On Sunday I had the opportunity to speak during the morning service at Toowong Uniting Church (our family hangs out with the TUC community regularly). It’s a rare thing for me, and aside from the anxiety it induces, it was an enjoyable experience. The message is based on a reading from Matthew 11:1-11 – read it here. Here’s the words I used on Sunday:
Recently I had the opportunity to head over to New Zealand for a few days to help my brother celebrate what we like to call a “zero” birthday. He was turning 40.
We had been planning the trip most of the year since first deciding to go, and had a pretty fair idea of what it would involve. 5 blokes, a lake house, a big bike ride, golf, great food and drink, spectacular scenery, spur of the moment adventures. What’s not to like about that plan?
I have to tell you that for the last couple of months, thoughts of that NZ trip were never far away for me. I was excited to go, and would spend completely inappropriate amounts of time looking forward to the trip, imagining what the experience would be like, living out the various adventures we had planned while we were there.
The anticipation was delicious. And unbearable. I was so excited I could hardly wait.
On another occasion several years ago, I was approaching some planned surgery after damaging my knee in a moment of testosterone fuelled foolishness. Once again, in the weeks leading up to the surgery, I could think of little else.
On this occasion however, while I held some hope for the outcomes of a repaired knee, the overwhelming emotion in those prior weeks was anxiety.
I would be unconscious, they would be cutting me open, twisting and turning and fabricating new parts for my knee. When I woke I would be in pain and looking at weeks and months of rehab to get back to full health.
Instead of anticipation, I experienced trepidation.
Not so long ago our family had the chance to join a bunch of others in heading up to Camp Cobbold, to share a week in the life of cattle farming families in remote north Queensland.
We honestly had very little idea what to expect. We knew there would be some fun, and we knew there would be some hard work. And we definitely had some reservations about three days each way locked in the confines of our car with our three kids – perfectly well behaved, never complaining wonderful children as they are.
On that occasion it wasn’t so much anticipation or trepidation, but something more akin to uncertainty.
We were just not quite sure how it was all going to work out. Lots of questions, and not very many answers.
It seems to me that when we are waiting for something, the experience of that waiting and the nature of the emotions at play vary wildly depending on what’s coming up.
Anticipation, trepidation or uncertainty? Maybe some other words fit for you.
When it comes to Christmas, to this advent season, sometimes those same emotions are at work.
For some (and here I include just about everybody under the age of 15) it is unbridled anticipation. Family, summer holidays, food, presents and more. The whole Christmas experience is one to be treasured, and in the days ahead the anticipation will build to almost fever pitch (if it hasn’t already).
For others it’s not so nice. I met a bloke last week who in the course of our conversation told me he has celebrated Christmas with his mother and brother every year for 37 years. This year, for a range of reasons, he’s on his own. He’s not looking forward to it at all. He is anticipating pain, anguish and loneliness.
And then there’s the rest of us, stuck somewhere in the middle with a host of unknowns. Will Aunty Mabel get stuck into the Christmas punch and pick a fight with Aunty Jean? Will the crazy uncle go a little too far this year? Will the kids overdose on that deadly combination of excess sugar and insufficient sleep and go wild? And when the credit card bill arrives in January….well, less said the better. There are anxieties.
In today’s reading we encounter John the Baptist. John the cousin of Jesus.
John is the wandering prophet who for years had been looking forward to the one who was to come after him.
Who had wandered the wilderness proclaiming this one to follow – pointing forward to people, proclaiming the need for repentance. Preparing the way.
And as we read now, John is in prison. Maybe he’s smuggled in his iPad and is using facebook to follow along with news from the outside world.
He’s particularly keeping a close eye on news from Jesus and his crew of followers.
Ever since John baptised him in the river Jordan, he has known, has been looking forward, has been anticipating all that was to come. John knows, he has told everyone who will listen and maybe some who won’t:
“Jesus is the one.”
It’s been long lived, this anticipation, and delicious. John is excited.
But as he peruses his iPad from the solitude of his cell, things aren’t quite adding up.
John had lived an ascetic lifestyle, wandering in the desert, eating simple food, dressing simply. The classic life of a prophet. And proclaiming a message of repentance. And he had anticipated a messiah after his own heart, one who lived that same kind of lifestyle. His words to the public (including religious leaders) reveal something of what he expected:
“Beware of the coming wrath. The one to come will baptise with Holy Spirit and with fire. He will clear his threshing floor. He will gather the wheat and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
John is anticipating one who will be mighty, will be loud and insistent and strident and unapologetic. One who will be unmistakable.
