The Third Sunday in Advent, Year A – Matthew 11:2-11
John yelled at his disciples, “The Messiah is doing what!?” His voice escaped between the bars of his cell and echoed throughout the prison. Maybe his disciples told him what Jesus was doing. Or maybe he overheard the guards talking about it. Maybe he found out from other visitors.
Jesus has been going throughout Galilee teaching and proclaiming the good news; healing the sick; telling the poor, those who mourn, the meek, and the merciful that they are blessed; touching and healing lepers; giving sight to the blind; making the paralyzed walk; raising the dead.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” John snorted to his disciples. “Turn the other cheek, give to everyone who begs from you, love your enemy? He actually said that?”
“No, this can’t be. That’s not who I baptized. That’s not what I meant when I said he was the more powerful one. I was specific about that – axes, winnowing fork, and unquenchable fire. That’s power.”
“You go find him and tell him John wants to know, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’”
So maybe that’s not exactly what today’s gospel (Matthew 11:2-11) says, but what if it was? It could be. Maybe it didn’t really happen like that but that’s what I imagine is going on. It’s what we might read if we were to read between the lines. It may not be factual but I think it is true – for John, you, and me.
I suspect that for most of us there is a gap between our hopes for and expectations of who Jesus is and what he does, and who he really is and what he really does. It’s a gap between our image of the one who is to come and the one who shows up. It’s a gap between what we want and what we get.
If Jesus would just be more who he is supposed to be, who we want him to be, the gap would close. But it doesn’t. It remains.
That gap is most apparent when life breaks our heart, when evil wins the day, when our prayer feels like nothing more than spitting words into the wind. That gap is often filled with disappointment, fear, grief, confusion, anger. It holds us like a prison cell.
When have you experienced that gap? What happened? What did it feel like?
See if any of this sounds familiar:
- I thought Jesus would give me the answer. Instead, he calls me into question.
- I thought he would make my life easier. Instead, he asks me to take up my cross and follow him.
- I thought he would give me security and safety. Instead, he asks me to live vulnerably.
- I thought he would take care of the world’s needs. Instead, he says, “You give them something to eat.”
- I thought he would give me whatever I asked for. Instead, he says to pray like this: “Our Father … your kingdom come, your will be done.”
- I thought he would be on my side. Instead, he tells me to love my enemy.
- I thought he would prevent death. Instead, he asks, “Do you believe in the resurrection?”
- I thought he would heal my relationships. Instead, he tells me to forgive not seven times but seventy times seven.
- I thought he would make me number one. Instead, he says I must be a servant of all.
- I thought he would make me successful. Instead, he asks if that’s the treasure to which I want to give my heart.
- I thought he would show up in spectacular ways. Instead, he looks like the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the naked, the homeless, the stranger.
- I thought he would bring some magic to my life and world. Instead, he gives me the work of repentance.
- I thought he would take care of everything. Instead, he believes that I will do greater things than him.
Whenever we expect Jesus to exercise power like a classic hero – a strong force, superhero like – he completely reverses our expectations of who he is and what God’s kingdom is like (Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct, 84). That reversal is at the heart of John’s question. It is a reversal that changes how we live, relate to others, and engage the world.
That reversal is taking place in John. In last week’s gospel (Mathew 3:1-12) John was a wild man, in this week’s gospel (Matthew 11:2-11) he’s an inmate. Last week he wandered the open expanse, this week he’s confined to a jail cell. Last week he was absolutely sure of what he knew, this week he’s shackled by uncertainty and not knowing. Last week he was a prophet with a voice, this week he’s a prisoner with a question.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” I hear that not so much as a question about Jesus’ identity but as a statement about what’s going on in John (and you and me).
I can imagine the unspoken part, the omitted words, that might follow that question. It goes something like this: “Because if you are the one who is to come, you are neither who I thought you would be nor who I hoped and wanted you to be.”
What if that’s John’s jailhouse confession? And what if we let it be ours too?
Haven’t there been times when you weren’t sure about who Jesus is? Maybe he surprised you by what he said or did. Maybe you were disappointed, even angry, at what he did not do. Maybe there was a time when he didn’t live up to your expectations.
I don’t think that confession, whether it’s John’s or ours, represents a failure or an ending. Instead, that confession is the beginning of our reversal. It’s a reversal that opens our eyes to see, our hearts to love, and our hands to reach out. It’s a reversal that keeps us open to the one who is coming, whoever or wherever that might be.
That reversal doesn’t eliminate the gap. It does, however, change it – from a prison cell to an opportunity. It calls us to stand in and fill the gap. It asks us to respond. “For it is we who have mountains to move by our faith” and it is we who make “God stronger than the power [or pain] of the world” (Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct, 88).
And blessed are we if we take no offense at that.