This was the sermon I preached at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA on Sunday.
This week I received a chain e-mail from a friend of mine. Now normally I skip over these things pretty quickly, but I was intrigued by the subject line, “The ‘W’ in Christmas,” so I opened it up and read. Maybe you’ve received this as well, but for those who haven’t, the story goes like this. There was a mom who, despite all her best efforts to cut back, still found herself running around like a crazy person trying to get ready before the holidays. She found herself exhausted, frustrated and unable to focus on the true meaning of Christmas.
Her son was in kindergarten that year and he’d been excitedly memorizing songs for his school’s “Winter Pageant.” Unable to make the actual nighttime performance, his mom went to the final dress rehearsal that morning. Joined by other parents in the audience, she watched as each class stood and sang their song. Being a public school, she expected songs about winter, snowmen, reindeer and joy. However, when her son’s class was up, they announced they’d be singing “Christmas Love.” As they sang, the children in front held up large letters: “C is for Christmas,” “H is for Happy,” continuing on down the line. Everything was fine until they reached a small, quiet girl in the front row, holding her “M” upside down. As the elementary school kids began to snicker, the teachers tried unsuccessfully to quiet them down, but the girl continued, proudly holding her letter, unaware of her mistake.
As the final letter was held up, a hush fell over the crowd. Suddenly people realized why they were celebrating Christmas to begin with, and why, in the middle of all the chaos, there was still plenty of room for rejoicing. The message spelled out on the cards: “Christ was love.”
Now, even if this story isn’t something that actually occurred, it still tells us something powerful about expectations. A mother’s expectations that her son’s pageant would be full of secular songs were turned upside down when she encountered the very Christmas message she’d been seeking in the chaos.
This morning’s reading from Matthew is all about expectations as well. Pr. Joe reintroduced us to our wild and fiery prophet John the Baptist last Sunday. Well, John finds himself in a difficult position in this week’s Gospel. Sitting alone in prison, John is wondering if Jesus really is the Messiah. Now remember, earlier, John had baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. And not only that, but John initially didn’t want to baptize Jesus at all, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ Now, locked in a prison cell, he’s wondering if he’s really picked the right messiah. After all, Jesus wasn’t walking around with his winnowing fork in hand burning up chaff with unquenchable fire. He hadn’t overthrown the oppressive Roman rulers. He hadn’t come in like a powerful king, ready to reestablish the Golden Age of King David.
Instead, of fulfilling all of John’s expectations, he’d been teaching and healing people, wandering throughout the land and consorting with all the wrong types of people. I imagine John pacing around his cell, wondering about this Messiah he’d decided to support, wringing his hands and muttering, “is Jesus really the one?” Finally, he can’t stand it any longer and he sends his disciples out to ask Jesus directly if he’s the Messiah.
But Jesus doesn’t answer him directly. He tells John’s disciples to report back to John, bearing witness about what they’ve seen and heard and experienced with their own senses. “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.” Jesus tells them to tell John they’ve seen and heard the promises of Isaiah’s oracle coming true before their very eyes. In other words, the proof is in the pudding… and maybe since it’s around Christmas, we can say, “the proof is in the Figgy pudding.” It’s up to John to decide who he believes Jesus to be. This is a theme we will hear ripple out through Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus asks his disciples, “who do you say that I am?”
Jesus doesn’t just tell John’s disciples to bear witness to these healings, he also tacks on this last sentence: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Hmmm… what’s that all about? The Greek word used for “offense” is one we’re more familiar with that you might think: it’s scandalitzo (σκανδαλίζω). Say it with me: scandalitzo. “Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me.”
While this word is used figuratively here to indicate taking offense at Jesus and his words, it literally means to cause someone to stumble. Is Jesus telling John not to be offended or not to trip up over the fact that he doesn’t meet John’s expectations of who the Messiah should be and how he should act?
