Sunday, December 12, 2010

Managing Expectations: A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

I've preached all through Advent and Christmas now, but am behind in getting my sermons uploaded. Truth to tell, the concluding paragraphs of this one weren't finally written down until today (today being Christmas Day, despite the date of this post), and my sermon for 4th Advent and Christmas Eve was extemporaneous. As you can see from the image below, I was haunted by the image of the road from the AMC series The Walking Dead, and it's echoes of haunted post-apocalyptic highways in Cormac McCarthy or another novel I've just finished, S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire, and the image of the highway in Isaiah. MP+
Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB
Third Sunday of Advent, 12 December, 2010

Lectionary: Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:5-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt 11:3)

In a previous life, when I worked in a sales department, we were taught something called “managing customer expectations”. This technique involved walking a fine line. On the one hand, we were expected to support the promises made by our marketing department and brochures, but on the other hand we had to prevent the customer from expecting more than we could deliver. It was in this job that I came to fully appreciate the black humour in the Dilbert cartoon strip.

Today’s Gospel reading starts with John the Baptist. Some time has passed since we met John last week, on the second Sunday of Advent (Matt 3:1-12). Then John was the herald in the wilderness, proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me”, John promised. In the tradition of Israel’s prophets such as Malachi, John said that the one to come would bring a purifying fire to cleanse Israel, and he warned that there was little time left to repent. Since the time of that warning, Jesus has been active in Galilee, teaching and performing miracles, and word has spread about him. In that time, John has offended King Herod with his own preaching, and is now a political prisoner. Like many prisoners, John still finds a way to send a messages, and so he asks through his own disciples, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John’s seems much less confident now than he was in the wilderness. He almost seems querulous. When I hear these two gospel readings in Advent, I always wonder what happened to John’s certainty about the Messiah.

John the Baptist is a huge part of the Advent story as the church’s lectionary unfolds it. He stands for the two great and interrelated themes of Advent, preparation and repentance as the faithful make ready for the coming of Christ. It is interesting to speculate on what happened to John in prison to sap his certainty in the one he preached of in the wilderness, but as some biblical commentaries note, that would just be speculation. Far more interesting is that whereas in last Sunday’s reading John used the first person “I” and “me”, in today’s reading John uses the first person plural: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” As David Hare notes, John hear appears to be speaking here for the people of Israel, who throughout this part of Matthew are not agreed on who and what Jesus is (Matt 9:33-34, Matt 12:23-24). And perhaps more to the point, John speaks for us, the people of God, as we wait for Jesus and as we wonder who he is and what he means for us. “Are you the one?”

We know that John had set himself apart from the mainstream of his people, rather like the Dead Sea Scrolls Qumran community had done. Dressed as an ascetic hermit, living in the wilderness, and preaching a baptism of repentance, John aligned himself with those prophets who foretold a coming judgement, which would cleanse Israel and reduce it to a righteous remnant. Perhaps John also hoped that Jesus as Messiah, a warrior king who would bring political liberation from Rome and its’ petty client kings for the people of Israel. Certainly John had expectations of who the Messiah would be and what he would do, and perhaps, as John languished in prison and Jesus stayed in remote Galilee, far from the seat of power, John was worrying that he gotten it wrong.

When I hear John’s question, I hear it echo in ways that pick up the anxieties and longings of our own day. One doesn’t have to be religious to be asking “are you the one”. Are you the one who can fix our schools? Are you the one who can get our hospitals and ERs working again? Are you the one who tell me how to raise my kids? Are you the one who can make me feel good about myself? Are you the one who can lift us out of our petty squabbles and give us a something to believe in and work for? I am sure there are Christians, people of faith, who ask “are you the one”. Are you the one who can fill our empty churches and breathe life back into our denomination. Jesus, it all happened so long ago and sometimes it seems so hard to believe, even at Christmas. Are you the one who was really born of a virgin. