The Third Sunday in Advent (December 16, 2007)
“Expectations” (Matthew 11:2-11)
What kind of expectations do you have? I’m sure each one of us could list numerous expectations we have for our life. Especially at this time of year, you have expectations of what you will find waiting for you under that decorated, lighted evergreen tree in your family room.
Coming to church in December, you have expectations of what Scripture readings you will hear in the Divine Service. As we prepare for the birth of our Savior, you don’t expect to hear about Palm Sunday and about John the Baptist. But that’s what we heard over the last two weeks.
We have been getting closer to the Christmas story, although we have been going backwards. The first Sunday of Advent started towards the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, with his entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Then last Sunday we went back in time a bit as we heard about the initial preaching of John the Baptist, just before Jesus began his public ministry. Your expectation should be that now we will hear a story even closer to the Christmas account.
But you would be wrong. Today, we go forward in time from where we were last week. Today’s Gospel reading takes us forward to the imprisonment of John the Baptist. Herod Antipas, the son of the king who ruled when Jesus was born, imprisoned John for criticizing his living conditions. You see, while Herod’s brother was still alive, he had married his brother’s wife … and this was unacceptable according to God’s Law. John made an issue of this. Herod didn’t like John making an issue of this. And that’s why we find John in prison at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading, issuing a question to Jesus through his disciples.
But what did John expect? When you publicly condemned the ruling authorities in those days, it may come back to bite you. Actually, John was probably very well aware of the possible consequences of his preaching. And that was probably okay with him, since he knew that his ministry was only preparatory to the greater ministry of the Messiah himself. John’s job was to “Prepare the way of the Lord” by calling people to repentance. John’s job was to point to Jesus and say, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” When John talked about Jesus, he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
And so, you can imagine John in prison, thinking to himself, “My days of preaching in the wilderness are over. But that’s okay. The Lamb of God is here! His public ministry has begun! I baptized with water for repentance, but he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He will manifest God’s grace and God’s judgment over sin.”
However, it seems as though after he was in prison for a while, John’s expectations of the Messiah were challenged. John heard of Jesus’ works of mercy and grace…the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the poor have good news preached to them. John heard about all of those works of mercy and grace…but not of judgment. You can almost hear him saying, “I can understand that the Holy Spirit is involved in all of this…but where is the fire I told everyone about?” And so he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we expect another? All of these works I hear you are doing are wonderful, but will there be another one to come who will also pour out the fire of judgment over sin?”
John’s doubts are a little like the expectations you and I have for Christmas. What do you expect to get out of Christmas? There is the glory of the season, the joy and expectation of what will be waiting for you under the tree. But inevitably there is a let down. The parties you have been planning have been stressing you out, and then things don’t go exactly as you had hoped. All the cookies and chocolate and egg nog and peppermint schnapps just aren’t doing the job of perking you up on these dark, cold, wet winter days. And when the day comes when you get to tear into your packages, you find out that you didn’t get what you expected.
Jesus sends a message back to reassure John. It’s as if he is telling John, “Look at my works, and remember what the prophets said about me. The things I am doing are the very same things that the prophets said I would do. Remember Isaiah, how he said, ‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.’ Remember how Isaiah described me saying this: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has appointed me to preach good news to the poor.’ Yes, John, I am the Coming One. I am the Expected One. Don’t look for another. But above all, don’t be offended by me. Don’t lose faith. Don’t let the absence of certain works blind you to the glorious presence of the works now in full progress. Be satisfied and trust that in due time the others will follow. Those works of judgment, they may be a long way off, but don’t you worry. I am the promised Savior, that’s a fact.”
What about you? What kind of a Messiah were you expecting? When you were baptized into the Christian faith … when you grew and learned about what it meant that Jesus was your Savior … when you as an adult first started coming to church … what kind of a Savior did you expect?
One who would make you happy and cheerful? One who would immediately solve all your problems? One who would make your aches and pains go away? One who would fatten up your wallet? One who would heal the divisions in your family?
If so, then you’ve probably been disappointed. These things have not happened in all their fullness. That’s because, as much as we don’t like to hear it, suffering is part and parcel of the Christian life. In this sinful and broken world, we still face hardship. On this side of the cross, we live under the theology of the cross, where God hides himself in lowliness and suffering. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt 16:24) St. Paul flat out told the Philippians, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” (Phil 1:29)
But then St. James, in today’s Epistle, encourages us to remain steadfast with these words: “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”
But who would have expected that the purpose of the Lord would be seen in a baby in a manger? Who would have expected that the Lord would be compassionate and merciful by sending his Son to suffer and die a brutal execution?
Who would have expected any of this? God defies our expectations. But he has come. He has come to save us. John expected Jesus to manifest God’s grace and judgment over sin. Jesus DID manifest God’s grace and God’s judgment over sin, just not the way John … or anyone else … expected it. The judgment over our sin was placed upon God’s Son at the cross, and we are “redeemed” and “ransomed” by his grace. We are set free from the guilt and shame of sin and given the gift of everlasting life.
After John’s disciples returned to give him Christ’s answer, the Lord asks the crowd a question: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? What were you expecting out of John? Did you expect to see a reed shaken by the wind, just like those reeds that grow along the riverbank where John was baptizing? John was no reed … he did not bend with the winds of hatred and hypocrisy, nor was he swayed by popular opinion. Did you expect to see someone clothed in soft clothing? That type is only in king’s palaces, because they kowtow to the king, they say what the king wants to hear, and so they are given a high place in the court and soft garments to wear…not like the coat of camel hair that John wore.”
If they went out expecting to see a prophet, then they were on target. But Jesus adds that John was more than a prophet, because he was the one sent to bridge the gap between the Old and the New Covenant, between the sacrifices in the temple and the sacrifice of God’s One and Only Son. Yet at the same time, Jesus says that the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. You see, all who came after John have an advantage over him. John was put to death by Herod before he ever had the chance to see the final performance of his forerunning proclamation. He did not get to see the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The apostles were “eyewitnesses” of those things. And you get to “see” them, so to speak, through the apostolic testimony in Holy Scripture.
And so, the final question for us this morning is: What did you expect to hear and see as you came here this morning? Did you expect to see some glorious display of wonder-working? Did you expect an instant fix to your temporal problems? Did you expect to be given some principles to live by to make your life better?
You haven’t gotten any of that. All you heard were some words coming from the mouth of a hairy man—probably not as hairy as John the Baptist, and without the camel-skin clothing. If there had been a baptism this morning, all you would have seen was some water being poured over someone’s head. And in a few moments, you will see some bread and wine placed into your hands and mouths.
Who would have expected that God’s grace comes to us through those simple means? But it does. Through those means, he opens our eyes, makes us walk in his light, cleanses our hearts, opens our ears to hear his Word, and he raises us up out of the grave of sin. We poor sinners have good news preached to us … THE Good News … that tells us our sins are forgiven.
Just because words and water and bread and wine don’t appear very glorious, don’t let that blind you to the glorious way God is working for you and in you. Be satisfied and trust that in due time God’s full glory will be revealed. And then, once and for all, the suffering of this life will be over, “sorrow and sighing shall flee away,” and “everlasting joy shall be upon [your] heads.”