Great Expectations, Revisited

Third Sunday in Advent: Great Expectations, Revisited

Most people expected the coming Messiah to be a strongman-type leader who would set up his kingdom by force and gather powerful people around him.  Jesus turned those expectations upside-down by coming in humility and loving people on the margins of society. God’s power isn’t the power to control, but rather the power of love  (Ben Sternke and Matt Tebbe).     

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-11


Maybe you’ve heard the story about the guy who fell off a cliff, and, as he tumbled down, he caught hold of a small branch.

“Help! Is there anybody up there?” he shouted.
And he heard a majestic voice boom through the gorge:
“I will help you, my son, but first you must have faith in me.”
“Yes, yes, I trust you!” cried the man.
“Then let go of the branch,” said the voice.
There was a long pause, and the man shouted, “Is there anybody else up there?”

In a way, John the Baptist felt like that guy hanging from the branch.  He wondered if there was somebody other than Jesus who was coming as the Messiah to save the people of Israel.

That’s what he was thinking when he was sitting in prison, and sent his followers to track down Jesus and ask him point blank,

 “Are you the one who is to come, or do we need to keep waiting?”

In other words, John is wondering, “Is there anyone else out there who better fits our expectation of what the Messiah is supposed to be like?

This reaction of John the Baptist is surprising because just a couple of years earlier he had been paving the way for the coming of Jesus, and he even baptized Jesus in the Jordan river.

Last week’s scripture and theme focused on John the Baptist preparing the way by putting on his favorite camel hair cloak and venturing out into the wilderness preaching “Prepare the way of the Lord, and clear out a straight path for him!”

Kate Scott preached last Sunday, and from what she told me, it was a call to get ready for Jesus’ second coming, through repenting of the things in our life that are outside of God’s plan for how we should live, and also through being truthful with others and with ourselves.  Thanks, Kate, for sharing that good word to our congregation.

But what’s going on with John the Baptist now?  It seems like he’s completely changed his tune.  He’s gone from being “all in” on promoting Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah and King of Israel, to the point of doubting if Jesus had what it takes to save anyone, including himself.

It seems as if John has gotten disillusioned with how things were playing out with Jesus, and he was ready to look for someone else that better met people’s expectations of the Messiah.

It’s like that NFL team owner who has seen enough of his no. 1 draft pick quarterback, and is ready to bench him and go shopping for a new one.

Now it could be that John the Baptist from the beginning had bought into the prevailing culture’s expectations that the Messiah would be a leader who would conduct himself like the kings and emperors of this world:

That he would be a strongman-type who would use military force to defeat the rulers of the Roman Empire, and set up the Kingdom of God for his “chosen” people.

I mean, this is the mindset most people have of power, then and now, in the world and even in the church.  I read a quote recently that said “it’s not an understatement to say that our culture is addicted to violence, war, revenge, and retaliation.  Unfortunately, so are a lot of Christians.”

To John the Baptist and a lot of other people, it looks like Jesus isn’t getting very far with his kingdom agenda.  Instead of saving John, Jesus was letting him rot in prison.

And John has heard some reports of how things are going. Just before this passage in Matthew chapter 11,

in chapter 10 Jesus is warning his followers that they’re going to be persecuted, they’re going to be hated, they’re going to need to take up their cross in order to follow him.

Wouldn’t there be a better way for God’s Kingdom to make its way into the world?  And couldn’t there be a better person to play the role of Messiah than Jesus?

 So John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you really the one, or should we look for someone else?” And Jesus responds by saying:

“Guys, go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind are receiving their sight, lame people are walking, lepers are being cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are being raised, and the poor are having good news brought to them. 

These are the kind of things that the prophet Isaiah predicted would be what the Messiah would do.  They are signs that God’s Kingdom truly has invaded the earth and that Jesus is the Messiah and King they had been hoping and waiting for.

Through Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, God’s love is being made visible to the world through healings, through power over death, through mercy being shown to those who are poor.

I read something recently about Jesus’ healings that really “opened my eyes” to help me understand the impact they had on the people who were healed.

It’s from this book “Having the Mind of Christ” by Ben Sternke and Matt Tebbe, and it’s in a chapter called “God’s love always reckons with power”.

Jesus’ healings and exorcisms were part of how he reckoned with power, because the chronic conditions people suffered from often made them ritually impure, and thus permanently excluded them from the social and religious life of the community…  More than just physical healing, Jesus reconnected them to their community and the worship of God…

So the people who Jesus healed were most of the time marginalized people—their illnesses excluded them from social relationships and even worship because they were considered ‘unclean’.

