St Paul’s, Carlinville—Matthew 11:2-11, Isaiah 35:1-10
There was once a man—we’ll call him “Fred”—who lived in a cabin in the woods in a low-lying area. (Some of you, I’m sure, have heard this story, so just bear with me.) Fred was a very religious man: He prayed every day and never missed church on Sunday unless he was too sick to get out of bed.
One day it started to rain, and it rained all through the night, and all the next day, and all night again. The flood waters began to rise, and the message came over the radio that the entire area of the county in which Fred lived was to be evacuated. About that time, Fred was in prayer, and he had a deep sense of assurance from that Lord that the Lord would take care of him, that he would not come to any harm, and that God’s faithfulness would see him through this crisis.
Just then, a sheriff’s deputy knocked on the door. “Fred, come on, get in my car, I’ll take you to high ground.” But Fred replied, “No, you go on, the Lord will take care of me.” A few hours later, the entire first floor of Fred’s house was covered with six feet of water. So Fred went up to one of the upstairs bedrooms. When he looked out the window, he saw his cousin in a rowboat, rowing toward him as fast as he could. “Fred! Don’t worry! Get in the boat and I’ll take you to safety.” But Fred just smiled and said, “Why cousin, that’s awfully kind of you, but the Lord is going to take care of me.”
By daybreak the next morning, Fred’s bedroom was covered with six feet of water, so he climbed up onto the roof. About that time, a National Guard helicopter hovered overhead, and a rope ladder was lowered. Someone with a megaphone shouted, “Climb on to the ladder and we’ll pull you up.” But Fred just shook his head and shouted back, “No, thanks, the Lord will take care of me.”
A short while after that, Fred was covered with six feet of water, and he drowned.
When Fred arrived at the Pearly Gates, he was in something of a huff. Before St Peter could even say “Welcome to Heaven,” Fred blurted out, “The Lord said he would take care of me! How come I drowned?” Peter replied, “Well, Fred, we sent the sheriff with a car and your cousin with a rowboat and the National Guard with a helicopter. What more did you want?”
After pondering this, Fred probably went and looked up John the Baptist, because they had alot in common. They were both confused by a discrepancy between their expectations of what God would send, and what God actually sent. John the Baptist expected the Messiah to be an axe-wielding chaff-burning purveyor of divine wrath.
When Jesus arrived on the scene, John publicly announced his arrival. “Pay attention to this guy. He’s the one we’ve all been waiting for. He must increase and I must decrease.”
But Jesus never does live up to all of John’s expectations, so he begins to wonder, “Maybe I was wrong. Maybe Jesus is not the one.” So, from prison, he sends his own disciples to put the question to Jesus directly. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
John—and Fred, for that matter—is not unique, is he? We can all see something of ourselves in his moment of doubt. We are all prejudiced to one degree or another by what we expect God to do, or by what we expect God to say, or expect God to approve of, or condemn, or whatever. And our expectations then sometimes blind and deafen us to recognizing Jesus for who he is. It’s often difficult for us to really experience Jesus as the one who reveals—breaks open, manifests, shines the light on, announces, ushers in — the Kingdom of Heaven.
It reminds me of many of the stories I’ve heard over the years—the sort of story I always enjoy hearing—of how married couples “found” each other. What a mysterious process courtship is! Our “normal” expectation is that two people, when they meet, have at least an inkling of whether they’re attracted to one another, and they think, “Maybe this is the one.” And then a stressful experience of trial and error finally reveals whether “this one” is “the one.” But, as often as not, the story goes something more like this: “At first we were just friends. I didn’t think she was my type,” or “I didn’t think I had enough in common with him,” or however the failure to meet expectations is defined. “But as we worked together, or went to church together, or hung out in a group together, we found that we loved each other in a way that neither of us anticipated.” In the experience of relationship, the true identity of this person as “the one” was revealed.
Jesus’ identity as “the one we’ve all been waiting for” is authenticated in the same way. When the disciples of John the Baptist pose the question to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus doesn’t answer them directly. He simply invites them to observe what was going on around him. “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. Tell John all this and let him draw his own conclusion.”
Jesus’s advice to John applies equally to us. We may not be able to observe and report all the same signs that John’s disciples were able to observe and report, but we’re not lacking for experiential data on which to base a conclusion about Jesus’s identity. The Diocese of Springfield—and, for you, St Paul’s church in particular—is our local manifestation of the presence of Jesus. What do we see? We see places where the revolutionary values of the kingdom of God are preached, and sometimes even practiced. We see places where sin is forgiven, and people are supported in their desire to repent and sin no more. We see places where fear and despair give way to trust and hope. We see places where people give and receive love and spread it on one another’s sorrow like soothing ointment on open sores. We see places that people support with hours of precious time and thousands of dollars of hard earned money. We’re not perfect—we announce the kingdom, we try to model it, but we’re still a mere shadow of the reality. Yet, the parish church, the body of Christ in a particular place, is by definition a place where the blind see, the lame walk, and the hopeless hope.
As we move into the heart of the Advent season, and the celebration of Christmas looms over the horizon, our invitation is to look around us at these signs and see Jesus for who he is: The hope of Israel, the desire of nations, the one we’ve all been waiting for—the sheriff in his car, Fred’s cousin in his rowboat, the National Guard in its helicopter. Our only alternative is to conclude that Jesus is not the “one who is to come”, and to continue to search for our Messiah among the false gods worshipped by our neighbors in this world: political or social or economic ideology, “good causes”, success, health, or status of race or class. These are false gods, who will desert us in our hour of need, and leave us hungering for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Is it not infinitely preferable to experience the hope, the peace, the purpose, and the joy of simply falling at the feet of Jesus?—the Jesus who opens our eyes and ears with his words, the Jesus who appeared in our own human flesh in a Bethlehem cattle stall, the Jesus who will come again to judge the living and the dead?
Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.