A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 15, 2013 (Advent III)
What a difference a week makes! Last Sunday we met John the Baptist out in the wilderness wearing camel skin and leather, loudly proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, dominating the scene along the banks of the river Jordan, railing against the hypocrisy of the religious establishment, while boldly foretelling the coming of the Messiah. That’s the John who looms larger than life this time of year, the one who rouses us from spiritual apathy and embodies the Advent call to “keep awake.” That’s the John about whom I fantasize erecting a giant inflatable lawn ornament to plop down next to Frosty and Rudolph and Christmas Snoopy as a reminder about what and who it is we’re really waiting to embrace on December 25th.
But this morning we encounter a very different side of the Baptist. We go from the voice of one crying out in the wilderness to a whisper inside the walls of a prison. We go from confident proclamation of the one who is to come to niggling doubts about whether Jesus is indeed the Messiah. From his cell, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It may be that prison life has gotten to John, broken him down to a shell of the man he once was. But I think the more likely reason is that he, like so many others, has misunderstood the nature of God’s kingdom and the Messiah’s role in it. His expectations are great but misguided.
Out in the wilderness John proclaimed a Messiah that would arrive with great fanfare. He had the crowd all worked up to receive a Messiah who would swoop down with trumpets blaring, a take-no-prisoner’s attitude, and an unmistakable might. As we heard last week, he tells the crowd that Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Compared to John’s vision and hope and expectation, Jesus doesn’t arrive with a bang but a whimper. Or if not a whimper, not the dramatic reckoning he had assumed.
The fact is, Jesus doesn’t come in like a fiery football coach giving his best half-time exhortation. He’s not organizing an armed rebellion against the Roman oppressors — the same ones that tossed John in the slammer. He shows up, calls a few uneducated fishermen to follow him around the countryside, eats a lot of meals with outcasts and sinners, advocates for the fringe members of society like widows and orphans, talks about love and justice and forgiveness. And it all makes John wonder if he had the wrong guy; if his whole life — which he knew would soon end — was a waste. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
Jesus, typically and perhaps frustratingly, doesn’t give John a direct “yes or no” answer. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” he tells his disciples. “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.” In other words, the kingdom of God is at hand; the prophecy of Isaiah has been fulfilled; the Messiah has indeed arrived. And yet John must change his expectations. Not lower them, mind you, but change them because this kingdom looks and feels a lot different than what he had envisioned.
Now, I don’t usually quote the TV show Family Guy in my sermons. It’s generally inappropriate, raunchy, violent, and bordering on sacrilegious. In other words, not great sermon fodder. But I’m making an exception this morning partly because there’s a great scene that highlights the whole notion of expectations. And also because with the potential for a big snow storm in the forecast, I wasn’t sure if anybody would actually show up.
“Okay everybody. I know you were expecting something else, but as science will tell you, people were a lot shorter two thousand years ago. So let’s try to be adult about this—no snickering. (someone snickers) Hey! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. So if we can all be mature—(someone pops chewing gum) give me the gum—we can get through this a lot faster.”
This wasn’t exactly the Family Guy Advent Special but it does remind us that our expectations don’t always mesh with God’s reality. And in a lot of ways we, too, need to change our expectations this time of year. What are you waiting for on December 25th? What do you expect to see and hear on Christmas morning? For many of us, it will mean unfettered joy. Perhaps there will be a fire in the fireplace, a big breakfast with bacon and eggs, Christmas music playing in the background, a warm fluffy robe, family, laughter, gifts.
This is all good stuff. But Jesus coming into the world also reminds us not to forget about those who are alone or hungry or cold or grieving or left out. Those who go without or who stand on the outside looking in. The marginalized and the victimized and the forgotten. What are their expectations for Christmas morning?
This isn’t meant to be a seasonal buzz kill. It’s a reminder that our expectations often differ from God’s vision; a reminder that Jesus’ birth ushers in a kingdom that isn’t always comfortable. It doesn’t always meet our own limited hopes and expectations. It doesn’t suddenly fix everything in this sinful and broken world — all you have to do is remember the shooting in Newtown or the violence that has taken place all over the world in the last 365 days. The Messiah brings comfort and healing but it’s not necessarily what John or any of us were expecting. It’s a comfort that doesn’t always make life easy or painless but a comfort that assures us of the divine presence even in the midst of tragedy.
Letting go of our expectations and focusing on God’s expectations is an important form of Advent preparation. I encourage you to enter into this mindset as we move ever closer to the manger and prepare to gaze anew upon our Lord. Allow yourself to receive him with both great fanfare and quiet, prayerful expectation. Come, Lord Jesus.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013