Sermon for Advent 3A
About a year and a half ago, my brother got married to a wonderful woman. My sister-in-law used to work at Disney World, and still knew people who worked there. So, a few days before the wedding, she and her friends got the entire bridal party in to Disney World for free. I had been looking forward to this experience. This was the first time that I had been to Disney World since I had been in elementary school—I think that my parents thought that, once they had taken my brother and me once, their duty had been fulfilled and so we never returned. I remembered how much fun I had had at Disney World as a child, and my expectations were that I would have a lot of fun again. Unfortunately, my expectations weren’t quite met. While it was a pleasant experience, the weather was hot and humid—this was Florida at the end of May-beginning of June, after all—and as an adult, I realized just how corny some of the rides really were. Furthermore, I was disappointed that there really weren’t a lot of rides, but instead that there was more shopping than anything else, and I didn’t have a lot of money to spend. So, aside from one really awesome moment where I got into a pretend sword fight with one of the groomsmen in the Pirates of the Caribbean gift shop, Disney just wasn’t as much fun as I had remembered it to be as a child. My expectations for the experience had not been met.
Today we meet John the Baptist in a similar situation. After last week’s fire and brimstone sermon from John, when he got us all excited for the kingdom of God and the impending judgment that was supposed to come with it, we find John in prison for calling out King Herod on his sinful behavior. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, John thought. Surely God would have judged righteously and in my favor by now. Surely God would have destroyed King Herod by now. Why am I in prison? I was so sure that Jesus was the coming one. Could I have misunderstood what God was telling me? I don’t see any separation of wheat and chaff, I don’t see any ax cutting down any trees, and I certainly don’t see any fire. I’d better send someone to ask Jesus what’s going on, because things were really not supposed to go down like this. In short, John’s expectations for what Jesus was going to do were not met.
What kind of expectations do we have for Jesus? In several classes that I’ve led this year, including the confirmation class and the adult Lutheran Basics class, we’ve talked about images that we have of what Jesus looked like. There were no cameras available when Jesus lived, so the pictures that people have painted of Jesus over the centuries are largely out of our collective imaginations. The painting that we have in our library, for example, is our traditional image of Jesus. There are also many paintings of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and of Jesus with the little children out there. One image that I experienced of Jesus that I had difficulty with was of Jesus as a young black man with dreadlocks. But, it was in a church in the inner city of Baltimore whose congregation was primarily black, and so if that image of Jesus helps them to relate more to Jesus, then that is okay. Remember, we have no photographs of Jesus and, since he rules over everyone, I think he is okay with different portraits we paint of him. But this week, someone on Fox News, Megyn Kelly, claimed that Jesus was a white man. Period. End of story, no room for discussion. How would she react were Jesus to appear to her as he probably looked in history: a short man with dark skin, looking more Arabic than white, and probably someone who would show up on our country’s no-fly list? How would any of us react if Jesus were to appear to us looking significantly different than what our image of him was? Would we say, “No, you can’t be Jesus. Jesus has soft, flowing long hair and skin color like mine. You’re an impostor, go away.” Or, would we believe the words that Jesus spoke to us in spite of the way he looked?
Jesus subverts our expectations of him. This is what Jesus does with the disciples of John the Baptist who come to ask him the question if he is really the one: He doesn’t answer the question, but he instead points to the deeds that he is doing and asks John to make a choice. “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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Because, while the judgment that John preached will be involved in the kingdom of God, that is not all that we should expect from the kingdom. Jesus points to the prophecies of Isaiah, like the one that we heard today as our Old Testament lesson, as the greater fulfillment of the kingdom of God. In effect, he is saying, “John, will you only believe in the judgment? Will you only believe in your own self-righteousness? Will you believe that my only purpose is to set you free from prison? Are you that self-centered? Or, will you dare to believe that the kingdom of God is greater than you think it is? Will you dare to believe in the mercy of God as well as God’s judgment? Will you dare to believe that part of your service to God may very well include unjust imprisonment as well as urging my people to repentance?”
Jesus asks the same questions of us today. We all have our own images of what the kingdom of God should look like. As an example: Over the years, Christianity has become embedded with the culture here in the United States. Therefore, many people see a questioning of our culture, our economic system, and our way of life not only as an affront to us, but somehow as an affront to Christianity and to Jesus. Pope Francis recently issued a document entitled “The Joy of the Gospel” in which, among other things, he criticizes the capitalist economy of the United States. He writes, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” He goes on to criticize trickle-down theories of economics, which, he says, “expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power”. From the reactions of some folks in this country, you would have thought Francis had crucified Jesus all over again. But where in the gospels does it show Jesus saying, “Blessed are the wealthy, for their wealth and their success will trickle down and help the poor to rise up by their own bootstraps?” No, Jesus tells us that the poor are blessed and that the poor are the ones who have good news brought to them. As Christians, in the kingdom of God, we should be more upset when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure rather than when the stock market drops. Because every time something like that happens, Jesus weeps.
The kingdom of God is bigger than the United States and our own self-centeredness. Our capitalistic, market economy is not always consistent with what Jesus teaches. Our system of government is not the most perfect system of government there is and is not somehow endorsed by the Bible and Jesus. The kingdom of God is bigger than we can imagine, and Jesus challenges us to imagine quite a bit. When Jesus returns, there will be a lot of things turned topsy-turvy. And we will most likely find that we were wrong about many, many things. We will be surprised and disturbed from our complacency. The kingdom of God will be unlike anything we have dared to imagine.
All of this is not to say that John the Baptist was wrong in what he was preaching. The nearness of the kingdom of God does call for repentance on our part. The kingdom of God does involve judgment. But it will be judgment on those things that cause blindness, lameness, leprosy, deafness, death, and poverty. And, just like the question posed to John the Baptist, Jesus asks us to make a choice. Will we imagine the kingdom of God centered on our ideas only? Will we do what we think is right and look away from the evil that causes poverty, illness, and death? Or will we dare to imagine that the kingdom is bigger than we think it is, and that Jesus is working in the world in the ways that we least expect him to? Will we be open to a Jesus who does not fit neatly into who we believe him to be? If we dare to imagine, if we are open to the way Jesus is working in this world, then we will be among those whom Jesus commends, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
So, the question again is: Why do we have this text in the middle of a season when we are looking forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus? And again the answer is: Because Advent has a dual meaning. Not only are we remembering the first coming of Christ as the baby in Bethlehem, but we are also looking forward to Christ’s second coming in glory. And as we look forward to that, we have work of preparation to do. On the first Sunday of Advent, we learned that we are not to fear the return of Christ, but that we are to continue doing what God has called us to do, even as we eagerly desire his return. Last Sunday we learned that we are to prepare ourselves by repenting of our behavior so that we can do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Today, Jesus asks us to dare to imagine himself and the kingdom of God as something completely different than and bigger than we think it is, and to look for the unexpected ways he is already at work in the world. Let us therefore keep our minds and our hearts open and aware, listening for his voice and looking for how God is already at work in us and around us. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.