“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Some of you know that I like gadgets. One of hobbies is to keep trying out new combinations, new ways of doing things: a new computer, a new tablet, a new smartphone; new keyboard, new app, new accessories; always looking for the perfect setup that will do everything I expect.
I never find it.
One device will do some things, another device will do other things. One setup is great for writing sermons, another works better for delivering sermons. Nothing is ever quite what I expect. And I keep thinking “Is this going to be the perfect gadget, or do I need to wait for another?”
There is something like that — on a much larger scale and about a much more important reality, but still something like that — going on in our Gospel story today. John the Baptist, in prison, sends messengers to Jesus to ask “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
The roots of John’s question are not hard to understand. John had made some pretty specific predictions about the Messiah: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” “The Messiah will lay the ax to the roots of the trees,” John had promised, “and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
In John’s time, it was part of the standard expectation of the Messiah that he would be a military leader, one who would rally the fighting men of Judea and lead them in battle against the Roman occupiers. Some commentators see that military expectation in John’s symbolism of the ax laid at the root of the tree: the symbol of Roman authority was the fasces, an ax with a bundle of rods tied around it; by saying the Messiah would come with an even bigger ax, John was pitting the Messiah against Rome, John was proclaiming the expectation of a military clash between Roman power and the Messiah’s power.
But John’s expectations of the Messiah went far beyond the military: John expected that the Messiah would bring the Apocalypse. John expected that the Messiah’s war against Rome would be the trigger for the great War between the Children of Darkness and the Children of Light, the cosmic War that would bring God’s judgment on the wicked and God’s vindication to the righteous. That’s what’s behind all of John’s talk of the Messiah having his winnowing fork, and clearing off his threshing floor, and gathering in the wheat, and burning the chaff: those are all specific apocalyptic images of the destruction and renewal that will come out of the Messiah’s supernatural end-times war of good versus evil.
John clearly expected the Messiah to be a figure of local and global and cosmic power. And John probably expected that when that Messiah came, he, John, would be at his side, leading his baptized troops into the vanguard of the battle.
But things have not turned out that way at all. Instead of calling people to rally ’round the Messiah, John has been imprisoned: Herod has thrown him into a dungeon in order to shut him up, and John is now unable to preach and proclaim and prepare the way of the Lord as he was called to do.
Even worse, from John’s point of view, even more puzzling, is the way Jesus has been behaving. Instead of bringing judgment and destruction, Jesus has been preaching forgiveness and reconciliation. Instead of driving out the Romans and proclaiming the kingdom of Jerusalem, Jesus has been driving out demons and proclaiming the kingdom of heaven. Instead of starting the cosmic War to destroy all evil, Jesus has been teaching the blessing of Peace that will raise all people up to be children of God. Jesus has not been behaving at all as John had expected — and that’s gotten John worried. What if he’s been wrong all along about Jesus? What if Jesus is not after all the Messiah? So John sends disciples to Jesus with one desperate question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
And Jesus replies, “Tell John what’s happening here: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead live, the poor receive good news. Tell John what’s happening; and then let John make up his own mind whether this is the work of the Messiah.”
Jesus is quoting here from Isaiah’s prophecies about the Messiah — prophecies that we heard in our first reading today. They are a different set of messianic prophecies from the ones John has been thinking of; but they are every bit as much prophecies of the Messiah. Even though it’s not what John expected, what Jesus has been doing has got “Messiah” written all over it. Jesus’ work of love rather than judgment, peace rather than war, resurrection rather than destruction, is a fulfillment of God’s promise just as much, maybe even more, than what John had been expecting. So when Jesus sends the messengers back to John, he is challenging John to understand that expectation and actuality are very different things. Jesus challenges John to look beyond his previous expectations, and to recognize what God is actually doing in the things that Jesus does.
And that’s the challenge to us, too. Like me with my gadgets, like John the Baptist with his apocalyptic prophecies, it can be so easy for us to get all wrapped up in our expectations, to get so focused on the way we think things ought to be, that we are not at all ready to see things the way they are, that we are not at all able to appreciate the actuality of what God is doing right in front of us.
You plan and hope and work for years for a certain career path — but the job opportunities and the openings for advancement and the retirement benefits never work out quite the way you’d imagined. You dream and watch and sacrifice to give your children a good start in life — and your children’s lives take their own paths you’d never even guessed at. You pray and pray and pray to God for healing in a difficult situation — and the issue of that affliction is not the healing you had hoped for. Maybe even at Christmas time, you work and plan and arrange to make the holiday special, just right, so happy for everyone — and you never manage to feel quite as happy as you think you ought to feel. Time and again, in so many ways, we can let ourselves get so wrapped up in our expectations that we cannot see the actuality of what God is doing right in front of us.
And that’s when Jesus speaks to us from this Gospel and says: Open your eyes. Look around you. See what God is doing — because God is always doing something, even if it’s not what you expected. Eyes are opened. Ears are unstopped. Lives are restored. Good news is proclaimed. And your life too can be transformed, Jesus speaks to us from this Gospel and says, if you will let go of your expectation and see what God is doing around and within and through you.
We often say that Advent is a season of expectation. But in some ways Advent is a time to let go of our expectations, a time to be still in our anticipations and ambitions, a time to put our own intentions aside and wake up to the unexpected, unanticipated, unpredictable ways the Presence of Christ comes to be with us in our lives every day. Letting go of expectations, opening up to God’s creative actualities, is how we learn to play with the gadgets, how we learn to do the work of our lives, how we learn to treasure the ones we love just as they are, how we learn to enjoy the holidays — how we learn to know the Savior, not to wait for another, but to prepare the way for Jesus in our hearts now, today, and forever. Amen.