The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
The Baptist sends word to Jesus asking, “Are you the one, or are we to look for another?” John is not stupid, he’s hopeful. His ministry has been to prepare the people to meet their savior, and though he has been the prophet of that savior’s appearing, the Baptist is waiting for his own savior along with everyone else’s. When John the Baptist preached of the savior to others he was preaching to himself as well. Such is the nature of preaching, dear friends. The Baptist’s question is a natural, faithful, hopeful question; he has faith and his human limitations want an assurance that his faith is not misplaced.
Jesus obliges. He sends word back to John, telling the messenger to report what the messenger has seen- the miraculous works wrought by Jesus. Jesus does not offer a flatfooted “Yes.” Jesus replies in effect to John “Examine the evidence and make up your own mind.” John’s preaching has invited commitment, and now Jesus invites the preacher’s own renewed, mature, personal commitment. Jesus’ invitation to the Baptist anticipates His later question to the crowd about John: “What then did you go out to see?”
“What then did you go out to see?” Jesus, speaking of His cousin the Baptist, asks His hearers to clarify their current experience by recalling their past expectations.
We are not so measured and thoughtful as Jesus. We usually ask “Well, what did you expect?!?,”in an arched, mildly sarcastic tone- a superior tone indicating wisdom or perceptive experience in the speaker, and implying inexperience or ineptitude in the hearer. The question cast in this way is rarely meant to contribute to the conversation in a helpful way.
When we are bewildered by events and/or people, our confusion indicates to us before anyone else that what was assumed or expected is not what has been found. This does not necessarily mean that we had unrealistic expectations, nor does such a reaction always indicate a disappointment or surprise that is disproportionate to the moment, though the tone of the “...expect?!?” question would suggest otherwise. Mild surprise, wonder, a slight cock of the head as we look and think...these may honestly indicate mild surprise and wonderment and nothing more.
When Jesus asks the question about the Baptist, the best answer his hearers had was perhaps a shrug and “I dunno, but this ain’t it.” Fair enough. Jesus is teaching here, not scolding, and such an answer is an honest one. Jesus is a good rabbi; He can work with honest confusion.
The longer we wait for something, the more firm and hardened our pictures of it become. God’s promise of a savior progressed from hearts stirred by the promise, to eager longing and genuine preparation, to abiding forthright anticipation, to emergent disillusionment, to emergent despair, to hardening self-protective skepticism. In the process, the imagined savior takes on more and more specific characteristics, each generation adding its own glosses to the picture. Such was the case in Roman-occupied Palestine, where the savior had been expected for about 800 years- plenty of time to make Him, and re-make Him, closer and closer to our own image and further and further from whom He is. It should not surprise us that a guy who wears animal skins and eats insects would not fit the assumed profile of His prophet, nor should it surprise us that the one of whom John spoke did not fit the assumed profile of the expected savior. Neither Jesus nor His older cousin John are what was expected. John is the surprising prophet of a surprising savior.
What do we expect in Advent? We squint through the godless, distracting cultural stuff around us guided by Jesus’ question: “What then did you go out to see?” We cup our hands to the ears of our hearts and try to isolate in the day’s ugly cacophony a “still small voice” of Hope. We read the signs of the times, and struggle to parse from their staggering nonsense some evidence of God’s clear communication.
The rub comes when we get stuck on deeds. Our ancestors and we with them expect the deeds the savior will perform, not the person the savior is. When Jesus challenges John to make up his own mind, He begins with deeds as an introduction, hoping that His deeds will clarify His identity. OK. As long as that’s the sequence I’ll buy it. But too often, we let our identification be by the works alone. Ask someone who they are and they’ll say, “I’m a plumber.” We ask who someone’s mother is, and we get “Cook, Chauffeur, Nurse,” not “Mary Alice.” We ask who God is, and content ourselves with “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer,” We stop at the actions, not taking the next step- the step toward knowing the person rather than the deeds alone.
Our relationship with God is not utilitarian. It’s the relationship of a created soul with an infinite uncreated soul. It is not about what God does for us, but rather about who God is to us. This is why Christmas can be baffling. A warrior or a deft politician we get....a baby? Not so much. There’s nothing the baby can do for us, and so the best we can make of His birth is the utilitarian necessity getting Him on Earth and breathing, so that He can do things for us, but perhaps not much more.
The “what” of Christmas is the action of God coming among us- and the “why” of Christmas is in order that God may be better known to us. And it is fair to wonder if God is baffled by us at Christmas...”Why do they only want favors, and do not care to know me as I AM?”
Expect a relationship, and actions inevitably follow. Expect actions, and a relationship may or may not necessarily follow.
He’s coming. Love you. See you in Church.
FBC3+, 11 December 2016, being The Third Sunday of Advent
 Matthew 11:3 NRSV
 Matthew 11:8 NRSV
 I Kings 19:12 NRSV