Whenever expectations meet reality, questions are sure to follow.
Years ago my wife told my son that they were going to do something very special to get ready for Christmas. She pumped up his excitement. She told him they were going to have fun. As a consequence, he couldn’t wait until the day came — to make a gingerbread house. I walked in just as the project was being completed. He was sitting there with his head in his hands, bored to tears and asking his mother if they were having fun yet.
Our expectations build a road leading us somewhere until we come to that stop along the way called reality. It happens even to the best of us!
John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod after the king seized him. This was not a land of free speech. Herod’s behavior was unacceptable and the “wilderness preacher” dared to say so. It has never been easy to run a country where people question the judgment of their leaders, nor to be a citizen of a country that has to raise objections. In this case, Herod had enough of John. He was arrested.
It is from John’s cell that the scene in the eleventh chapter of Matthew begins to unfold. Some of his followers pass on information about Jesus to him. Presumably what they have heard and seen are Jesus’ words from the mountainside, all of those blessings on the poor and the bereaved and the meek and the righteous, all of those illustrations on what the commandments really meant, all of those reminders of what God requires from us as we live. They saw miracles, too. The blind receiving their sight and the lame walking, and the lepers cleansed and the deaf hearing and the dead raised and the poor having good news preached to them. John heard the reports and he was puzzled. He expected a deliverer who would wield fire and judgment, not a Messiah simply caring for the brokenness of the world.
“Are you the one, Jesus?” he asks. It happens even to the best of us!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing to a friend late in 1943 while imprisoned for his resistance to the Nazi regime, said this: “Life in a prison cell reminds me a great deal of Advent — one waits and hopes and putters about, but in the end what we do is of little consequence, for the door is shut and can only be opened from the outside.”
What Jesus asks John to do is what he asks all of us to do during these days of December. We all are confined to some kind of prison. We know what it means to have no power. We feel the helplessness. We create distractions so as not to have to admit any of that. We have choreographed a season that is anything but flattering. We live from one day to the next waiting and hoping and puttering about, but for what? Is to greet this Jesus we’ve heard about? Is it to get ready to be standing at the door when he comes to open it?
Advent is a time for rousing. Rousing the people of faith, people like you and me, people who look to us to proclaim some kind of news, so that we are shaken to our very depths, so that we can wake up to the truth about ourselves. This Jesus is asking us if we are ready to surrender our expectations about him and about what he has come to do. Jesus is not some genie in a bottle. Rub the sides and you’ll get what you what. There is too much of that sort of thing being said all the time.
Jesus is the Light of the World.
John had been right. He was the one that God had sent to prepare the way. He was the one who stood in the darkness and began preaching that it wasn’t natural. Imagine? We need the light of God to shine into our lives. When that light shines, though, it can be unsettling. Expectations meeting reality creates questions.
We are halfway through Advent and you wonder if has been noticed. If anyone should care, it is we Americans. Advent may have more to do with our life than any other season of the year. Jesus is standing in the middle of the road to Bethlehem asking us to decide who he is. Is he the one or should we wait for another? Consumed by a Christmas that really never comes, by a holiday that promises so much and delivers so little, about a day for storing up things, it is has become our prison cell, the sort from which we are asking questions.
Jesus challenges us. He invites us to dare to come out and stand in a light that shines in such a way that we can begin to understand who he is, in a light that exposes our expectations with the reality of God with us.
Larry Chottiner is pastor of Salisbury Church in Midlothian, Va.