Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.
A few weeks ago, the media was abuzz with news of corruption in Toronto, Canada. It seems that Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto, not only admitted to using crack cocaine in Toronto’s City Hall during “one of his drunken stupors,” but was also unrepentant and refused to entertain even the possibility of resigning. When one watches some of the profanity-laden video of Mr. Ford vociferously defending himself on the floor of the City Council chamber, it’s easy to forget that this guy was elected to be the mayor of a city with 2.6 million residents. But he was! By 100,000 votes!
This led me to wonder how those people who supported Mr. Ford are feeling today. I took a look at some of the editorials that endorsed Rob Ford’s candidacy back in 2010. While none of them are terribly effusive, many of indicate that he was the right man for the job. One newspaper noted that though some of Mr. Ford’s plans were unrealistic and not fully formed, at least he had a vision. This editor somewhat prophetically concluded that “the risk in supporting Mr. Ford is what he might do as mayor,” but that at least he would do something. Even more prescient was the evaluation of the National Post, which endorsed Mr. Ford by saying that “Toronto very much needs a proverbial bull in the china shop.” I think the National Post got more than it bargained for. Given what has happened in Toronto over the past month or so, I wonder whether these editorial boards wish they could take back their endorsement. When the person they had identified as the cure to their city’s ills failed to live up to expectations, did these editors worry about whether people would ever take them seriously again? Or did they simply retreat quietly to their offices and hope that the next candidate they endorsed would meet their expectations?
I think this dynamic of regret is at work in the words we hear from John the Baptist today. Last week, we found John standing waist deep in the waters of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and admonishing his hearers to prepare the way of the Lord. We heard John predict the coming of one more powerful than he, the one who will gather the wheat into his granary and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. The John we heard from last week is the John of prophetic expectation, the great forerunner of the morn, the one heralding the advent of the Messiah. Even though he is dressed in animal skins, lives in the desert, eats bugs, and can’t stop telling us what we’re doing wrong, I think that the John we heard from last week is the John we’re comfortable with. Last week’s John is the self-assured baptizer, the one who is certain about the future, the one who is preparing us for the coming of God’s kingdom.
This week, however, we hear from an uncertain, self-doubting John. We’ve fast-forwarded in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus has begun his ministry: he’s given the Sermon on the Mount, called the disciples, healed the sick, exorcised demons, and sent out apostles to preach the good news. Before all of that, however, John baptized Jesus in the Jordan. John determined that Jesus was the one he had been preaching about, the one with the winnowing fork and the threshing floor, and so he gives Jesus his endorsement. According to Matthew, this was the last time that Jesus and John had any contact. Since then, a lot has changed for both men. Jesus has begun a ministry of teaching and healing throughout Judea; John is in prison. Jesus has been eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners; John has been rotting in jail. So, when John hears about all that Jesus has been doing (the company he’s been keeping, the activities he’s been engaging in, the parties he’s been attending), John’s reaction is to wonder if he endorsed the wrong guy. There are some scholars who hypothesize that John was a member of the Essenes, a group of Jewish monks who lived in the wilderness and were anxiously awaiting a Messiah who would throw out the Roman oppressors and restore true worship to the Temple. If this is accurate, then it should not be surprising to us that John might be disappointed with the person he endorsed as the Messiah. After all, if you expect a Messiah who will overthrow the Romans, you would expect that person to spend his time raising an army of strong and devoted warriors and rallying people to his noble and glorious cause. You wouldn’t expect that Messiah to spend all his time hanging out with sick people and teaching in an inscrutable and sometimes alienating way. Furthermore, if you expect a Messiah who will restore true worship to the temple and cleanse it of all impurity, you would expect that person to avoid those considered ritually unclean. You wouldn’t expect that Messiah to spend time with tax collectors and sinners. Perhaps most poignantly, if you are expecting a Messiah who will vindicate the righteous, you wouldn’t expect that Messiah to let you rot in jail.
