Sunday, December 16, 2007

Outside the Box

Advent 3 – Year A
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Sunday, December 16, 2007 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Mark Twain once said, “A thing long expected takes the form of the unexpected when at last it comes.”

In today’s Gospel reading, we find John the Baptist struggling with his own expectations. He questions if Jesus is the One who is to come, the Messiah. This is a change from his previous position. Not long before he was arrested, John was at the River Jordan, preaching about the coming of the Messiah. This was the part of Matthew’s Gospel that we heard last week. And then, in the midst of this scene, Jesus shows up, requesting to be baptized by John. (Apparently back then, you weren’t required to go through classes to prepare for baptism.) John initially objects, saying “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Mt. 3:14) To which Jesus replies, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15). Only then does John consent.

In his statement of objection, John is acknowledging Jesus’ superiority, that he is the Messiah about whom he has just been prophesying. And John’s initial inclination is confirmed by God Himself. As Jesus comes up out of the water, “the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (Mt. 3:16-17).

But now, seven chapters later, John is uncertain. There is a part of him, buried deep within his spirit that senses that Jesus still might be the One. But at the same time, there is a touch of doubt. So what’s happened in these intervening seven chapters that has caused John to doubt, or at least, to question, his messianic prophesy regarding Jesus?

Following his baptism and his subsequent temptation the desert, Jesus has formally begun his public ministry in Galilee. He has called his disciples and has begun ministering to the people. He has been teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, healing the sick and the lame, casting out demons, restoring sight to the blind, restoring hearing to the deaf and speech to the mute, and even raising the dead. Not only that, but he has also given his disciples the authority to these things, as well. He has preached revolutionary sermons, the most notable being the Sermon on the Mount. He has reinterpreted the law and given radical new instruction on conduct and prayer. He has even been known to fraternize with tax collectors and sinners.

The news of Jesus’ activities has reached John the Baptist, and now he doesn’t know what to think. Just before he baptized Jesus, John was talking about the coming Messiah. Remember these words from last week’s Gospel lesson? “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3:11-12). That’s what a messiah is expected to do, isn’t it? But wait! That’s not anything like Jesus. What Jesus and his disciples have been doing are deeds of compassion, not of fiery judgment.

In short, Jesus does not quite live up to John’s image of what the Messiah should be. In fact, it’s not just John the Baptist. Jesus does not live up to the messianic expectations commonly held by any of the Jews of his day. He is not living up to the image of the great warrior king who will deliver his people from the hands of the oppressors.

Yet, there is still something about this man. Despite what John expects, there is still something inside him that seems to say Jesus might just be the one John has been looking for, the one whom John has been preaching would come. But what he thinks he knows about the Messiah and what he senses in his heart and soul just don’t mesh. Troubled by this disconnect, John sends his own disciples to Jesus to find out first hand if Jesus is indeed the Messiah. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

But Jesus’ response to John’s disciples’ questioning is not what John would have expected, not what John or his disciples was looking for. They wanted a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead, Jesus gives a poetic response, invoking the prophet Isaiah: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Jesus is saying that they should not trust in mere words. Anyone can say the words. Anyone could say, “yes, I am the One.” Rather, he tells them to trust what they have observed. Look around and decide for yourself. Trust your hearts. Through his response, Jesus expects John to recognize that Jesus’ acts are a fulfillment of Scripture, most notably the prophecies of Isaiah, which we heard in our Old Testament lesson.

But what’s more important is what Jesus does not say – what Jesus implies in his response. He’s saying, “John, John, John. You just don’t get it, do you? You’ve bought into this whole set of Jewish messianic expectations, but that’s not how God works. Just look at Scripture. Look at the history of our people. Ya gotta think outside the box!”

John and the other Jews of his day fully expected that the Messiah would be a warrior king. He would be someone who would ride in on a valiant steed, conquer the enemy, liberate the people from their oppressors, and then start cleaning house – sitting in judgment over the people as they confessed their sins against God and sought repentance. And those who did not live up to his expectations would undoubtedly be punished for their failure to live according to God’s law.

But God, through Jesus, offered a different model of Messiah. This Messiah would not be a warrior king who executes fiery judgment. No, this Messiah would be a compassionate servant who brings healing and wholeness to all who seek it. This would not be a Messiah who would ride in on a valiant steed, but rather one who would arrive riding a lowly donkey. This would not be a Messiah who condemns, but rather would be one who embraces. This would not be a Messiah who destroys, but rather would be one who gives life. This would not be a Messiah who preserves the lives of a chosen few, but rather would be one who gives his life for the sake of all.

Because of this, there is another very significant way in which Jesus did not live up to the messianic expectations of John. Jesus was executed. And not just executed, but crucified – the most horrible and painful form of execution available. But despite this, he proved himself Messiah in that he was resurrected. Yet one more example of how the Messiah operated outside the box. Because of his death and resurrection, we live in him. Because of his death and resurrection, we are the Body of Christ. Because of his death and resurrection, Christ lives through us because we live in him.

Because of this “outside the box” approach in which Christ continues to live through us as his Body, we are likewise called to live outside the box. In his earthly ministry, Jesus proclaimed the good news of the kingdom, healed the sick and the lame, cast out demons, restored sight to the blind, restored hearing to the deaf and speech to the mute, and ate with tax collectors and sinners. He gave his disciples authority to likewise. As his Body, we are called to do the same. We may not have the same skills for doing this that Jesus did. After all, Jesus had a slight advantage that we don’t. He was the Son of God. So, all the more, we need to be creative, to think and act outside the box.

How do you feel called to live as the Body of Christ? Is it by feeding the hungry? Giving shelter to the homeless? Healing the sick? Proclaiming the good news of the kingdom? In this broken world, there is so much need for doing the compassionate deeds that Jesus lived for, and died for. As the Body of Christ, we are given the job of continuing those deeds. Maybe not in the same way Jesus did them, but in our own way. And there are certainly plenty of opportunities, if we are just open to them.

A couple weeks ago, at the Sunday evening Taizé service for UCLA students, we were reflecting on the meaning of Advent. After I gave my reflections on Advent, I invited the students to reflect on what Advent means to them. To a person, they all talked about how Advent is about meeting the Christ in other people, about seeing Christ in the other, about responding to the Christ in others. While they didn’t know it, they were echoing the words of St. Benedict, the founder of western monasticism, who write in his Rule for his monks that they were to greet all their guests and one another as if they were Christ. Without specifically saying so and possibly without even really consciously knowing it, these students had made a profound theological connection. Advent is about anticipation and preparation for the coming of Christ. But Christ has already come. He was born 2,000 years ago. He lived. He died. He was resurrected. Because of his death and resurrection, we live in him; we are the Body of Christ. Because of this, we are to live as Jesus lived, doing deeds of compassion. Because of this, we must constantly be in an Advent mindset – prepared to meet the Christ in others, in the other who is in need of compassion. For as Jesus admonishes, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40).

As Christians, we live in a perpetual season of Advent. For us, no matter what calendar says, it’s Advent. Every day presents us with opportunities to anticipate the coming of our Messiah. Every day presents us with opportunities to prepare for the coming of Christ, because Christ comes to us every day in the guise of our fellow human beings. And every day presents us with opportunities to be the Body of Christ, ministering to the other with deeds of compassion. Sometimes that’s easy to do, sometimes it’s a challenge, and more often than not, it means we have to be a little creative in how we go about it. After all, living the Gospel means thinking and living outside the box. And that can certainly lead to unexpected results. Just ask John the Baptist.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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