Sunday, December 12, 2010

God's Unexpected Ways

This is the message I shared this morning with the congregation of Grace Lutheran Church. The gospel text is Matthew 11:2-11.

            As a child, do you remember how excited you were by Christmas? Do you remember wishing and hoping for that special present? At your house were the packages piling up under the tree over the days leading up to the holiday. Maybe your family had nothing under the tree when you went to bed Christmas Eve. But, when you got up on Christmas morning, there were all these glorious gifts. It’s so much fun to receive presents isn’t it?
            How excited you may have been--tearing off the wrapping paper, wondering what is inside, hoping it was something you had asked for. You finally get to the gift and………………………………….it’s a pair of pajamas or socks or underwear. It isn’t the gadget you hoped for. It isn’t the music you wanted. It isn’t really ANYTHING YOU WANTED. And it wasn’t what you expected. You’re a little or maybe a lot disappointed.
            Today’s gospel reading is full of questions and expectations. In the first scene, John the Baptist is in prison. He had challenged Herod’s lifestyle one too many times. The one who had pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God was now wondering about what was happening with Jesus. Jesus did not meet John’s expectations of what the messiah was supposed to be.
            But what had John’s expectation of the messiah been? Jesus did not come declaring judgment as John had. Jesus did not live the life of an ascetic prophet as John had. Jesus was not a warrior king or ruler who would deliver the people from the Romans. What Jesus did do was to proclaim God’s salvation for all, eat and drink with sinners, preach non-resistance and sacrificial love. It’s no wonder John was confused. This was not the kind of messiah John expected.
            So, John sends his followers to find out if Jesus was the one or if they should wait for another.
            Jesus’ response to John at first may seem odd, but to a person living in Jesus’ time, it would have sounded strikingly familiar. Listen to part of our first reading from Isaiah. “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Isa 35:5-6 NRS). Now, hear Jesus’ response to John’s question, “...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” (John 11:5). Do you hear the similarities? You can bet John did. John knew the Old Testament prophecies. He knew these were signs of the coming reign of God. He just had to be sure.       
            Let’s not be too hard on John. It was a practical question. After all, what about his own disciples? If Jesus was the messiah, he could have them join Jesus since he was in prison. It was also a personal question concerning his own hope, his own mission in life. It was also a cosmic question whose answer could change the course of human life as it had been known. The hopes and dreams of God’s prophets would be fulfilled.
            When Jesus sends John’s disciples back to him, he says something that may seem very odd. To me, this statement just sticks right out. The statement is, “…And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." The word for “offense” means to trip or stumble over. When is someone most likely to stumble or trip? Isn’t it when there is something unexpected in their path? Was John stumbling over God’s unanticipated ways? What about us, do God’s unanticipated ways trip us up?
            After the departure of John’s disciples, the scene changes from John’s expectations about Jesus to the crowds’ presumptions about John. Jesus asks them 6 questions about what they were anticipating. This is to clarify both John’s role as a prophet and also his role as the messenger to prepare the way for Jesus. Three of the questions regarded what the people went out to look at or see. Jesus challenged their expectations of God’s prophet.
            But Jesus declares that John was even more than a prophet. He was the messenger, the herald to prepare the way of the Lord—he was the one Isaiah predicted would come.
            Jesus declared there was no one born who was greater than John the Baptist. That’s high praise indeed, but now Jesus adds a startling twist. The least in God’s kingdom is greater than the greatest prophet, but what does this mean?  Fully entering into God’s kingdom life makes one more than a messenger about God. Are we merely talking about God or are we experiencing the presence of God?
            What are we expecting this Advent? Are we thinking things will be the same as they have always been—business as usual? What are we anticipating—exhaustion, debt, time with family, Christmas as being just for children? When God in Christ comes on the scene, he blows our expectations to pieces. God can make this season one where we experience the true meaning of the incarnation. We have to be careful we don’t stumble over God’s unexpected ways.      
            Is it possible that our expectations are too small? Are we looking for God in the wrong places? Are we looking for God at all? Is it a case of we can’t see the forest for the trees? Can God be right in front of us and we don’t recognize him? Can we admit our limitations and ask for help from someone who sees the world differently than we do? Can we look at the unknown, the future and believe in God’s transforming reign?
            What are we anticipating as we open the gifts God has given us in His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? If it’s just the sweet babe of Bethlehem, then we need to open our eyes and ears to see and hear what the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is up to. What would happen if we let God be God in our lives, in our church, in our world? Amen.