BIBLE READING: Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11 Matthew 11:2-11
Most of us have had experiences from time to time where we have got excited about some new thing and thrown ourselves into it with great enthusiasm and high expectations and then after a little while found ourselves rather disappointed. Perhaps it was the seven habits of highly effective people, or pilates, or conversational prayer, or a standing work-station, or the Pritikin diet, or an innovative daily planner, or speaking in tongues. Those things that were going to totally change our lives and which we spruiked with such passion to those around us, sometimes seem a bit embarrassing in hindsight. Whatever it was, it didn’t live up to expectations and left little behind but sadness and disappointment.
There are plenty of people who feel that way about Jesus. They gave the whole faith-in-Jesus thing a go, but it didn’t live up to expectations, and they gave up on it after a while. There have been people reacting that way to Jesus all along, even in his own lifetime. Judas was certainly one of them. And judging by the gospel story we heard tonight, John the Baptiser might have been one too, or at least one who began to ask the question: “Has this Jesus lived up to expectations, or has he let us down?”
The major themes of this Advent season focus around expectations, anticipation and hope. And the question of just what it is we are expecting is pretty important. We all had some sort of expectations of what it would mean when we chose to follow Jesus. We believed it would make a difference somehow, and just what we were expecting probably depended most on the beliefs and expectations of the Christians who most influenced us to make that decision. For some, it will have been significant personal outcomes: wellbeing, healing, inner peace, a sense of purpose and meaning, guaranteed entry to heaven, perhaps even prosperity and success here and now.
For others, especially those of you who were more influenced by the Christian left, it may have been more about being part of something that brought about substantial and lasting change for the better in the world. We expected to see poverty and preventable diseases eradicated, reconciliation between previously divided peoples, and an end to oppression and war. And for most, right across the theological spectrum, there will have been some sort of mix of a number of those things. And for most too, there was an expectation that there would come a day when the world would be put right, when God would take charge and justice would be dealt out and everyone would get their just desserts.
That last big one seems to have been central to the growing doubts that prompted John the Baptiser to send his question to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” “I know I told everyone that you were the one, but now I’m starting to have my doubts.”
We heard an example of John’s preaching last Sunday. It was full of warnings of a coming day of judgement, with images of God taking an axe to the root of the tree, and sorting wheat from chaff with a threshing fork, and purging evil from among the people with a flamethrower. As scary as it can sound, the hope for such a day is an almost universal human dream.
At its most naked, you can see it on the steps of the law courts whenever there is a trial over a crime that has shocked the community. Everyone is chanting for a day when the evildoers are made to pay for their crimes, for the day when the victims are vindicated and can stand proud and free as they watch their assailants dragged off in chains to be punished. Most of the time it is less overt, but most people hold some sort of hope that a day will come when those who have made the world an unfair, unsafe and miserable place will reap what they have sown, and ordinary folks like us who have mostly done the right thing by those around us will come out on top and be rewarded. The scales have been unjustly tipped against so many for so long that there is a widespread hunger to see them finally tipped the other way.
You can see these hopes and desires expressed in the eternally popular song of Mary, known as the Magnificat:
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
You can hear in that that the hoped for day of justice is not so much a day when everyone is put back on a level playing field, but when fortunes are reversed. There will still be a top and a bottom, a blessed and a cursed, but the occupants will be swapped. Those who climbed up over the top of everyone else before will be torn down and be themselves trampled upon. Mary’ song accurately discerns that God does not favour the rich and powerful over the little people, and it certainly accurately conveys our typical human hunger to see the scales tipped, but is it right in thinking that God endorses that hunger and stands poised to bring it to fulfilment? Or has the song fallen into its own trap and projected our desires onto God?
There is no doubt that Mary’s song would have got the big tick from her cousin’s son, John the Baptiser. His preaching was full of the same expectations of the scales tipped, the little people vindicated, and the powerful and exploitative cast into the fire with a threshing fork. And having confidently announced to all who would listen that Jesus was the one who had arrived to bring all this to fulfilment, you can hear the disappointment in his question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” What happened to the fire? Where’s the revolution, the glorious victory? How come wickedness and oppression haven’t been purged and punished yet?
