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Great Expectations

Sermon - 12/12/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 11:2-15

The passage for this Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, is one of the stories of John the Baptist. It's traditional during the Advent season that we recall the stories of John because he is the one preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah.

And so this year, we're looking at the story in Matthew's Gospel, the 11th chapter:

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way before you.”

11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15Let anyone with ears listen!


So, watching April with her daughter Hannah takes me back a few years, and I go back even farther to Advent of 1988 when we were pregnant with our first child. Well, I use the royal "we" there, you know. I hae something to do with it, but after 22 years, it becomes a little foggy :).

At any rate, Judy was pregnant. The liturgical resource I was using that year had this call to worship on the first Sunday of Advent: "This is a time of pregnant expectation. These are the days of waiting and watching". And, as you know, there are four Sunday's of Advent. The next Sunday it began the same way: "This is a time of pregnant expectations. These are the days of watching and waiting". The third Sunday: "This is a time of pregnant expectations. These are the days of waiting and watching". The fourth Sunday: "This is a time of pregnant expectations. These are the days of waiting and watching".

People were beginning to get suspicious. I don't know if it was that, or my sermon title that Sunday, which was: "Fruit of the Womb" :).

One of the Elders took me aside and said 'You know, all this pregant stuff is getting a little much'. Judy reminded us in the first service (I'd forgotten this), that it was during that season when Paulina was born in July, and the word came out, Judy was doing a solo, and someone came up to her and said "You're just glowing -- are you pregnant?". Women know that, there's something there, I don't get it. But they picked up on that.

So here we are, we're halfway through the Advent season, we're now closer to that long-awaited event that has been steadily rolling in expectation and excitement and anticipation, that we are to it's conception when it was nothing more than a twinkle in the eye of Chip Kelly. I refer, of course, to the BCS bowl game :). We being a people of great expectations, almighty Oregon!

Preachers are notorious for never meeting a good title they couldn't plagiarize. And so I plagiarize this title from Charles Dickens, who of course first used it in telling the story of Pip, whose expectations in life are repeatedly raised and and then dashed. We hope that will not be the case for mighty Oregon :).

But Matthew's gospel is a story of great expectations as well. You'll recall that Matthew's Gospel is a story of great expectations as well. You'll recall it's Matthew that tells us the story of the Magi, popularized as three Kings, who come bearing gifts for the newborn infant king. And then at the baptism of Jesus, we hear that voice from the heavens who says "This is my son with whom I am well pleased". And shortly after that, we hear Jesus' greatest sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Beatitudes.

So Matthew gets us off to a big start. Pregnant with great expectation of even better things to come. But of course we know what happens in the story. Somewhere along the way, one of his trusted disciples betrays him. Another one denies him. And in his time of greatest need, all will flee him.

But long before we get to those agonizing events of Good Friday that will dash those expectations (at least for awhile), John the Baptist appears to have some doubts as well.

Are you the one?, he asked through his followers, that we have awaited? Or shall we wait for another? And it's rather a surprising question coming from John in Matthew's Gospel, if you stop and think about it, because in Matthew, at the baptism of Jesus, John is the one who protests. That story is only in Matthew's Gospel -- he protests, saying "I'm not worthy to untie the thongs of your sandal. I should be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?".

So how is it now that John seems to have some doubts? In Matthew's chronology, this is perhaps 4, 5, 6 months (of the same year), not that much time has passed, and yet he has questions. What has changed?

Now, the first thing we have to remember is that Matthew is not writing a biography of Jesus, he's proclaiming the good news of Jesus. That is, it's more about theology than history. It's about what God is doing through Jesus Christ, not what Jesus may be doing, hanging out with John the Baptist. In other words, Matthew really isn't that concerned about what John thinks or believes. If he were, he would have told us how John responded to this message that Jesus sent back to him through his followers. It's much more likely than John's question 'Are you the one?' is the question of Matthew's readers, put here on the lips of John, so that we can now hear how Jesus would answer that critical question. Are you the one?

"Go and tell John", and we infer, then, go and tell not just John, but everyone, "what you hear and see".

And the bigger and harder question, then, is why does this question even arise in the first place. Whether from the contemporaries of John and Jesus, or the contemporaries of Matthew, how could anyone who knew Jesus, or who knew others who knew Jesus, have any doubt or any question? Were not his teachings enough? Were not his miracles enough? Was not just the presence, being in his presence, enough?

If John had questions, what about us?

And here is the hard yet necessary answer: Jesus, quite frankly, truthfully, did not meet the expectations of a Messiah. He simply did not fulfill their great expectation of a descendent of David who would restore the throne of David. And so now, decades later, Matthew writes to show how in fact Jesus did fulfill the job description of a Messiah, apart from those expectations. The problem, Matthew in effect is saying to us, is not a failure of Jesus to live up to those expectations, it's rather the failure of your expectations.