And so he is puzzled. These are not the kinds of stories he is hearing about Jesus. News filters through and it’s not pulpit thumping messages that call people to account, that tell it like it is, that demand repentance in the strongest possible terms. It’s not wild and powerful, no stirrings of revolution.
Instead he hears the story of the Sermon on the Mount. Of healing; of compassion; of grace. Of Jesus hanging out with Samaritans and tax collectors.
And so John is confused, uncertain. Maybe this isn’t the guy after all?
And so he sends some of his own team to find out what’s going on. To visit Jesus and seek clarification.
“Are you the one I’ve been waiting for?” is his question to Jesus. “Are you who I thought you were going to be? Are you who I expected? Or do I need to keep searching?”
You can hear the undercurrents of uncertainty and confusion in his questions.
John does not just doubt Jesus, he doubts himself: “Maybe all this time, I’ve been wrong.”
John’s expectations were high. He was bubbling with anticipation. And now he’s not so sure after all.
And what of Jesus? Does he send word back saying “it’s ok, it’s really me, be patient a little longer?”
No. Typically the Jesus portrayed in the gospels answers obliquely. And this time is no different.
“Go back and tell him what you have seen” he says. And then in words unmistakably similar to his great missional manifesto from the synagogue scene in Luke 4, he outlines what John’s followers should be noticing:
- Sight to the blind
- Healing for the lame
- Lepers cleansed
- The deaf hear
- The dead are raised
- Good news for the poor
Jesus, it seems to me, in this story refuses to play the expectations game. He refuses to participate in John’s anticipated messiah image. By asking John’s messengers to observe what is going on, and go tell those stories to John, Jesus changes the question.
The message to John here is not “yes I am the one you have been waiting for.” And it’s not “no I’m not the one you have been waiting for, keep looking.”
Instead the answer seems to me at least to be: “You’re looking for the wrong thing. Here’s what you should be looking for: healing, hope, grace, compassion, mercy, good news. That’s who I am. I am shaped after the heart of God.”
Not for the first time, and definitely not for the last, Jesus declares that his life is about something different.
His life is about standing alongside those who are routinely abandoned.
It’s about standing alongside those who are invisible; who are neglected; who are hated.
Most of all, those who are feared.
Jesus is about revealing the heart of God for the people of God. He’s not about meeting expectation or anticipation.
We can see this same pattern repeated more than once through Jesus life.
Whether it be in this encounter with John the baptiser, with his own disciples, with the religious leaders of the day. Even in front of Pontius Pilate the very night before his own death.
Jesus refuses to conform to expectations.
And those around him never quite know what to make of it all.
And now, with 2000 years of lived Christian experience? With four written gospels to learn from? With the chance to learn about Jesus every week in worship, and in countless small group bible studies?
We of course do get it. We don’t have unfulfilled expectations of Jesus.
We know what Jesus was about, what he asks of us.
We get it.
I get it. It’s clear.
Except, do you know? I won’t speak on your behalf, but I’m not that sure that I always do. I’m not sure that I don’t suffer from the same problems John the Baptist does in this story – where the Jesus I expect isn’t always the Jesus I encounter.
Where the answers I have ready on hand don’t always line up with the questions Jesus asks of me.
Where I’m looking for the wrong thing, asking the wrong question.
For many people, as we already noted, this time of year is filled with anticipation. It is filled with looking toward the fun and celebration of Christmas. For those of us who know ourselves as followers of Jesus, we add the remembering and celebrating of his coming to live among us.
We anticipate the good news heralded by Jesus life. The one who makes all things right, who brings light to the world, who is the prince of peace. Who is love. Who lives love. Who invites love. Who defends the broken, embraces the weak, frees the captive.
These things we know.
But do we really know?
Are we asking the right question?
Imagine asking Jesus today “Are you the one we have been waiting for? Or do I look somewhere else?” What would his answer be?
“Look around and tell me what you see.
The hungry fed.
The sick cared for.
The prisoner kept company, set free.
The blind receive sight.
The lame walk.
Good news shared with the poor.”
This Christmas; this week; this day even. Find some quiet space amid all the noise and busyness and anticipation. Take up a bible, a pen and journal. Put down your expectations. Read a whole gospel. Invite the spirit of God to speak as you do.
Make your question a simple one: “Who really is this Jesus I follow?”
And be ready for an answer that might surprise you.