And Jesus sends him back an answer that is partial and probably unsatisfying. It is perhaps fair to say that Jesus answers the letter of the question, but not the spirit of the question, the underlying question. He says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.”
All of that is, in effect, a positive answer to the question, because Jesus is quoting summaries of things that were expected to happen when the messiah came, but he is also doing one of those things that often infuriated people. He is quoting partially. He is editing stuff out. So he is claiming part of the messianic expectations, and saying, “Yes, I’m the one who was to come to do these things,” but he is simultaneously editing other things out of the expectations, and refusing to be drawn into them. And he is editing out precisely the things that John was so much wanting to hear: the great judgement, the axe at the root of the tree, the cosmic tipping of the scales and the fiery punishment.
And then Jesus says something very intriguing and probably extremely important. “And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.” Or perhaps more literally, “Blessed is anyone who is not scandalised by me.”
So what he is saying is “I’m not going to be everything you thought I was going to be. There are things you had wrong about what the coming of God’s messiah would mean. There are things you were projecting onto God that were just your own lusts, and I’m not buying into them. But stick with me. If you don’t get all offended and scandalised when I challenge your hopes, and you trust me and hang in there with me, you will find that far from losing out, your abandoned hopes will be converted and transcended, and the new world, though not what you were expecting, will be far greater than anything you ever dreamed of.”
The world witnessed a very similar thing happening in the public life of Nelson Mandela. After decades of oppression in South Africa, you had exactly the sort of social conditions that create the strongest hunger for a day of justice when the scales are tipped and the oppressors are torn down and humiliated and made to pay for the evil they have perpetrated. Mary’s Magnificat was no doubt a popular part of the repertoire of freedom songs:
God will bring down the powerful from their thrones,
and lift up the lowly;
God will fill the hungry with good things,
and send the rich oppressors away empty.
And Mandela himself was the victim of a huge personal injustice, locked away for twenty seven years, so he too would have been expected to be angry and ready to turn the tables on his release and rise to power. He was, on his release, very much a messiah figure: one in whom great hopes were invested, one whose coming was expected to bring the tipping of the scales and the day of judgement. And if Mandela had chosen to seek vengeance on a national scale, he would have had no trouble bringing the people with him in a great wave of righteous violent anger that would have seen the nation consumed in the fires of judgement. He could have easily done it, because it was what most were expecting and perhaps most were wanting. It was what Robert Mugabe did in Zimbabwe.
But Mandela rose above that easy and easily defensible temptation. Like Jesus, his messianic quest brought compassion instead of vengeance, and reconciliation instead of judgement. He sought to convert oppressors rather than humiliate them, and he sought to destroy his enemies only by turing them into friends. And have no doubt that there were plenty of discontented voices within the African National Congress who were asking the John question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” What happened to the fire? When do we get to dance on the graves of our oppressors? Mugabe took the easy way. Understandable, but ultimately far less courageous. And history is going to remember the two of them very differently.
If you’re depending on Jesus fulfilling all your expectations, whatever they might be, then I’ve got bad news for you. He probably won’t. And if you cling to those expectations and insist on their rightness and their being the appropriate measure of Jesus’s worth, then you will probably be offended and scandalised by his apparent disregard for your cherished dreams and delusions. And you will be disappointed in him, and probably give up on him and abandon his path at some point. But if you are willing to trust him completely, and allow him to rewrite your hopes and dreams in the shape of his scandalous love and compassion and mercy, and his often unwelcome commitment to reconciliation instead of revenge, then I can assure you that, though your former yearnings and hopes will probably be disappointed, you will instead find yourself converted and transformed and lifted to a nobility of spirit that you could barely have imagined, and ushered into the exhilarating new world that is being born even now.
Acknowledgment: Nathan Nettleton