In other words, Jesus is the Christ not because he meets our expectations, but because he is the Christ, he redefines those expectations.

Jesus does so in two ways, there's both a positive and the negative. The positive: "Go and tell John what you have heard and seen. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them".

Does that sound familiar to you? It should, it's very similar to the passage from Luke's Gospel in the fourth chapter, remember when Jesus reads the scripture in his hometown in Nazareth. And that scripture from Isaiah 41: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord".

Do you ever wonder why I talk so much about social justice? It's right here. This is what Christ is about. Even if Glenn Beck doesn't think so. Mr. Beck has been very critical of churches that talk about social justice. Says you should run away from such churches, should report their Pastors to the authorities. This prompted Jim Wallis of Sojourners to challenge Mr. Beck (who is a political commentator on Fox News) to a public dialogue on the topic. So far, Mr. Beck has refused that invitation, because I think he knows he can't win that argument. It's throughout scripture.

It gets to the very heart of the good news, to the meaning of a Kingdom of God, bringing God's reign of peace with justice, of healing with compassion, of hope with joy, of liberty with civil rights, of love with forgiveness, all of that. Bring it to earth. Tell not just John, tell the world. What you hear and see are the positive ways the good news is proclaimed, to lift up God's people, to protect God's creation, to live out God's kingdom, here on earth.

Then there's the negative way that Jesus redefines those messianic expectations. What he did NOT come to do. It's just one thing. One very big thing. One thing that this world still does not 'get, and by disregarding threatens all else that is good, pure, and true.

What is that one thing that Jesus rejects as the very negation of God's kingdom? It is violence. From the days of John the Baptist, Jesus says, until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence and a violent take it by force.

This is a curious verse, isn't it? The violent take the Kingdom of Heaven by force? What could he be talking about? Now, obviously, he's not talking about some spiritual reality, you know, that is taking the kingdom of heaven by force. Matthew uses "kingdom of heaven" the same way Luke and Mark use the phrase "kingdom of God". The two terms are synonymous. It simply means what the world would be like with God in charge. The ideal of God's world. That that is what has been taken by force. The violent have taken over God's world.

Now, again, if you take this solely as a statement on the lips of the historical Jesus, it doesn't make a lot of sense. From the days of John until that moment, as I said before, was maybe half a year. As far as we know, there wasn't anything particularly more violent in that time than there had ever been before, except for maybe the arrest of John.

But by the time Matthew writes his gospel, John has been beheaded, Jesus has been crucified, Paul has been martyred, Rome has burned and Christians blamed and martyred, Jerusalem has been taken by force--Roman armies destroying the city and the temple, taking the plunder, including 7,000 Jewish prisoners back to Rome, who then become slaves principally to build the Coliseum.

That's he violence that Matthew's readers have in mind, and which the words of Jesus refute.

Such cannot be the way of God, not then, not now, not ever. The kingdom of heaven is the antithesis and the antidote to violence. To the way of this world. There may be violence in God's reign, but only in opposition to it, never as a means to obtain it.

You see, the traditional messianic expectations were of a triumphant King who would restore Israel to its former glory and kick out the foreign oppressors, those Roman armies.

The gospel, however, is not about a triumphant King, but a crucified Savior. Even in the Book of Revelation, so greatly misused to justify righteous violence against perceived forces of evil, the image of Jesus is that of a slain lamb, not that of a warrior King.

So what does this all mean for us as we prepare ourselves in this Advent season, once again for the coming of the Christ into our world? Let me suggest two things as part of our Advent work if you will, our way of preparing for that coming.

First, to take a close look at the expectations we have. Do we expect a Savior who will save us from all harm, or one who will suffer harm with us?

Do we expect a Christ to do all the work for us, or are we prepared to do it all for Christ?

Do we expect violence to be used for us against our enemies, or are we ready to suffer violence as did Jesus?

Do we expect Christ to meet our needs, or are we willing to serve those whom Jesus served?

What are your expectations? And, are you willing and able to set those aside if, as before, the coming Christ is not what we expect at all?

Second, ask yourself: what are the signs of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, that we see in our midst? Jesus says 'tell the world what you hear and see', how the homeless find shelter in the warmth of the church basement on those freezing nights. How the hungry get a hot breakfast on a Sunday morning when there is no other free meal served, how struggling parents find something to put under the Christmas tree for their children through our gifting of the tree and the Helping Hand ministry and no one requires them to show proof of identity or their immigration status. How every person is welcome as a child of God with no fear that "don't ask don't tell" will mean that they don't belong. How all faith traditions are welcome in the house of prayer for all people, as it was so wondrously last night in our interfaith service. How no one is kept from this table of God's gracious banquet of love because they don't believe the right things, or dress the right way, or speak the right language.

This Advent, are we listening for the good news? Are we watching for something unexpected? God's latest surprise to be born among us.

This is a time of pregnant expectations.


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