Given John’s unmet expectations of Jesus, it’s no surprise that John sends two of his disciples essentially to find out whether he had made a mistake. The two disciples ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for, the one we’ve been preparing for, the one we’ve been expecting, or are we still looking?” The grammar of the question intrigues me, because it’s a little absurd to ask someone if he is the one who is to come. It’s absurd to ask someone in the present if he is someone from the future. “What do you mean, am I the one who is to come? I’m here already!” There’s an element of this incredulity, this frustration in Jesus’ response: “Go and tell John what you see and hear: 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.” In other words, “The kingdom of God has come near. What exactly are you looking for?”
The contrast between the expectations of John and the reality of Jesus is illustrated when Jesus turns to the crowds and asks what they expected when they went to see John in the wilderness. Matthew frames these questions in such a way that the answer is self-evident. What did you go out to see: a reed shaken by the wind? No! Someone dressed in soft robes? No! A prophet? Yeah, a prophet! Jesus, in other words, tells the crowds that John met their expectations, that John’s prophetic witness made sense within the context of the way the world works. But, Jesus goes on to explain that though John is a prophet mighty in word and deed, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. Why is that? There is no one who was better prepared for the coming of the Messiah than John the Baptist; surely he should have pride of place in God’s kingdom. There is no one who did more to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah than John the Baptist; why would he be left out of the conversation?
It seems to me that even though John the Baptist was prepared, he was not ready for the coming of the Messiah. While being ready and being prepared may seem synonymous, there is a crucial difference. We prepare with a specific goal or situation in mind: students prepare for tests, musicians prepare for recitals, football teams prepare for specific opponents. On the other hand, readiness implies a state of being, one that is not contingent on a particular situation. If we are truly ready, we are ready for anything. John the Baptist had a very specific idea about who the Messiah was and what he was going to do; he was prepared for the coming of that Messiah. As soon as his expectations were not met, however, John wondered whether he was supposed to wait for someone else. John wasn’t ready for what the coming of the Messiah truly represented.
I suspect that many of us can sympathize with John’s desire to know what to expect. We live in a world that is so full of uncertainty and instability that we cling desperately to our expectations, hoping against hope that they will be met. This is particularly true in our faith journeys. We are much more inclined to prepare for a Messiah who can be pinned down, a Messiah who will meet our expectations every time. In a brief Internet search of “faith” and “expectations” last night, I found numerous websites that encouraged people to “Ask in faith and expect an answer.” Popular religious figures encourage their hearers to tell God exactly what they want and expect it. Examples like these demonstrate our deep preoccupation with certainty, our desire for a God who meets our expectations. But Advent calls us to be ready for a Messiah who will challenge our expectations and call us out of our complacency. We are called to be ready to encounter the Messiah in the places where we least expect to find him.
Many of you know Roz Thomas. For those of you who don’t, Mother Roz was the Associate Rector here at Heavenly Rest for a number of years and has more recently served as the vicar of Trinity Church in Albany. Those of you who know Roz know that she has a unique ability to defy expectations. Though she was a tiny woman, one of her first purchases after arriving in Texas was a large Ford pickup truck. When she was on the lot buying the truck, she found that there was a drawer underneath the driver’s seat. She asked the salesman what the drawer’s purpose was; he responded, “Well ma’am, that’s for your gun.” Roz was only taken aback for a moment before she decided that she would store her prayer book/hymnal in the drawer.
One of the things I have appreciated most about Roz’s example is how much she cared for the people of this community. Roz has told me stories about emerging from the church offices and seeing a crowd of people gathered around her truck, all of them looking for a few dollars, a kind word, or a prayer. Roz is one of the people responsible for the existence of Hands On Outreach, our emergency assistance ministry. Roz knew how to look for Jesus in unexpected places. She understood that each time she came in contact with a person asking for help, she was encountering the Messiah.
Roz died earlier this week. This is a shock to all of us. People who had seen her only a few days ago said that she seemed to be in good health. Roz’s death was unexpected and I can’t imagine that she was prepared for it. But I suspect that she was ready. I suspect that her ministry of seeking out Jesus in unexpected places led her to be ready for the coming of the Messiah who defies our expectations.
Are you ready for the coming of the Messiah? Are you ready for a Messiah who is found among the lost, the hopeless, the poor, the sick, and unloved? Are you ready for a Messiah who shows us that the path of love is one of sacrifice? Are you ready for a Messiah who defies your expectations?