Redefining Christmas: Reveal
Have you ever had your expectations completely shattered? Have you ever been totally off base in your expectations about something? Well, I guess I can answer that for you. Of course you have. We all have, I’m sure, in our many experiences had a time when what we expected, and what we got, were two completely different things. A trivial example: In seminary I took my United Methodist history, doctrine, and polity classes online. My seminary was big into embracing technology, and taking the class online was convenient. (I have to also tell you it involved a lot more work than some of my traditional classes!) Anyway, the professor was a professor who was based right on Drew’s campus. I’d just never seen him before. He worked mostly with Doctor of Ministry students, and I was a Master of Divinity student. His office wasn’t in the main seminary building. And I’d just never seen him before. So as I was taking this online class, I only had a picture in my head of what Dr. Savage might look like. And then, one day, there he was, right in front of me. And he was absolutely nothing like I'd pictured at all. He was a different age, height, had a different style, voice. He was nothing like what I expected, and I had a very hard time reconciling my mental picture with the actual.
Sometimes the different between our expectation and reality is more significant though. I’ve occasionally met with folks in my ministry who are surprised to discover that I’m the pastor. This was particularly true in my first parish. In my first two appointments, I was the first clergy woman to ever serve that church. But I found it wasn’t being a woman that threw people for a loop – it was my age. When I started in Oneida, I was just 24. My office was the first one you would reach in the church. It had a sign over it: Pastor’s Study. It had one desk in the office, and one person at the desk: me. And yet, still, people would come in, look in the office, look at me, and say, “Is the pastor in?” I wish I could capture in pictures the look of surprise on the faces when I responded, “that’s me!” And yet, I found myself doing the same thing: when I was attending a conference on social justice ministries, I attended a workshop with the executive director of one of the organizations. To my surprise, she was very young. I could feel my surprise and wonder. I had to remind myself: isn’t that the very reaction I get all the time? When it comes to people meeting or shattering our expectations, we have to work very hard at not judging books by their covers, lest we miss the important message someone has to reveal to us.
Today our gospel text again focuses on John the Baptist, although we skip ahead a bit, farther into the gospel of Matthew, and at issue is expectations. Are they being shattered? Fulfilled? Both? John is in prison – he was put there for criticizing King Herod Antipas for his adultery – Herod married his brother’s wife – causing both Herod and new wife Herodias to divorce – Herod from his wife, Herodias from Herod’s own brother – Herod Phillip. Today such an action might be considered questionable but legal. In Herod’s day it was both immoral and against Jewish law. John the Baptist spoke out and spoke the truth, as was his custom, and it landed him in jail.
While he’s there, he sends some of his followers – yes, John had followers of his own – he sends some of them to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John, who has risked so much, and will ultimately give his own life in order to stand for the truth, to preach the message of repentance and forgiveness – he wants to make very sure the person he’s put it on the line for is the person he thinks. Jesus and John may be cousins, but they’ve travelled in very different words, Jesus always among the crowds, and John in the wilderness, in a place set apart. Their approaches are so very different, and by now, by this point in Matthew’s gospel, it should be apparent to John that the one he described in our text last week as wielding a winnowing fork, like an ax lying at the root of the trees – well, this Jesus is very different than John expected. He must be sure. Is Jesus the one?
Jesus tells them to return to John and tell him what they’ve seen: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus is paraphrasing words from the prophet Isaiah, words that he read from the scroll at the beginning of his preaching ministry. They’re words that indicate that Jesus sees himself fulfilling Isaiah’s vision. And they say to John: what does the evidence tell you? What do you see? You see the results – the good fruit perhaps – and that should tell you who I am.
As John’s disciples leave, Jesus turns to question the crowd, now turning the conversation to who John is, what John’s identity means. Jesus wants to know what the people were hoping to see when they went out to see John. A spectacle? A sham? The real thing – a prophet? Yes, Jesus says, a prophet, and more than a prophet. One announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God. Our passage closes with someone confusing words – Jesus says that even though John is the greatest of those born of women, yet still the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John. How can that be? Well, it seems that Jesus is trying to draw a line – to show that while John was announcing the kingdom – actually being part of this kingdom of God that’s at hand – that’s the best thing of all.
Is Jesus what John expected? Is John the messenger that the crowds expected? Does Jesus act in our lives as we’ve expected? Perhaps you’ve heard this little joke, this fable of sorts. A person was trapped in their house after a flood, waiting for help. He prayed and prayed for God to rescue him. He had faith God would hear his prayer. The water started to rise in his house. His neighbor urged him to leave and offered him a ride to safety. The man yelled back, “I am waiting for God to save me.” The neighbor drove off in his pick-up truck. The man continued to pray. As the water began rising in his house, he had to climb up to the roof. A boat came by with some people heading for safe ground. They yelled at the man to grab a rope they were ready to throw and take him to safety. He told them that he was waiting for God to save him. They shook their heads and moved on. The man continued to pray, believing with all his heart that he would be saved by God. The flood waters continued to rise. A helicopter flew by and a voice came over a loudspeaker offering to lower a ladder and take him off the roof. The man waved the helicopter away, shouting back that he was waiting for God to save him. The helicopter left. The flooding water came over the roof and caught him up and swept him away. He drowned. When he reached heaven and asked, “God, why did you not save me? I believed in you with all my heart. Why did you let me drown?” God replied, “I sent you a pick-up truck, a boat and a helicopter and you refused all of them. What else could I possibly do for you?”
Can we hear God’s voice if God doesn’t call us exactly the way we expected? The season of Advent is about longing, waiting, but I think it also about what is revealed to us – the things that we discover that shatter our expectations in the best of ways. God is so much more than we expect. But there’s more to it than that. If Jesus is different than we expect, if God shatters our expectations, it is so that we can be different than we expect of ourselves too. That’s what John preached about. That’s what Jesus taught about and longed for – for the people – for us – to be different than the low expectations we set for ourselves. Actually, throughout the New Testament, the writers of the epistles talk about what and who we really are in God being revealed. Paul says, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” And in 1 John we find words often part of funeral liturgies: Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him.” That’s exactly what I think Advent is, as we move into the blessings of Christmas – Jesus is revealed – and as it turns out, we are in fact revealed to be like him, made in God’s image, imitators of Christ. At least, we can set that as our aim, our purpose, our hope.
In the unexpected, God is revealed to us. Examine your life. In what situations is God showing up in unexpected ways? In what people can you catch glimpses of God revealed where you weren’t even looking? How can you be more than you expected of yourself, as the changing power of God’s love is at work in you? Sometimes things aren’t as we expect. And thank God for that. Amen.