“Expectations are pre-meditated resentments.” I first heard this when I was learning about addictive family systems and family systems theory, and it stopped me up short. I was a master at high expectations and judgment when people did not live up to them. When we were dating, Dan noticed this prevented me from even enjoying movies, because if they didn’t turn out how I was expecting, I did not like them.
Part of my personal and spiritual growth over our marriage has involved learning new ways to operate in relationships, in the world, and in ministry, so I would not hobble my spirit with self-made resentments born of my own constructed reality. I embraced this theme for Advent, of “Great Expectations” with a little fear and trembling…
All of that is to say, I understand John the Baptist, now sitting in prison—wondering what is up with Jesus. John has done his due diligence in preparing the way for the Messiah: he has confronted the powers that be in their self-righteousness and arrogance; he preached preparation and repentance with Baptism, a fire-y message that refines and purifies, so the Messiah can come with redemption and judgment. John is paying the price at the hands of the powerful who are not so thrilled with his message—he’s awaiting death in Herod’s prison.
There John hears stories about Jesus—but Jesus is not what he is expecting. John expects the liberation of God’s people from oppression and bondage, more fire-y judgment, but so far nothing has happened. The domination of Rome, its local rulers, and the religious powers are carrying on as usual.
Instead of upending them, Jesus is focused on healings, exorcisms, and banquets with sinners of every kind including those colluding tax collectors. Jesus is great at healing and restoration, but weak on judgment and vindication like John. With his expectations disappointed, John begins to doubt Jesus. Are you the one? Are you the Messiah we have been waiting for or should we look for another, someone who behaves like the real deal?
It's comforting, isn’t it? To hear John the Baptist struggle with doubt? To know that in the midst of his suffering in prison, fearing death, he begins wondering if he got it all wrong. He is cold, hungry, probably tortured, and his pain causes the questions in his mind to run rampant.
Physical, mental, or emotional suffering does lead to spiritual doubt. We have probably all experienced it one way or another—the doubt that comes with suffering. I certainly have—a hollow dark night of the soul in chemo-hell that I pray I never to experience again. And we wonder, if God is all powerful, why am I sitting here in so much pain? Why are we still waiting for Jesus to redeem the whole world? Why is there still war and injustice, exploitation and violence, poverty, and horrible illness? Is Jesus the One who is come and save us or should we look for another?
This is one of those moments when we really want Jesus to give a direct answer like, “Yes! It’s me! I am the One. I am the Messiah! Ta-dah!” But he doesn’t do that, does he? Instead, he wants John’s disciples to testify to what they hear and see. They have to look for evidence of God’s power breaking in to people’s lives through Jesus. They need to discern God’s presence and the kingdom. They have to watch for good news—well—they have to engage in Advent with great expectations of seeing God breaking into ordinary life in extraordinary ways through Jesus: 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.
Jesus does make this part very plain and direct. If that is not God’s power breaking into this earthly realm and transforming reality, what is?
This good news should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Scripture or who reads Isaiah and longs for the restoration of this nation who has suffered. Because this always been part of the vision:
• Isaiah 29:18-19 – the deaf shall hear and the blind shall see
• Isaiah 35:5-6 – says the same thing and adds then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
• Isaiah 42:18, Listen, you who are deaf, and you who are blind, look up and see!
• Isaiah 61:1-3 The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners,
• We hear more of the same in Psalm 146 which we just sung.
Jesus hopes the elite will overhear all the testimonies now being told by John’s and his disciples and all those being healed. It is really the whole nation who is blind and deaf to their own Messiah. Will those in power who are blind and deaf to the needs of the people also begin to see and hear the truth?
Franciscan priest Fr. Richard Rohr says, “the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” John expected Jesus to overthrow the oppressors and instead Jesus practiced the better—the empowerment, healing, and restoration of the oppressed. The powerful’s shameful treatment of the sick and outcast became evident as the crowds flocked to Jesus for food and healing. The feeding of the masses, the empowerment of the poor, the healing of the marginalized, was indeed upending the system and disrupting the power structure. If it was not, there wouldn’t have been such powerful movement to execute Jesus. Jesus did not go about it how John expected, but never has healing and feeding been so threatening or subversive. Really look, John. Really watch. (Those who really understood this are Martin Luther (educate and feed the masses!), Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandhi, Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement through the church in South Africa).
In his response to John, notice that Jesus is not offended by John’s questions or doubt—in fact he praises John as the greatest prophet. I hope this gives you comfort and relief in your own questions and doubts and wonderings about God and Jesus as the Messiah. Theologian Paul Tillich wrote that “doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is an element of faith.” Doubt is an element of faith for John the Baptist and he knew Jesus personally—Jesus is not fully who John expected—Jesus may not always be completely who we expect either.
But Jesus does love us in our doubts, and he always enters our suffering because he himself suffered. Jesus heals and transforms from the bottom up –which means that he enters at the worst, hardest and lowest point and meets us there, where we think no one can, and there he loves us, there he embraces us, there he says, God’s love is big enough to carry you out of this chasm, this hurt, this depression, this sorrow, this illness, this fear. I will not leave you or forsake you, for I have suffered so that you know that I will never abandon you, not even death—even there, I will carry you over to a new life with God.
If Jesus can praise John the Baptist in his doubts and transform the lepers and the lame, then surely he can love you and me in our doubts and in our suffering. Because death could not hold him—the powerful thought they won—and they did not! He rose to defeat the power of evil for good!
Jesus’ power—alive today—breaks into our lives and that’s what we watch for, wait for, look for and what we expect—that’s what gives us hope in the midst of doubt.
Because every experience of love, every kind word, every meal, every hug, every encouragement, every prayer said on our behalf, are all moments where the life and love Jesus break into our ordinary days with healing and hope.
Jesus wants us to go through our daily life with the ability to see and to hear God’s presence and love available and showing up for us—so like John he wants us to look for evidence of God’s power breaking in to people’s lives through Jesus…to discern Jesus’s presence— to watch—and to engage in Advent all year—with great expectations of seeing God piercing our ordinary life in extraordinary ways in Jesus. This is what enables us to make a difference in our community together.
I still do have some expectations –I expect God to show up every day—to see signs of love and hope around me and in the world, and these expectations help me keep on the lookout for what Jesus is up to around me and in other people’s lives.
This week I want you to watch for a Jesus-sighting—a moment where the extraordinary breaks into the ordinary. A moment of love or kindness, something your kid or grandchild said or did, something good breaking into your everyday when you felt hope, peace, joy or love—the four spiritual gifts of Advent. And I want you to tell someone about it. Testify—tell your family at the dinner table, call up a friend, send me a text--I want you to blow up my phone this week! Post it on our FB page in the comments on one of our Advent posts that come out every day! It doesn’t build up anybody else’s faith, or help anyone else see or hear what Jesus is doing if you keep it to yourself. Jesus said, “tell what you have seen and heard!”
Our first Jesus-sighting is going to be after church today with lots of great cookies, packing Hunger Helper lunches, and a herd of shepherds and a choir of angels fitted for your costumes in the congregational life center! I'll see you and Jesus there!