The Third Sunday of Advent
One of the many museums I have been to in my life is the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, Texas. Before I started my last job in Houston, I spent a week setting up my apartment and trying to get to know the city a little bit. I had plenty of expectations about what moving to Texas was going to be like, but part of that first week, I was trying to figure out if those expectations were correct or not. The Museum district in Houston has plenty of museums to choose from and I wandered in and out of a number of them. In the Contemporary Arts Museum though is where I started to realize that many of my expectations were going to be broken, had to be let go of. In its halls were a dizzying array of abstract art compilations, pieces made out of trash, graffiti type works, and a number of things that I stared at, simply wondering what I was looking at. I’m still not sure I understand all of what I saw that day.
We all move through our lives with plenty of expectations. We all have different expectations when it comes to the Christmas Holiday season. We have expectations about what we want our decorations to look like, what we want to have for our special meals, what we expect to receive and how much and so on. We are really good at creating expectations out of what has happened in the past and what we wish would happen. Any time we walk into a room, we bring with ourselves expectations. Its interesting that expectation setting is a natural default. We anticipate something coming in the future and we imagine what is going to happen or how it will look or who will be involved. And yet, our expectations do not always line up with reality. A huge part of what it means to cope with our lives means letting go of expectations - usually around how other people are going to behave. We cannot control anyone else's behavior, no matter how hard we try. Any parent who has had a toddler knows this well. Toddlers look adorable but they can be hell in tottering new shoes. Letting go of expectations can be really hard. We get emotionally attached to our imagination of how things will go. Openness to the new and unexpected is scary. Sometimes quite literally hard pounding, pulse racing, scary.
The Israelites had been waiting for a Messiah for hundreds of years. They had been waiting so long they were starting to forget what they were truly waiting for in a Messiah, at least by the way the New Testament writers describe the crowds. There were so many layers of expectations and so many different perspectives and hopes and dreams, that to fulfill everybody's wishes would be contradictory and quite impossible. Luckily, Jesus didn't set out to fulfill all the expectations of the people of Israel throughout the centuries. Jesus had a very different mission in Palestine in the first century.
We can see this tension in the gospel passage from Matthew this morning. John the Baptist, who has known that Jesus was the Messiah since before he was born, starts to question and have doubts about what is going on. There are expectations that are not being met, whether they were cultural expectations or personal expectations for John, he obviously has a moment in which he seeks clarity. But since John is in prison at this point in his life, he has to send his disciples in order to find out any answers. Jesus, almost naturally, doesn't give any clear straightforward answers. That is not how Jesus works.
John receives an unexpected message from Jesus through his disciples. I can imagine them going back to John, "John, we talked to Jesus. He didn't say yes or no. He said we had to report what we heard and saw. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. Oh, and blessed are those who take no offense at him. That's what he said. What does that mean?" And John, scratching his head, "Hmmm... well..." and we don't know how he felt about this answer, we don't know whether his doubts and his questions were assuaged at that moment. We don't know whether or not that is what he was expecting the Messiah to do. Jesus and John were obviously on the same page about some things, but naturally as leaders and different men, they had some differences of opinion. Jesus sends John's disciples back to him with out a positive or negative answer. Again, against expectations. Jesus points to those things are the fruits of his labor. The actions that point to his real mission and his intention. The actions that show exactly who he is. Jesus never tries to force anyone into anything. He allows people to make their own decisions about himself. Jesus tells John's disciples to tell John what they see and hear. Jesus knows that whatever he says could be misconstrued. The Pharisees and the other religious leaders are looking for reasons to imprison him.
Jesus questions the crowds about their expectations as well. About John specifically, but also in a way about himself. Many of the people in the crowd that is with him at the time had gone to see John. What were all those normal regular people's expectations of what was going on? What were they looking for? We have to ask ourselves the same things. What are we looking for in our leaders, in our sages, in our heroes? If we are looking for rich celebrities in pricey garments, certainly the world has found them for us! If we are looking for those who seek and speak the truth, well, then, we need to look somewhere else! John was sent as a messenger, to speak the truth, to show the way, to prepare the people for what was to come next. John wasn't sent to do miracles, to overturn the political system, or to overthrow the religious authorities. And neither was Jesus.
Jesus’ way of answering John’s question is very important. For John to truly accept Jesus as the Messiah, John needs to make that decision on his own. He has to let go of his expectations of what the Messiah is going to do and allow the Messiah to work his wisdom in the world. In this way John is also a role model for us. We too are going to have to accept Jesus for who he is, without all of our expectations. If we are truly going to be able to welcome and accept Jesus, into our hearts, into our lives, into our world, this year and every year, we are going to have to let go of our expectations of what he is supposed to do.
Some of us are better at letting go of our expectations. As we age, we naturally have to start letting go of some of the things we used to be able to do all the time. Our expectations about what our bodies are able to do and handle change, sometimes through our own mental changes, and sometimes the harsh reality of what we are able to do changes our minds for us. There is great wisdom in listening and paying attention to what our bodies are telling us they can and cannot handle. There is great wisdom in learning how to let go of our expectations, especially around control, in our lives.
This week, as we move ever more closer to the birth of Jesus in our lives, look at your expectations of what Christmas will bring for you. God does not always come into our lives in expected ways. What do we expect of Jesus? How are we open to the coming of Jesus and his mission in our lives? Have you, like John, been putting expectations on the work of the Messiah? Examine your hearts and minds and let go of those expectations. Open up space for Jesus to come and work wonders beyond all expectations. God can do more than we could ever possibly imagine and for that we give great thanks. Amen.