Sunday 15th Dec 2019
Isaiah 35 v 1 – 10 James 5 v7 – 10 Matthew 11 v 2 – 11
A Vicar was fed up, waiting for the plumber to come. Eventually he sent him a note that simply said Matthew 11:3. When the plumber looked it up he found the verse “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another”? So the plumber sent a note back, simply saying Isaiah 50:2a “why did no one answer when I called?”
John the Baptist was undoubtedly a great man of God – one of the greatest prophets that the Jews had seen. In fact the New Testaments work hard to say that although John the Baptist was great, Jesus was greater, because there were many groups who followed John the Baptist as their leader even after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
John the Baptist had huge numbers of disciples, his teaching was transformative- he challenged materialism, challenged injustice, challenged the dreadful leaders of his time and was well respected by everyone for it. He ended up in jail, of course.
And jail is not an easy place to be. Not that I have personal experience of it. So this passage does not show John the Baptist in his best light – Jesus is different than what he expected – are you the one or are we to look for another?
Perhaps it is the difference between his rather sober, austere outlook and rather angry God, who condemns things like adultery, compared with Jesus and his disciples having fun at parties and Jesus whose God forgives things like adultery. Jesus wasn’t doing religion in the same way as John.
And this is of course a huge challenge in the church today – people failing to understand others and the way they worship God – the various factions all too quickly throwing stones.
But the other thing to learn from this is how difficult it is not to lose our way when we are in situations that feel like prison. Of course they may not be actual prisons we can get imprisoned in thought patterns, imprisoned in negative relationships, imprisoned by pain.
Being alone can impact on this too but the spiritual journey is not undertaken alone.
Jesus is very gentle with John – pointing out the evidence and then commending him. He does say that John is lacking something though, those who are least in the Kingdom of God are greater than John – perhaps he is the sense of the Holy Spirit at that time. If you compare John’s experience in prison with Peter’s experience when he was imprisoned then perhaps it is different – they sing hymns and an earthquake releases them, or Paul’s experience of ministering to his jailers. I don’t know.
But perhaps today is an opportunity to ask ourselves whether we have any prisons in our lives and whether we need to ask the Holy Spirit into them to transform them. What are we expecting
We are a people of expectations. When we go to bed at night we expect the sun to rise in the morning. We expect others to stop at the traffic lights. We expect the church to be open on Sundays, the lights on, and Eucharist to be celebrated. We have expectations for what is appropriate behaviour for ourselves and others. Our days are full of expectations. They offer some predictability and order to our world and lives.
There are other expectations, however. They affect us more profoundly than the day to day expectations. Sometimes they are expectations of hope and other times they are expectations of dread. Either way they have the power to imprison us.
Expectations of hope create a framework for how we think the world and life should be. They are often the ideals and dreams that carry us forward. They, in some way, describe our world vision and what we want. There are also expectations of dread, the things of life that we fear and want to avoid. Whenever we speak about wanting to simply get through the next day, the week, a particular aspect of our life, there is an underlying expectation of dread.
The thing about expectations is that they pull us out of the present moment into a future we do not yet have, except as it exists in our head. Pretty soon we begin to act and speak as if our expectations, either of hope or dread, are the reality of our lives. We allow those expectations to shape our attitudes, our beliefs, and the way we relate to others. Those expectations even shape our image of who God is, where God can show up, and how God should act. If God does not meet our expectations we are often too quick to question God rather than ourselves. We trust our expectations of what God should be doing more than we trust what God is actually doing.
John the Baptist is a man of expectations. Last week’s gospel showed John to be a voice crying out in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” He expects a new kingdom and a new ruler. He expects wrath, fire, axes. He expects one who is more powerful. John’s expectations have given him the confidence and ability to turn his back on the religious establishment, to go the desert, and to seek God in the wild and untamed places of life.
Today, the gospel offers a very different picture of John. Today he is a prisoner with a question, “Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” So what happened? How did John get from the vast wilderness expanse to the confines of four walls? How did he go from being a prophet with all the answers to a prisoner with questions?
At one level it started when he criticized King Herod. As Tom told us last week “ So Herod arrested, bound, and imprisoned him.” That’s the historical answer but, we are invited, to see and listen more deeply to discern the spiritual meaning.
Herod may have put John in jail but John’s own expectations have imprisoned him. Herod’s jail, the historical bricks and mortar, is an external symbol of the inner prison in which John now waits. It is the interior prison of disappointment and disillusion. He is confined by his own unmet expectations. He has heard all about Christ, the Messiah. Where is the wrath in the midst of cleansing lepers, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead? So John sends a message, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” It’s as if John is saying, “You, you’re the one? Isn’t there someone else? Perhaps someone who better fits my expectations?”
John has been incarcerated by his own expectations of who the Messiah is and how the Messiah should act. His vision of the kingdom is too small, his expectation of the Messiah too narrow. That is the danger of holding our expectations too tightly. Whether they are expectations of hope or expectations of dread our own expectations often blind us to the one who is coming, to the one who is more powerful. We imprison ourselves with a view of God, the kingdom, the world, our own lives that is too small, too narrow. We try to confine God’s work and life to our expectations. But that is not who God is or how God acts.
We thought God would make our lives easy and instead he calls us to live more deeply. We wanted God to eliminate our suffering and instead discovered God standing with us in the midst of our pain. We expected God would make us number one but he called us to identify with the least, the last, the lost. We wanted him to make us strong but he called us to discover his strength in our weakness. We hoped God would destroy our enemies but he commanded us to love them. We wanted to be the leaders but God told us to be servants.
Every time one of our expectations is unmet our prison walls crumble. The way has been prepared and we must decide, will we escape or simply rebuild the walls? It would be so much easier if Jesus would just come, do, and be as we expect. But he won’t. He won’t leave us in our cells no matter how comfortable or safe they might seem to us. He loves us too much.
The Season of Advent is the season of jailbreaks. It is the season of escaping our expectations of God. It is the time in which the falling apart of our worlds is shown not to be the end of the world; when wrath, axes, and fire are about love and healing rather than punishment and destruction; when God is as quiet as a thief in the night.
So I wonder, where have we imprisoned ourselves with expectations of hope or dread? In what ways do we work to rebuild our prison walls? How have we isolated ourselves from the love, healing, and life God offers?
The door of our cell is locked but only from the inside. Open the door and flee the confines of our expectations. A new world awaits us. What will we see and hear? 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. That would be us. God is always coming to former inmates.
Deitrich Bonhoffer wrote this poem from prison just before he was hanged
“With every power for good to stay and guide me,
Comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,
And pass, with you, into the coming year.”