still stronger than ever? “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John asks. “Get in the game, Jesus. Whose side are you on?” John’s whole life and identity was wrapped up in Jesus. Jesus wasn’t what John was expecting and it was disappointing.
Who do we expect Jesus to be? What do we expect him to do or be doing in this world and in our lives? I find that I resonate a lot with John the Baptist. I have certain expectations that Jesus is to be with me and those who suffer, and that if only Jesus would come again all would be made right. I read about things that Jesus did and continues to do in Scripture, and I hear people’s witnesses to how Jesus is present and real in their lives. Still there are days in which I ask, “are you the one who is to come, Jesus, or are we to wait for another?” Where are you when I need you?
Even John the Baptist wondered what was going on when Jesus was spending his time healing people, eating with people, and preaching on the hill side. John needed him and healing people wasn’t going to drive out the Romans! What kind of Messiah is this? Does one wait and trust, or does one take action?
Throughout history, when people don’t get what they want, they take it by force. Hear Jesus’ words again, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” I saw a chart this week about how people who are not Christian perceive Christianity from the outside looking in. 20% of the people surveyed said that they see a “vitriolic attitude in the name of Jesus,” which basically means that people who claim to be Christian use violence or declare ultimatums in the name of Jesus. Hundreds upon thousands of people were killed during the 200 years of Crusades in the name of Jesus. Human beings who commit violence in the name of God are not interested in a loving God; they are interested in a God that strikes down one’s enemies, a God that punishes those who we think deserves punishment, a God that uses force and power to overcome the situation at hand.
Well, Jesus says, “…until now…” Now that I am here things don’t need to be this way. Violence doesn’t need to be the answer. There is another way and it is through me. Jesus begins a new age and it is an age of love.
Is anyone ever truly transformed for the better through violence, anger, or fear? How would the message and followers of Jesus be different if he raised his own army, drove out the Romans, and died of old age on his royal bed in Jerusalem? Violence only creates more violence and Jesus knew it.
But love…that is what really transforms people. Love has the ability to chisel away hatred and fear. Love communicates that we are worth something and that we matter. Love builds trust, violence breaks it. Instead of raising his own army, Jesus is raised on a cross and dies. Jesus says in John 15.13 that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.” Sometimes it is hard to know who to trust, but I would trust anyone who dies for me any day.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” The cross and Jesus dying on it can be offensive in many ways. It can be offensive that Jesus would rather die for us than strike down our enemies. It can be offensive that Jesus would rather love and forgive those we might hate as much as Jesus loves us. It can be offensive that Jesus would rather be present with us in the people around us than come crashing in and fix everything we think is wrong in life.
I know a person in seminary who once said, “I can’t stand the thought of a murderer ending up in the same place as me.” When she said this she meant “ending up in heaven together.” I thought, Why not! Isn’t it the power of God’s love to transform and make whole that which is broken? Cannot God redeem whomever God chooses? Jesus seeks out the lost and offers a new way of being and of loving.
Theologian and professor, Richard Jensen (Preaching Matthew's Gospel) wonders: "If one hasn't been offended by the gospel that is Jesus, we might wonder if that one understands the gospel at all!" [p. 104]. Violence always disappoints and love, real love, always surprises and exceeds our expectations.
It is hard to know what to expect in this life, especially when we witness such violence and dark things. We will be disappointed many times throughout our lives. We wonder along with John the Baptist in this season of Advent, Jesus, “are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” Like John, we don’t always see or understand the deeper purposes of God.
Whatever our expectations are of Jesus and our hope in eternal life, we can be sure that we will be far from disappointed. We might be disappointed in this life, but it won’t always be that way. God and God’s love for us will always be more than we can imagine or ever expect. Amen