Advent is a time of expectation, of looking towards the coming of Christ. Expectation can be exciting, enhancing an experience, but if the expectation is too rigid it can blind us to seeing something that doesn’t quite fit. John the Baptist expected Jesus to act as the Messiah, he had pointed him out to other people, but maybe as time went on it seemed to him that Jesus was not as he had anticipated. He sent his disciples to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come?’
The readings at the Thursday 2pm service were Isiah 41:13-20, Psalm 145:1, 8-13, Matthew 11:11-15. The reflection from the service follows.
I suppose we have all had the experience of looking forward to something in the future and building up in our minds what it will be like. Sometimes we have good reason for our thoughts, other times perhaps it’s pure imagination running wild. Then the event happens or you visit the place you planned to go to, and you are in a position to match what you experience with what you imagined it would be like. There may be a sense of: ‘Yes! Just as I expected.’ Or, ‘I would never have thought that in a million years.’
Last year I did a lot of this imagining as it was a very busy year for me with trips to anticipate. I travelled to Ephesus in the June and that wasn’t at all what I had expected. It was just so huge. Walking down the main street of the ruined town towards what had been the harbour, I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was so much bigger than I had ever considered it could be. The buildings that were left were so wonderful. Everything was more than my imagination could have come up with.
In the October I went to Chicago. I had never been to America before but in my mind’s eye it would be full of skyscrapers in the cities and vast, barely inhabited areas outside them. I knew that everywhere would seem much bigger than in the UK. I suppose I was partially right. There were lots of tall buildings in Chicago. What I hadn’t accounted for was the huge variety of shapes and sizes. Also, I was surprised that I really liked the city. I grew up in a small country town and usually don’t like cities very much. Perhaps most surprising of all was just how much I enjoyed being on top of the Sears Tower. I don’t like heights and yet there I was way up in that tall building, looking down on what I knew were themselves very tall buildings, and absolutely revelling in the experience. I was amazed.
In December I went to Japan and had no expectations at all. I didn’t know what it would be like; didn’t know much about the country and the customs really. That meant I took everything in as it presented itself to me, enjoying it for what it was rather than comparing it to what I might have expected.
The Gospel passage today follows on from John the Baptist sending his disciples to Jesus with a question: ‘Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?’ It seems incredible that John could ask that question. He must surely have been brought up with stories of the angel announcements about both his and Jesus’ births. We know that he told people that one greater than he was coming, who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire, not just with water. He recognised Jesus when he came for baptism, struggling to see how it was that he, John, should be baptising Jesus instead of it being the other way round. He saw the dove and heard the voice of God affirming who Jesus was. Now, having heard about what Jesus was doing, John questioned if this truly was the Messiah.
It’s hard to understand how this could be so, but perhaps it’s to do with expectations. The prophets had looked forward to the coming of the Messiah and had had a lot to say about him. If you remember the famous passage from Isaiah, the Messiah is referred to as ‘The Prince of Peace’. However, the people of Israel, perhaps because of their experience of being an occupied nation, had focussed more on the expectations of a warrior like King David, riding with an army to free the nation from the Romans. Perhaps when John baptised Jesus he had thought this was the beginning of such an event, that Jesus was being purified before fighting God’s great battle for his people, Israel.
Matthew’s gospel says that John had heard in prison about Jesus’ deeds. The deeds would not have been ones associated with the expectation of an army, but teaching, preaching, healing and loving the lost. These actions had been spoken of by the prophets but perhaps in prison, in the darkness and loneliness, John had forgotten that these actions could also be a sign of God’s Messiah come to usher in his kingdom.
Jesus could have given a curt reply to John’s disciples who carried the message but instead he told them to open their eyes and note what they could see of his ministry: the blind could see, the lame could walk, the lepers had clean skin, the deaf could hear, the dead were raised and good news was preached to the poor.
When John’s disciples had gone, Jesus affirmed John in the passage we have just heard. John was the greatest of those who had been born so far. He came from a long line of prophets and was the one who was given the privilege of announcing the arrival of the Messiah. He came to fulfil what Isaiah had said about a voice in the wilderness. He was the one whom Malachi had said would come, another Elijah, ‘before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes’. By calling John Elijah, and so confirming John as the messenger who was to come before the Messiah, Jesus was confirming that he, himself, was the Messiah who was expected even if he didn’t look as people anticipated. He challenged the people to have ears to hear what was being said rather than stick with their preconceived ideas.
John is like a bridge between the Old and New Covenants. He is like an Old Testament prophet in what he does, but he actually saw the Messiah come and live on earth. Sadly for him, he died before Jesus was crucified and rose again and so never had the chance to see the New Covenant come in, sealed by Jesus’ blood. Those of us who have had that privilege are greater than this great prophet, who gave his life to announce the coming of the Messiah.
Surely we can do no less than give our lives also to help point people to Jesus the Messiah, regardless of the cost to us. In our conduct day by day we can be like John, messengers sent to prepare the way for the Messiah to enter into the hearts of those who don’t yet know him.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor