The collect and readings for The Third Sunday of Advent may be found here. The appointed gospel is Matthew 11:2-11.
2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
We are a people of expectations. When we go to bed at night we expect the sun to rise in the morning. We expect others to stop at the stop sign. We expect it will take about an hour and a half to drive to San Antonio. We expect the church to be open on Sundays, the lights on, and Eucharist to be celebrated. We have expectations for what is appropriate behavior for ourselves and others. Our days are full of expectations. They offer some predictability and order to our world and lives.
There are other expectations, however. They affect us more profoundly than the day to day expectations. Sometimes they are expectations of hope and other times they are expectations of dread. Either way they have the power to imprison us.
Expectations of hope create a framework for how we think the world and life should be. They are often the ideals and dreams that carry us forward. They, in some way, describe our world vision and what we want. There are also expectations of dread, the things of life that we fear and want to avoid. Whenever we speak about wanting to simply get through the next day, the week, a particular aspect of our life there is an underlying expectation of dread.
The thing about expectations is that they pull us out of the present moment into a future we do not yet have, except as it exists in our head. Pretty soon we begin to act and speak as if our expectations, either of hope or dread, are the reality of our lives. We allow those expectations to shape our attitudes, our beliefs, and the way we relate to others. Those expectations even shape our image of who God is, where God can show up, and how God should act. If God does not meet our expectations we are often too quick to question God rather than ourselves. We trust our expectations of what God should be doing more than we trust what God is actually doing.
John the Baptist is a man of expectations. Last week’s gospel showed John to be a voice crying out in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” He expects a new kingdom and a new ruler. He expects wrath, fire, axes. He expects one who is more powerful. John’s expectations have given him the confidence and ability to turn his back on the religious establishment, to go the desert, and to seek God in the wild and untamed places of life.
Today, the gospel offers a very different picture of John. Today he is a prisoner with a question, “Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” So what happened? How did John get from the vast wilderness expanse to the confines of four walls? How did he go from being a prophet with all the answers to a prisoner with questions?
At one level it started when he criticized King Herod. “It is not lawful,” John said, “for you to have your [brother’s wife]” (Mt. 14:1-4). So Herod arrested, bound, and imprisoned him. That’s the historical answer but holy scripture always invites to see and listen more deeply, to discern the spiritual meaning.
Herod may have put John in jail but John’s own expectations have imprisoned him. Herod’s jail, the historical bricks and mortar, is an external symbol of the inner prison in which John now waits. It is the interior prison of disappointment and disillusion. He is confined by his own unmet expectations. He has heard about all that the Christ, the Messiah, is doing but where is the ax, the fire, the winnowing fork? Where is the wrath in the midst of cleansing lepers, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead? So John sends a message, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” It’s as if John is saying, “You, you’re the one? Isn’t there someone else? Perhaps someone who better fits my expectations?”
John has been incarcerated by his own expectations of who the Messiah is and how the Messiah should act. His vision of the kingdom is too small, his expectation of the Messiah too narrow. That is the danger of holding our expectations too tightly. Whether they are expectations of hope or expectations of dread our own expectations often blind us to the one who is coming, to the one who is more powerful. We imprison ourselves with a view of God, the kingdom, the world, our own lives that is too small, too narrow. We try to confine God’s work and life to our expectations. But that is not who God is or how God acts.
We thought God would make our lives easy and instead he calls us to live more deeply. We wanted God to eliminate our suffering and instead discovered God standing with us in the midst of our pain. We expected God would make us number one but he called us to identify with the least, the last, the lost. We wanted him to make us strong but he called us to discover his strength in our weakness. We hoped God would destroy our enemies but he commanded us to love them. We wanted to be the leaders but God told us to servants.
Every time one of our expectations is unmet our prison walls crumble. The way has been prepared and we must decide, will we escape or simply rebuild the walls? It would be so much easier if Jesus would just come, do, and be as we expect. But he won’t. He won’t leave us in our cells no matter how comfortable or safe they might seem to us. He loves us too much.
There is a part of us, however, that persists with our expectations and our question. “Yes or no, are you the one who is coming? Or are we to wait for another? Just answer the question Jesus.” He does not do that for us or for John. A simple yes or no answer will not release us from our jails. We will escape only when we let go of our expectations. We will escape when we open our minds and hearts to bigger kingdom. We will escape when we trust God more than our ideas about God.
The Season of Advent is the season of jailbreaks. It is the season of escaping our expectations of God. It is the time in which the falling apart of our worlds is shown not to be the end of the world; when wrath, axes, and fire are about love and healing rather than punishment and destruction; when God is as quiet as a thief in the night.
So I wonder, where have you imprisoned yourself with expectations of hope or dread? In what ways do you work to rebuild your prison walls? How have you isolated yourself from the love, healing, and life God offers?
The door of your cell is locked but only from the inside. Open the door and flee the confines of your expectations. A new world awaits you. What will 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. That would be us. God is always coming to former inmates.