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Christmas Disappointments Advent 3

December 13, 2013

Matthew 11: 2-14ambush-at-dark-canyon-the-dark-cell1

We are still with John the Baptist. It’s not Christmas yet (all that shopping and caroling and tinsel you have been wading through all week is just an illusion). In fact it seems even further away from Christmas time than last week in our readings. John the Baptist, who last week was preaching the judgement of God is this week in prison, sitting with his head in his hands in a dark and musty cell

Finally he gets to see one of his followers… and at this point we learn that he has one burning question on his mind. It’s as if, as one writer puts it, his problems are not so much his chains as his misgivings.

Did he spend his life in vain, was it all a waste of time. Most of all was he wrong about Jesus his comrade in arms.

John is at a low point, bowed down with doubt and disappointment. Yes, disappointment with God. Perhaps you know what this is like – disappointed about what was meant to have happened in your family or in your church or in your career?

John predicted and promised thousands a kingdom, in which the judgement of God would bring in a new age. And it hasn’t happened. He expected the world to change.

Perhaps it is an opportunity for us to think back on our expectations of the world in earlier days. What do you think about at Christmas time when you hear the promises of ‘peace on earth and goodwill among all’? Do you even have time to reflect… and understand something of John’s disappointment?

John had also put a lot of hope in his fellow prophet, Jesus.

So the first thing he does when he gets to see someone is to send that person with a question to Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?”

Some days later… their postal system was much like ours… the message comes back “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor receive good news” And I suspect this didn’t cheer John up all that much. He wants a changed world, an axe at the root of the system. And Jesus’ messenger tells him that things are going well for those Jesus is with – the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, and poor and even the dead. The reason I’m inclined to think John was not delighted by this news is that Jesus expects him to be disappointed, even offended. Jesus very pointedly adds in his message “and blessed are those who don’t take offense at me.”

Jesus is not dealing with the movers and shakers of the world. He is not holding leadership seminars for tomorrow’s young leaders. He’s on the streets with those who have been discarded by the world, the homeless, the addicts, the streeties, the mental health survivors, the economic dead-weight… and he is having a ball… those guys are finding new life.

How is that supposed to cheer John up? How is that supposed to be the sign that John seeks?

David Lose suggests that in fact these folk do share something in common with the one-time street-preacher, John the Baptist, and that is their need.

John is potentially offended because even in his cell and in his disappointment he has trouble admitting to his need… that he like the friends of Jesus is going to have to depend entirely on God’s grace and mercy.

Jesus then uses this interchange with John the Baptist as an opportunity to pay a tribute to John the Baptist… John wasn’t a “reed blowing in the wind”, this way and that with the trends. John wasn’t a fashion icon. He also wasn’t a politician. He didn’t go around in soft robes (made up for the cameras so to speak) like the guys from the palace. He was a great prophet… BUT and there is definitely a ‘but’ here. The least of the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Jesus is saying that a sea-change has happened since John.

“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has chosen to suffer violence” [it’s an unusual translation but, I think, it’s a good one]

It’s not a kingdom of heaven that takes the future in hand with violence like an axe at the foot of the tree – like an advancing like an army of judgement. Nor is it a kingdom of heaven that passively suffers violence like John the Baptist because it can do nothing about it, for all that it would like to. It is a kingdom of God which chooses to suffer violence – a third way – and thus is totally dependent on the grace and mercy of God, the God who raises the dead. It’s a kingdom of God that loses possession of its own life in the presence of neighbours in need… but ultimately in the presence of a gracious God. A sea-change has happened and now the kingdom of God expends its political energies with the blind and lame and leprous and poor and dead.

This is where the kingdom of God finds us, with all our hopes and fears, with all our disappointments this Christmas and Advent. Perhaps we are pacing our cage wondering if God really is God

Are we ready to hear Jesus response and to discover the kingdom in the direction that Jesus is pointing us?

h/t to Paul Nuechterlein and David Lose for inspiration in a busy week

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