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Expecting A Different Kind of King
based on Matthew 11:2-11
Pick up any December woman's magazine, and you'll see articles titled "Coping with the Holidays," "How to Avoid Holiday Stress," "Helping your Children Face the Season." I even have an article I tore out from Sunday School Leader magazine a few years ago, titled "Helping Children Get Through the Holidays." The morning news-talk shows have segments on "How to Have a Happy Holiday." The presumption is that there will be stressful moments, anxious minutes, and some downright awful times during the holiday season because what happens during the holiday season very often does not meet our expectations of what should happen during the holiday season.
The December 1997, issue of American Demographics tells us: In the average United States county, residents will spend $365 per child on toys, games, hobbies, tricycles and battery- powered riders this year, according to National Decision Systems, and they are projected to spend $470 in 2002 .... In Provo-Orem, Utah (Utah County), median income is close to the national mark ($34,000), but per-child toy spending is a lot lower ($212). One reason is that a high proportion (38 percent) of county residents are children. Another could be that in this Mormon town, Christmas is more about religion and less about toys.
Some say it is the commercialism which permeates our American culture that raises our expectations for Christmas. We want picture-perfect New England villages in the middle of the Prairie. We want our jeans and sweats kids to be ecstatic when we make them wear coats and ties and petticoats. We want our microwave to produce a seven-course gourmet dinner. Most of all, we want years of family rivalries and bickering to suddenly stop for one day because it's Christmas.
Children, especially, have expectations this time of year. When Matthew was three, he asked Santa for a teddy bear. Bob and I were surprised because he already had a teddy bear that he took everywhere with him to bed, to day care, shopping. When he was sent to his room for some offense or another, he would cry for "best friend, Koko." I was always surprised that we didn't leave Koko behind somewhere, but then he was too important to forget. So, when Matthew asked Santa, at age three, for a second teddy bear, we were surprised. I guess Santa was, too, because Santa didn't leave one that year. Koko continued to be Matthew's best friend and time-out buddy, and we never heard a word about another teddy bear until the next Christmas. At the end of his letter to Santa he wrote: "and the bear you forgot to bring me last year." When he went to visit Santa at the mall, Matthew reminded him to bring "the bear you forgot to bring me last year." When he told his grandparents what he wanted for Christmas he said "and the bear Santa forgot to bring me last year." When Santa called him on the phone on Christmas Eve, as he does every year, Matthew reminded him "don't forget the bear you forgot last year." Santa didn't forget that year, and under the tree on Christmas morning was a small, soft, dark brown bear whom Matthew promptly named "Misfit." I don't know what was going on in that three year old mind for a whole year until he got his second teddy bear. I do know that he definitely expected to get his teddy bear.
Perhaps the most unusual story about expectations is Charles's Dicken's Great Expectations. In that story, a wealthy bride is dressing for her wedding, when she gets word, at twenty-minutes-to-nine, that the groom is not coming. From that day on, all the clocks in her house are set at twenty-minutes-to-nine the time she learned she would never be a bride. When the book opens, many years later, Ms. Haversham is still wearing her wedding gown; the wedding cake is still on the table, covered with dust and cobwebs; and the clocks are still set at twenty-minutes-to-nine. Talk about post-traumatic stress syndrome!
Christmas is a time of great expectations. The Jews in John's day expected a Messiah. They expected someone who would be a king who would ride into Jerusalem in a chariot of fire, overthrow the Roman Empire, and place Israel over all the nations. They expected a warrior king surrounded by angels. They expected someone who would judge the wicked and bring down the mighty. Our Old Testament lesson tells of this expectation: Your God is coming to punish your enemies. God will take revenge on them and rescue you. [Isa 35:4, CEV]
Even Mary's Magnificat echoes some of this expectation: He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He 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. [Luke 1:51-53] John, Jesus' cousin, who leapt in his mother's womb when Mary arrived at their house, had expectations of his cousin: "He 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." [Mat 3:11-12]
Yet, in this morning's scripture lesson, John is questioning whether Jesus is the Messiah. John had been imprisoned by King Herod. On a visit to his brother in Rome, Herod had seduced his brother's wife. He went home, dismissed his own wife and married his sister-in-law, whom he had lured away from her husband, his brother. John the Baptist had publicly and sternly rebuked Herod's blatant sin. (This was in the days before Congressional committees, mind you.) Herod took his revenge and had John thrown into the dungeons of the Machaerus fortress in the mountains near the Dead Sea. It must have seemed to John, when he heard what Jesus was doing the healings, the miracles, the teachings that if Jesus were the Messiah, he could do something about John being in prison. And so, John sent his messengers to Jesus: "Are you the one who is to come?" he asked. "Are you the Messiah?" John wanted to know. John, it seems was disappointed that Jesus had not brought his army of angels to destroy sinful Rome or at the least, let John out of prison. Jesus reply was: "tell him the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are healed, and the poor have good news brought to them."
