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What Do We Expect?
a sermon based on Matthew 11:2-11
by Rev. Rick Thompson

     What are you expecting this Christmas?

     The elusive perfect family gathering, with no tension and every one able to be present?  The perfect Christmas gift?  A spiritually refreshing, stress-free holiday?  Inner peace like you’ve never known before?  

     What are you expecting this Christmas?  Do you think your expectations will all be met?

     Or, thinking beyond Christmas, what do you expect out of life?  Good health and length of days?  Safety and security?  A good job—or, in this economy, any job at all?  A good family, filled with love for one another and pride in each other?  Satisfaction and purpose in living?

     Do you think that’s what life will send you–without exception?

     And what do you expect from God?  What do you expect from God?

     That’s a big question, isn’t it! 

     We’d surely like God to bless us, wouldn’t we?  To keep us happy and healthy?  To keep our families and friends safe?  To make the world a peaceful place, putting an end to tension in our families and violence in our communities and war in our world?  And wouldn’t we like God to wave a magic wand and put our financial worries to rest? Cure the disease that threatens our life or the life of a loved one? 

     And, while we’re at it, wouldn’t we like God to destroy our enemies?  To root out injustice and end hunger?  To condemn the wicked and save the righteous?  To bring judgment to those who deserve it–and, if we’re honest about it, doesn’t that mean those we don’t like?  And wouldn’t we like it if God did all that with as little inconvenience as possible for us?

     That sounds a lot like the expectations of John the Baptizer.  Last week, we heard him thundering and roaring in the desert: “Repent!  Turn around!  Be baptized for the forgiveness of sins!  Messiah is coming, and when he comes, there’s going to be fire!  There’s going to be judgment!  So clean up your act and get ready!”

     And this week, we meet John again.  He’s in prison.  He’s been arrested for telling the truth to King Herod about Herod’ own sins.  (Rulers don’t always like to hear the truth, you know.  And sometimes they take it out on the truth-tellers.)

     So John the Baptizer is in prison.  Meanwhile, Jesus has been creating quite a stir, curing the sick, casting out demons, giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, making the lame walk, calming the sea, and even raising the dead.  Jesus has been eating with sinners and tax-collectors, announcing God’s favor for the poor, forgiving sins and teaching the truths of God in profound and provocative ways that astound his listeners and make them wonder, “Who is this?  Where does he get his authority and power?”

     And John’s disciples are bringing reports about all of this to John when they come to visit him in prison.  And it makes John wonder.  Back when he had baptized Jesus--over John’s own objections–he had thought Jesus was the Messiah.  But now he wasn’t so sure.  Jesus wasn’t living up to his expectations.  Where was the fire?  Where was the judgment?  Why wasn’t Jesus meeting John’s expectation?

     So John sends his disciples to Jesus with a question: “Are you the one we’re expecting?  Are you the Messiah, or shall we look for another?”

     John was expecting a Messiah who came with thunder and the fire of judgment.

   Instead, Jesus came.  Jesus came, and demonstrated mercy and forgiveness and a willingness to suffer for the sake of God’s kingdom.  

     What kind of Messiah was that?

     Well, it was the Messiah God intended.  Jesus came and did the works of God.  The amazing teaching, the astounding healings and cures, the concern for the poor, forgiving sins and raising the dead–this all came from God! 

     Indirectly, Jesus makes that claim in his answer to John.  “Go and tell John what you see and hear,” Jesus instructs John’s disciples.  And he summarizes the work he’s been doing, and the words he’s been saying, and he recalls some Old Testament prophecies about the healing and life-giving work of Messiah. Jesus seems to be saying, “The things I’m doing and saying–aren’t they the words and deeds of Messiah?  Maybe not the Messiah John expects, but certainly the Messiah God has promised!”

     In Jesus, God has come to be with the people.  He has come in surprising ways–giving life and showing mercy, rather than judging and destroying like a conquering King.  God has come to be with the people!

     It is jarring, to be sure, when God comes.  It was startling to John, so startling that he had to send a delegation to ask Jesus what he was doing.  And isn’t it startling to us?  Startling when God comes with forgiveness, rather than condemnation-–especially toward our personal enemies?  Startling when Jesus comes offering comfort to the wrong people and life to the dead?  Yes, it IS startling!


     Jesus comes–comes even now–with blessing and life.  Not to satisfy all of our personal expectations, but to satisfy the deepest needs and longings of the whole creation.  The need for healing and hope.  The need for forgiveness and new life.  The need for God’s presence, and God’s promise–the promise that we belong to God no matter what!

     Is that the Jesus we’re expecting this Christmas? 

     That’s the Jesus who comes!

     Jesus comes, with a gentle strength, and brings the fullness of God’s kingdom.

     Do you see that kingdom?  Do you see where God is at work?  Do you see where Jesus has come?

     Often it’s in places of deepest darkness.

     It’s pretty dark these days, isn’t it.  High unemployment.  Financial anxiety.  Incessant warfare.  Violence and hatred. Personal challenges and suffering.  Darkness.  All kinds of darkness.   

     And there, in the midst of it all, is God.

     Do you see God at work?  Do you see God at work, through those who pray and work for peace?  As people band together to support and care for those who are struggling?  As hope is stirred in troubles hearts?  As forgiveness is offered and received, and reconciliation begins?

     Do you see God at work?

     When God goes to work, the darkness becomes a little less dark, and the light shines a little more brightly.

     And God is working now.  Do you believe that?  Do you believe God is at work in your life–in the places of darkness and pain and hopelessness?  Do you believe God is at work, not to give what we want and expect–but to give us what we really and truly need?

     Yes, God is at work.  And the church is evidence of it.  And the church gives witness to God at work.  That’s why we’re here.  That’s what our task is this Advent–and in every season–to point to the coming of God in Christ.  To point others to the life-giving work of God among us and in the world.

     Church consultant Kennon Callahan suggests that people have a right to ask the church a similar question to the one John’s disciples asked Jesus.  Callahan suggests that people are asking the church: “Are you really God’s servants, or should we look somewhere else?”

     And how would we answer that question?  Are we servants of God?  Have we made the surprising discover that God comes not primarily to judge, but to give and restore life?  And do we point to the way God does that work in the world, in the church, in us?

    And–and this is the crucial question–do we do the work of God?  Knowing that Jesus comes, not always to meet our expectations, but to do the work of God, do we join him in that work?

     Are we, God’s Advent people, who celebrate and anticipate the coming of Christ–are we busy, while we wait, doing the work of Christ?  Forgiving sins.  Proclaiming good news to the poor.  Tending to and healing the sick.  Announcing the kingdom of God, which has come among us.

     That may not be what the world expects from God.

     But it’s what the world needs.  It’s what we need.

     And God gives it—abundantly—in Christ!