Saturday, December 11, 2010

Expectations Old and New

Matthew 11:2-11

This week, we notice that we are just over halfway through our wait for Christmas, especially if we start counting the days with Black Friday. As we wait, we count the days, open the windows of advent calendars, shop, hope for that special gift, sing carols (Advent and Christmas).  Many of us wonder if our waiting and preparing will make the event match our expectations.
Often, our expectations far exceed the reality. We hope for a family dinner with no fighting, no spilled food, and plenty of leftovers. Like the residents of Lake Wobegon, we expect all the women to be strong, all the men to be good-looking , and all the children to be above average. We expect to have God say yes to all our prayers, and the Christmas tree to disappear behind a huge pile of gifts that didn’t cost us a penny more than we budgeted.
One of my favorite Christmas time movies is “A Christmas Story” starring Peter Billingsley as Ralphie. He has one wish: he wants a Red Rider BB Gun. Everyone, including Santa, predicts that he will put his eye out with the gun, but it’s what he wants. He does get the gun, and very nearly puts his eye out with a ricochet BB.
As he waits for Christmas, Ralphie has several other experiences. In one plot line, Ralphie sends away for a Secret Society Decoder Pin, which is the key to secret messages on the Little Orphan Annie radio show. He waits and watches for this prize to arrive in his mail box. On the day it arrives, he carefully writes down the code he hears, and then decodes it. It turns out to be an ad for Ovaltine! How disgusting! How disappointing! Not at all what he was expecting!
… For hundreds of years, the people of Judea had been waiting for a messiah. In the Hebrew Scriptures and thought, the word messiah refers to an anointed person, chosen by God to lead the people. King David was the prime image for what a new messiah would look and act like, and the Hebrew Scriptures lead the people to hope for a new King David, a new military messiah, sent to free the people from oppression.
John the Baptist expects this kind of messiah, too. Those who come to John agree with his stance on religion and politics. He’s the Rush Limbaugh or Jessie Jackson of his era. He knows what he believes, and he’s not afraid to confront the Jewish leadership. When Jesus came to be baptized by him, John knew that Jesus was the Messiah, and now he can hardly wait to have him rid the temple of its money-hungry, power-thirsty leadership. He is waiting and hoping for the day when Jesus the Messiah assumes the throne of Judea and begins to clean house.
Imagine John’s disappointment and frustration when Jesus fails to meet his expectations. In our Gospel text for today, John is in prison, held captive by Herod. Many commentators explain John’s question to Jesus as a simple one, based on John’s own doubt. Others claim John’s question is much more rude. They suggest that John actually accuses Jesus of being a fraud. How can he be the messiah if he still isn’t gathering an army?
Jesus’ reply explains that he has other expectations of himself. He has been sent by God to fulfill different promises in Scripture. He has been sent to give sight to the blind, make the lame walk, cleanse the lepers, give hearing to the deaf, raise the dead, and bring good news to the poor. Jesus then adds, “Blessed are those who are not offended by what I have said and done.”
The crowd began to mumble at Jesus’ words about John, so Jesus talks about that. Basically, Jesus says, “John is exactly who you would expect to see if you went looking for a prophet in the wilderness, no more, and no less. He is indeed the messiah’s predecessor, sent by God to prepare the way for the messiah. He is great in the kingdom of heaven. At the same time, the least person in the world is greater than he in God’s eyes.”
… John’s problem then is our problem today. We all have ideas about who Jesus is, what he wants, what or whom he doesn’t like, when and how he will return, and so forth. We all tend to make Jesus fit our image of him, and our expectations of him.
But, much to our dismay, Jesus did not come to meet human expectations, but to fulfill the plans of God. He came because we needed him. We needed him then – and we need him now  – to teach us how God loves, how God forgives, and how to love God and others in return. We needed Jesus then – and we need him now – to teach us about God’s sacrificial love for us and all of creation.
In return, he needed us humans then, and he needs us now. It’s through us that others come to know about him; it’s through us that the hungry are fed, the homeless are given homes, the ill and homebound are visited. It’s through us that those we meet – at work, at school, on the golf course, on the soccer field, at the grocery store, and at the doctor’s office – it’s through us that those we meet in our daily lives come to know about Jesus.
During Advent – and during Lent – we are especially reminded of the reason Jesus came to earth, and of his love for us. Jesus fulfilled God’s expectations of him, not human expectations.
As believers, we need to be reminded Jesus also has expectations if us.  It’s easy this time of year to wish people a merry Christmas. So do that, as often as you can. Give generously, especially to those in need. Take a few door hangers and put them on the doors in your neighborhood. Knock on one or two of those doors, and issue a personal invitation for your neighbor to join you at worship, perhaps especially for the cantata next week, or for the God’s Global Barnyard event following.
It’s a good time of year to speak often about Jesus and what he has done for you. Tell the stories of your own faith.
Tell of how, as a child you had all sorts of hopes and expectations, some of which were never met, and yet, each Christmas was the best Christmas ever
Tell of your first Christmas without your beloved spouse, and how Jesus, through your family and friends got you through the season. 
Tell of how it made you feel to put money in the offering plate, drop some coins or bills in the Salvation Army kettle, and to make an extra gift for a special need in the community.
Tell of going to church on Christmas Eve and how you left worship with joy in your heart and new snow on the ground, and knew the love of Jesus filling your whole life.
Then tell of how, even though Jesus did not fulfill human expectations, he was and is the best messiah – the best Christ – ever.

Please pray with me: Jesus, you are our joy, and go well beyond our human expectations. Fill us today and always with love for you and for all people. Amen