Jesus did not directly answer John's question, but pointed to his actions as evidence of who he is. It is as though Jesus is saying: "See for yourself, then decide." Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, notes: In Jesus' time, people tended to expect a messiah who would exterminate wickedness in all its forms. This conviction was interpreted on the one hand to mean that the sinful elements in Judaism would experience a wrathful rejection, and on the other hand that the political forces that restricted the full freedom of Israel would be overthrown as Israel moved into a position of supremacy. But Jesus was no Jewish Caesar, and he did not pour out wrath universally in repudiation of evil. Though John recognized enough of God's power at work to indicate that Jesus might be the long-awaited messiah, still he had reservations about identifying Jesus with the terms of his expectations.
Each of us has our own definition of who and what we want Jesus to be. In The Jesus I Never Knew, Phillip Yancey writes: The Lakota tribe, for example, refers to Jesus as the buffalo calf of God.' The Cuban government distributes a painting of Jesus with a carbine slung over his shoulder. During the wars of religion with France, the English used to shout, The pope is French but Jesus Christ is English.' Modern scholarship further muddies the picture. If you peruse the academic books available at a seminary bookstore you may encounter Jesus as a political revolutionary, as a magician who married Mary Magdalene, as a Galilean charismatic, a rabbi, a peasant Jewish cynic, a Pharisee, an anti-Pharisee Essene, an eschatological prophet, a hippie in a world of Augustan yuppies' and as the hallucinogenic leader of a sacred mushroom cult. Serious scholars write these works with little sign of embarrassment. Athletes come up with creative portrayals of Jesus that elude modern scholarship.
Norm Evans, former Miami Dolphins lineman, wrote in his book, On God's Squad, I guarantee you Christ would be the toughest guy who ever played this game. If he were alive today I would picture a six-foot- six-inch, 260-pound defensive tackle who would always make the big plays and would be hard to keep out of the backfield for offensive linemen like myself.' Fritz Peterson, former New York Yankee, more easily fancies Jesus in a baseball uniform: I firmly believe that if Jesus Christ was sliding into second base, he would knock the second baseman to left field to break up the double play. Christ might not throw a spitball, but he would play hard within the rules.' In the midst of such confusion," Yancey writes, "how do we answer the simple question, Who was Jesus?' So often, we want Jesus to be Jesus our way, instead of seeing the Christ who is. "Maybe I am not doing things the way you expected me to do," he says to John. "Yet, the powers of evil are being defeated not by irresistible force, but by unanswerable love." That is what is so difficult many of us want a king who will sweep away our enemies, instead of change them; who will punish the wicked, instead of love them; who will rescue us from ourselves, instead of teaching us how to endure.
What is it that you expect this Christmas? Besides a house full of company, a sink full of dirty dishes, and doing all the Christmas cards, shopping, and wrapping, yourself what do you expect? Besides putting up the lights yourself and trying to figure out where the extension cords are and where all those boxes are going to go what do you expect? Besides toys and clothes and gobs of presents what do you expect? Do you expect Jesus this Christmas? Do you expect not only the tiny baby in the manger, but the Christ who came in love to redeem the world? So often, we miss Jesus because of our preconceived notions about what and who Jesus should be for us. So often, we miss a possible relationship with Christ because we can only see the way we want him to be, not the way he is.
What Jesus was saying to John that day was: "Not only am I the one who is to come, I am the one who is here." The kingdom of God is coming yes, we expect that. But in the meanwhile, the Kingdom of God has begun. It is here. The kingdom of God is in our giving unselfishly to those in need; in a spring thunderstorm's rainbow; in our love for each other. The kingdom of God is here, when a cancer is cured, when a loved one returns home, when we reach out to those in pain. We no longer have to ask "How long, Lord?" for we know the Lord has come. The Jews expected a Messiah who would be a king who would ride into Jerusalem in a chariot of fire, overthrow the Roman Empire, and place Israel over all the nations. They expected a warrior king surrounded by angels. They expected someone who would judge the wicked and bring down the mighty. They got a baby in a manger, a king on a donkey, and a savior on a cross. So did we. God grant that we open our hearts to the one who has already come.
Frank Schaefer, for JavaCasa Resources and the Desperate Preacher's Site, 1999