Expectations and the holiday season go hand in hand, don’t they? As a kid this time of year was a real emotional roller coaster for me.
Every morning I would wake with new anticipation toward snow falling and the delight of school canceled ringing through the halls. It hardly ever happened though. Every year we would search for the most perfect of perfect Christmas trees and I would insist that we check each and every tree in the lot for the one. You know the one? And 7 out of 10 times I would think that we didn’t get the one that we should have gotten. But the biggest of big expectations was saved for the grand event of Christmas Eve.
Every year my heart would race with anticipation for the Christmas Eve hope of having family and friends over for the feast of snacks and eggnog and Christmas dinner and dessert, of dressing in my Christmas Eve dress and having my hair be perfect and the boy at church noticing me as I was singing a solo and would realize that I wasn’t the nerdy, shy, awkward pastor’s kid, but I was Sarah -Christmas princess. And then we would go home in a rush–but not too rushed (because the boy I pined for would obviously want to give me a Christmas goodbye kiss)–to open gifts surrounding the tree, drinking another glass of eggnog with soothing Christmas carols in the background. And every gift being special and the right fit…
And almost every year of my young adult life I was disappointed. How could I NOT be disappointed with a list of expectations that I had.
Tis the season for expectations. We even hear the expectant tones in one of our favorite Christmas carols O Little Town of Bethlehem
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Sometimes what we expect is not what we experience.
This is the case for John the Baptist in today’s gospel lesson. The last time we met our hero John he was standing firm and confident in the river Jordon—waiting for the Messiah. He wasn’t simply waiting like one who waits for a parade to pass by, but he was beckoning people to ready themselves for the one who would separate the wheat from the chaff—the righteous from the unrighteous.
“Repent!” He would cry…. “while you still have time.”
John was expecting a holy reckoning. And it wasn’t going to be pretty either. There was an expectation for some kind of militant godly force to come from above and swoop in—purify what had been soiled—and this would be done with fire. Finally the unrighteous, the perverters of the law, the people who lived in excess would get theirs…and those who had been stepped on, the hurt, the poor would finally get their day.
But today we encounter John in a different setting. Where is John in this Gospel lesson?
Is he in the Jordan? No.
Is he out in the desert? No.
Is he in the temple? No.
Where is he? He’s in jail.
Well, this is not what is expected. Is it fair that John is in jail? The voice in the wilderness, the one to prepare for the coming of the Lord is bound and incarcerated. And he looks around and the perverters of the law are still in power, and he’s in jail.
Where’s the justice?
Where’s the holy reckoning?
Where’s the Messiah?
That’s why John sends his disciples out—the ones who have followed him and who can be his guys on the street so to speak—he sends them out to find Jesus.
Jesus. The one who is supposed to be this Messiah.
“Are you the Messiah, or should we keep on waiting?” they ask.
Has Jesus separated wheat and chaff? For John he’s sitting in prison so there hasn’t been judgment of evil in the world. So whatever Jesus is doing it’s not enough for John. He hasn’t met John’s expectations. He hasn’t met some of the imagery that was foretold in the Scripture—the great militant force that would come—the new king that would conquer.
Jesus doesn’t seem to fit the bill.
And when John’s disciples come up to Jesus and ask, “Are you he who we have been waiting for?” What does Jesus do? He doesn’t ask them to take a good look into Jesus’ face, his side or even his palms—that would come later.
No, this time Jesus asks them to see what’s going on around him. The prophet Isaiah’s words are coming true—if you go and take a good look. Those who couldn’t walk have received a touch by Jesus and now leap for joy, those who couldn’t see have experienced sight, those who were forced out of their homes because of contagious illnesses have been cleansed. These things are happening, but when you look at Jesus—he may not be what you expect from a Savior.
Father Robert Capon in his book Hunting the Divine Fox, wrote that when we look at Jesus we very quickly try to turn him into something else—almost like a strange superhero story—make him Superman disguised as Clark Kent.
Jesus — gentle, meek and mild, but with secret, souped-up, more-than-human insides — bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute, struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and, with a single bound, leaps back up to the planet Heaven.
It would be easier sometimes to have super Jesus fly into our Lois Lane-like lives and rescue us in one fowl swoop. We run to a real problem when the real Son of God doesn’t match up to the character that our imagination produced. When do we run into that problem?
What about when a child dies on Christmas Eve?
When Jesus directs us to love one another—even those who are truly hard to love.
When we’re sitting with our loved one who is still in the hospital.
When that job opportunity didn’t pan out as we hoped and prayed for.
How do we react to this Jesus? This Jesus that offers grace and peace, but in ways that we may have not predicted or would have chosen.
So how do we react to this Messiah—this Son of God?
With doubt or unbelief?
Do we find ourselves like John and his disciples asking “Are you the one? Or should we expect another?”
On Thanksgiving Day I watched the Macy’s Day Parade and as the parade passed by the Macy’s building you could see on the side of the structure in big curvy letters the word “Believe.” Believe in what I found myself asking.
What do we believe in?
How do we follow this Jesus who sometimes is hard to follow?
In those times of struggle we may ask Jesus, “are you the one?”
And again Jesus does not ask us to look at him, but points us with eyes of faith to what goes on around us.
The eyes of those who had been blinded in despair are being opened by the love of Jesus through his disciples. (That would be you and me.)
The ill and the injured are being tended to by nurses and doctors here today and thousands serving right now in hospitals around the country.
The broken-hearted are being prayed for here and now and prayers continue to be lifted.
The poor and victimized are being helped rather than held in contention and judgment.
Yes, this is the work of our Lord and Savior. Yes Jesus is the One for whom the world waits, and often groans for in its deepest depths and sorrows and cries out for in its highest peaks. And yes, God’s holy work through the Christ is being done. And we get to have a part in it all.
When it comes to God’s work through Christ, expect the unexpected.