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When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "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."
A man dies and, before being allowed to enter heaven, has to walk down a hallway past holding rooms filled with people not quite ready for heaven. Approaching the Pearly Gates the man notices the first holding room on his left. “St. Peter,” he asks, “who are they?” “Well, these were not good Baptists, and as you may expect, they were known to dance.” The man kept walking and noticed another room. “And who are they?” “These misfits belonged to the Church of Christ, and as you may expect they used instruments during worship.” Well, the man was intrigued and decided to stop at one last room. “These people look miserable,” he said, “Who are they and what on earth did they do?” St. Peter just shook his head. “These were not good Episcopalians,” he sighed, “They ate their salad with a dessert fork.”
I guess that’s an Advent joke because Advent is about expectation, which is what today’s Gospel is about as well. You see something about today’s Gospel forces us to ask – when it comes to Jesus and the salvation He brings what do we expect? Jesus once asked James and John, “what do you want me to do for you?” In other words, what’s your expectation here? You see we all have expectations that impact our experience of God, whether for good or for ill. Baptists – we expect no dancing. Church of Christ – we expect no music. Episcopalians – we expect good table manners. We’re wired to expect. We expect certain things from certain people, and when things turn out differently than we expect, we’re sometimes offended. Well, that’s kind of what’s happening in today’s Gospel. John the Baptist is disappointed because Jesus isn’t what he expects. “Are you the one who is to come,” he asks, “or should we wait for another?” But can you hear what’s behind John’s question? “Jesus – this isn’t what I expected.”
Jesus did not meet John’s expectations. You see John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was Jesus’ biggest backer, at least at first. In fact, a lot of Jesus’ disciples used to follow John, who at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel is the sensation of the nation. Before the crowds came to Jesus they all came to John, but now John’s in prison. He feels irrelevant and forgotten, and because He believes Jesus is the Messiah He expects Jesus to fix it. “How much longer must I wait?” He’s starting to wonder. “Hey Jesus – you going to fix this, or should I wait for someone else?”
We don’t typically think of John the Baptist as a sentimental guy, but He is. Like most Jews of Jesus’ day He expected a Messiah different from Jesus – someone to bring back the glory days when David was king, the pagans were punished, and the law of God was kept. That was John’s view – John’s expectation – of salvation. In other words, John had a very narrow script he thought the Messiah should live into and Jesus refused to adapt. Was Jesus’ fame growing? Yes. But not for what John had expected. Not only was Jesus befriending the people John expected him to punish, but even worse, Jesus’ focus seemed to be a cross and he kept saying things about desiring sacrifice and how to lose your life with him and for him. A cross – that seemed to be Jesus’ focus – and when John hears about that he gets offended. So, he sends his disciples to Jesus with a question – are you the Messiah or not? John found Jesus offensive. In fact, the Greek word used is skandalidzo, which is where we get the word scandal. When John first heard the message of the cross he was scandalized.
Now, what about us? You see Advent is the church’s way of inviting us to come to terms with our expectations – who do we expect Jesus to be? What do we want Jesus to do for us? Are we bringing Jesus a prewritten script and asking Him to adapt to us? Or, do we see that Jesus has a script of His own and that our life is found in adapting to Him?
You see John the Baptist, he just did what all of us do. John had a very specific view of what salvation looked like – which for John was a restored kingdom with all the riffraff thrown out – and John expected Jesus to adapt to his own narrow agenda. And when Jesus didn’t do what John expected him to do, well, he got confused. Once again, John just did what we’re all prone to do – he told Jesus how to do his job. John brought a very narrow script to Jesus and said, “Here, this is what needs to happen for me to feel whole. Jesus, here – this is what I expect. Would you mind adapting to me?”
Now, I know we all have strong opinions as to what we need to be whole, to be complete, to feel saved. “Lord, give me that job. Give me that girl. Give me confidence. Give me peace. Give me warm weather. Give me so and so’s respect. Lord, give me this. Lord, get me that, because then I’ll be okay. God I promise – give me this and I’ll be okay!” And how does Jesus respond? In a way that is so loving, and so offensive. “Whoever doesn’t take up the cross and follow me,” He says, “isn’t worthy of me. Those who find their life – who write their own script and ask me to adapt – will lose it. But those who lose their life with me and for me, they” he says, “will find it.” Is that something we expect to hear from Jesus Christ when we wake up each morning – lessons in losing? If not, perhaps we need to ask – when it comes to Jesus and the salvation He brings, what do we expect?
So, here’s the question – if we making loving Jesus the central aim of our life, what should we expect? What I get from today’s Gospel is this – we should expect an encounter with the real Jesus to offend us. Not all the time, but sometimes. You see from time to time for Jesus to love us He has to take our script, wad it up and tell us to get behind him. He has to remind us that Christianity is about losing our lives. And as the sentimentality of our culture reaches its peak, this is something we do well to remember. Yes, I know – it’s the most wonderful time of the year. There’s eggnog and mistletoe and candy canes and lights. But Advent is about preparing ourselves for a gift – for the gift of Jesus himself. And if we think of Jesus’ birth and feel nothing but warmth and jolly good cheer, well, maybe its time we wrestle, yet again, with the scandal of the cross – because the cross, before its ever anything else, is offensive.
You see some gifts just can’t be appreciated until we first understand they’re offensive. For example, if you give me a book for Christmas and tell me it’s going to change my life, but the title happens to be, How to Overcome Your Problem of Social Awkwardness – well, before I ever appreciate your gift, I’ll first feel offended. Why? Because your gift will expose a very embarrassing need. Some gifts just can’t be appreciated until we first understand they’re offensive, and the cross of Christ is one of them. The birth of Jesus is one of them, because before Christ reveals anything meaningful to us about God’s love, He first exposes the depth of our need and tragedy of our sin. So in this season of Advent, don’t get swept away by music and mistletoe and mistake the fuzziness of what you feel for the fullness of God’s love. The love of God, before it’s anything else, is offensive. Why? Because the love of God is revealed most fully in the scandal of the cross. Do you understand now why Jesus has to say, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” It’s because Jesus knows that when we understand His mission, offense is the first thing we feel.
And so as you go out into the world this week here’s what I’d suggest. Throw away your script, because the question John asks Jesus is the same one we’re all asking – “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait?” And the answer is both. Jesus Christ has already come. He’s brought salvation. Everything, already, has changed! And we should expect – here and now – to be living in the already available grace that floods this world. And yet, let’s not forget, we still have to wait – for all the blind don’t yet see, and all the lepers aren’t yet cleansed, and all our chains are not yet broken. And we should expect to feel the pain that comes with waiting to be let out of prison. If we want to be faithful, we have to throw away our script, because Jesus’ is so much better. Yes, at times we’ll feel like John – a little unsure exactly what Jesus has in store. But Advent – it’s also a season of hope. “Eye hasn’t seen nor ear heard.” Whatever Jesus is up to – it’s so much more than we could ever possibly expect.