But with their healing, they were now able to engage with their other people and with their faith community.

So the healing that Jesus did released people from their “prisons” that confined them—they not only experienced physical healing, but social and emotional and spiritual healing as well, to people on the margins of society who were forgotten, vulnerable, despised, and rejected.   Jesus lifted them up, he honored them, he saw value in them, he showed mercy and compassion to them.

And in the process, he was Jesus was using his power to empower them, in a world where they had no voice and no access to power.  Isn’t that awesome?  Isn’t that good news?  Isn’t that a powerful way to show love to people?

One more thing that Sternke and Tebbe said, that I think captures the unique identity of Jesus as the Messiah, as God incarnate in such a succinct way:

They say that God’s power isn’t the power to control, but rather the power of love.  P. 121

You see, Jesus doesn’t use his God-given power to manipulate and coerce, but to love.  He doesn’t use his God-given power to be served and waited on hand and foot, but to be a servant of others.

Jesus doesn’t use his God-given power to increase his own status and worth, but to give value to those who had none in society. Jesus doesn’t use his God-given power for his own benefit, but rather for the benefit of others.

John the Baptist and most everyone else didn’t expect the Messiah to act this way, so they questioned if Jesus really was the one, and were tempted to look around for someone who acted more like a powerful leader is supposed to act.

But Jesus challenges John, and all of us, to revisit our expectations of the true identity and the true mission of the Messiah, the Christ, that was foretold by Isaiah and the other prophets.

And we who dare to call ourselves Christ-followers are challenged not only to believe in this kind of Messiah, but to imitate him, act like him, live like him.

When we live like Jesus did, people around us will be able to hear and to see evidence of the living Christ in our midst, like John the Baptist’s followers had seen and heard through Jesus.

This past week I caught a glimpse of what hearing and seeing the presence of Jesus the Messiah might look and sound like today.

As most of you know, last week Karen and I were in Berne, Indiana, for the funeral of Karen’s father Roger Flueckiger.  Thank you for your prayers, emails, and messages of sympathy and support.  It means a lot to us during this time of grieving his loss with her family members.

Along with the grief, last week was a celebration of a life well lived.  This hit home to us during the viewing before the service, when people came to pay their respects to Roger.

So many people shared how they were impacted by what the words of wisdom and encouragement and acts of servanthood that Roger had shown them.

And many of Roger’s words and actions were done to support people who were vulnerable and on the margins of that community.  He generously used his resources and any influence he had to empower the people around him.

Roger often invited people who had no family around to his family’s home to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with them.

He was a vice-president of the main bank in town, and as the chief loan officer he saw potential in people who didn’t have the best credit, and gave them a loan when they desperately needed a helping hand.

And when Roger lived for several years outside of town in the country, he befriended many of his Amish neighbors and helped them out however he could.

He became very close to one particular family who lived just down the road, Noe and Adelaide, along with their 10+ children.  It’s hard to keep up with how many they have as the family keeps growing!

Roger built such a close and trusting relationship with that family that he was able to arrange for my extended family to visit their farm a few years ago.

We all lined up in the yard for introductions, and Roger went down the line of all the children and remembered all of their names!  Leon, Marilyn, Joshua, Sarah,…

On the day of his viewing, guess who were the first people to walk in the door —yup, it was Noe and Adelaide and about half of their children.  They had driven their buggy about 6 or 7 miles in the cold and wind to be there to greet Karen’s family and tell them how much Roger had meant to them.

Roger has left me and so many others Christ’s example of of loving people in a way that values them, empowers them, connects them with other people in the community, and ultimately points them closer to God.

As we await the birth of Jesus, the coming of the Christ child into our world, may our expectations match up to the kind of Messiah that Jesus was and is,

the kind who enters the world in humility and vulnerability, in a manger on the margins of society in Bethlehem,

The kind of Messiah who then casts his lot with the humble and the vulnerable and the marginalized, to give them healing, to give them worth, to give them relationship, to give them hope.

Let’s pray: 

Jesus our long-awaited Messiah, thank you for not conforming to the world’s expectations, but showing us another way to live.  Your power is one that is shared with others through love and servanthood, which is the greatest kind of power this world has ever known.   

Continue to prepare the way for us to receive you, to make space for you to enter in, deep into our hearts, so that we will be transformed to flesh out the example of love that you gave us.  AMEN.