I hear these words about taking offense at Jesus and I don’t think they’re just meant for John the Baptist. I hear Christ asking each of us if we are offended, scandalized or tripped up by who he is. What do we find difficult about this Messiah we follow? Where do we find ourselves stumbling? Is it when Christ speaks words of judgment in the Gospels? Is it when Christ calls us turn the other cheek or welcome outcasts? Is it when we hear Christ’s call to pray for our enemies? Or do we find ourselves tripping up over really believing that the good news is real? And that it’s for each of us?
Rather than being upset or distraught that we are scandalized by Jesus, it’s an opportunity and a challenge to reflect on why we are offended. It’s a chance to examine where God may be inviting us to grow in different areas in our lives. If I am scandalized by the fact that Jesus lifts up the poor, perhaps I am being called to grow in my understanding of stewardship and generosity. Or, if I find myself stumbling over the fact that Jesus calls us to forgive others seventy times seven times, perhaps I’m being called to look again at what it means to forgive and be forgiven. And in doing this work, it’s important to keep in mind that even John the Baptist was scandalized by Jesus to some extent because he didn’t meet his messianic expectations. I know I take comfort in hearing that one of the great heroes of the faith struggled with doubts and uncertainties even after he baptized Jesus!
In this morning’s reading, after encountering John’s disciples, Jesus affirms the Baptist’s important role as not only a prophet, but, “more than a prophet.” In fact, Jesus says he’s the very one who prepared the way for the coming Messiah. But Jesus isn’t one to just explain things. Instead, he asks the crowds who have been listening to him about John the Baptist. “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?”
Jesus makes it very clear that this person who appeared to be a wild, raving man was actually the greatest among those born of women. The one preaching in a wasteland was the one come to prepare and point the way to new life and growth. He wasn’t what he seemed. But this isn’t just a message for the crowds that gathered over two thousand years ago. It’s a message for us.
“What did you go out to look at? What then did you go out to see? What were you expecting? When you came to church this morning, what did you expect?” Jesus asks us to think about our own expectations about encountering the holy. What do we expect to see and hear from God? How do we expect or want God to act? What do we expect God to do? Have those expectations been fulfilled, let down, or changed altogether?
Our tendency is to try to make sense of things. To organize things into categories and boxes so that we can understand them better, or at least pretend that we understand them! And I think we often try to confine God to a box, describing God in our own terms and putting boundaries on God. But the amazing thing is that God keeps breaking out of the boxes that we try to keep God in.
C.S. Lewis’ children’s book and Christian allegory, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, describes this well. In this book, Aslan, the magnificent lion that represents Christ, leaves to go about his mission in the world. One of the characters explains his departure in this way: “He’ll be coming and going. One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down–and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
I love that! God isn’t tame. God is consistently breaking through the barriers we try to put up, which makes us a little uncomfortable and maybe even frustrated. Bursting through the boxes we try to stick God in and shaking up our expectations, God is wild and mysterious. And God, in Christ, comes to stir things up – to turn the world upside down through bringing about a new kingdom! God is active and alive, not confined by our preconceptions.
This time of year, we celebrate God coming to earth and bringing about this kingdom. We think about Jesus as an adorable baby in a manager surrounded by sheep, donkeys and oxen, which is totally appropriate. But it’s also important that we remember that this baby is one who came to change the world and bring about an entirely new way of being – to bring life out of the barren wilderness, and to bring light into the darkness.
So, what do you expect see and hear when you encounter God? And how might God be changing that? Are you open to having those expectations changed, or does that offend and scandalize you?
I invite you to take the card you should have received when you came in this morning. Write down your expectations of God and write down where you feel offended. Pray about these things. And listen for God’s response in your life. How might these places be areas to grow and change in your life this Advent and into the coming year?
Let us pray… Open our hearts, O God. Scandalize us with your gospel and your love! And may we grow closer to you as you continue to challenge us to go beyond our comfort zones into the places and spaces to which you call us. In the name of your dear Son we pray, Amen.
© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.