John, meanwhile, had been locked up in prison. When he got wind of what Jesus was doing, he sent his own disciples to ask, “Are you the One we’ve been expecting, or are we still waiting?”
Jesus told them, “Go back and tell John what’s going on:
The blind see,
The lame walk…
The wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side.
“Is this what you were expecting?
Matt 11:3-9 (The Message)
The short answer to Jesus’ return question to John is no, that is not what I was expecting. Remember when we encountered John baptising people in the Jordan, he promised one more powerful than he is coming who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The chaff would be thrown into the fire. John was disappointed. What happened to the Elijah figure capable of calling down fire from heaven?
These past two weeks we have been looking forward to the end of an era with a new era breaking in. It would be a time of rejoicing when old enemies would sit together at a feast. The lamb and the lion would lie down together, the child and the adder! But even as we read those passages we recognised it sounded like pie in the sky. Perhaps in our own lives we feel more like John there in King Herod’s prison, disappointed and confused. Our expectations of how things would turn out have been crushed. Our federal Labour party has only just finished trying to figure out what happened to their hopes and expectations. The UK Labour party is feeling even more hopeless and confused. As parents we often have high expectations for our children. There journey into exciting careers can take for ever, some never finding their niche in the world.
When we get married, we place high expectations on our spouse expecting to live happily ever after. But the hidden aspects of their life sooner or later collide with our expectations like two mostly submerged icebergs. So much for living the dream!
I can’t even imagine the life shattering devastation from being told your family were gazing at a volcano when it exploded. Or they went to pray and were gunned down by a mad man. The whole of NZ must be struggling to hear any good news in the Christmas carols. Many folk in our own country are struggling to hear good news as drought continues and bush fire ripe through dry paddocks.
Why could Jesus just have given John the Baptist a straight answer, yes, I am the messiah. Then may be the confusion and disappointment would be lifted. His life of preaching and baptising, his time in prison knowing the potential to be put to death might at least make sense. Jesus had two reasons to speak in riddles.
If Jesus had come out and said he was the messiah, he would have been sending a message to King Herod. Herod’s father, “Herod the Great” according to Matthew had sent soldiers to massacre all the children in Bethlehem. Try telling King Herod, you’re just a puppet on a sting, I am the real messiah, the anointed one.
But there is an equally important reason which becomes clearer with the next portion of the reading. Who did people expect to see when they went out into the wilderness? Did they expect to see a reed flapping in the breeze? The coins King Herod had minted showed Galilean reeds blowing in the wind. No, they didn’t expect to see a king, someone dressed in finery. They went to see a prophet. They went to be baptised by the prophet who was calling them to repentance. Jesus was pointing to John as the prophet Elijah bringing down fire from heaven warning people to turn back to God, and as such to prepare for the messiah and the new era. So Jesus answered in a way that would challenge John’s understanding of the messiah and also invite his listeners to see what was going on differently. But they had to figure it out for themselves.
Jesus saw his role not as the one bringing fire and judgement but as one bringing grace and hope. The blind will see, the lame walk and the poor know they are God’s beloved. But how does that match up with our own hopes and expectations.
When we embrace Jesus as the messiah and see him not as the judge coming to winnow the chaff, but as one bringing gentle love celebrating laughter and life, it changes our expectations. We don’t drive our children so that their success becomes an answer to our needs. We nurture our children, so they reach their full potential in their own time. Our expectations of marriage still look for happiness but in a way that celebrates the uniqueness of our spouse as well as our needs.
Our expectations and hopes will also be transformed as we face the vagaries of illness, natural disaster, and the evils of humanity. As Christians we won’t spent too much time planning our retirement and our 95th birthday. We will focus more on the many blessings of each day. Today is the day the Lord has given us. When we create time to listen to God and to thank God for the many blessings each day is celebrated. That doesn’t mean we don’t keep our eye on the vision of the reign of God. We weave that vision into our lives daily. In so doing we see and count the blessings, conscious that our Lord is with us each day.
Horrendous storms of illness, disaster and inhumane violence will come our way. But somehow when we put our faith in Jesus the messiah, the fears generated by these storms are diminished. There may well be times when we feel abandoned by God. In those times the faith and friendship or our faith community can be relied on.
So, as we hear today of John in prison, confused, frightened and feeling that his expectations have been crushed, know that all of these feeling are very real. We are invited by Jesus into a new deeper relationship where false hopes and expectations can be handed over. Instead we embrace God’s dream and expectations letting go of overwhelming feelings of responsibility. As beloved children of God we are nurtured by God to reach our full potential and we are blessed in so many ways along the journey. In many ways, just knowing that Jesus is with us.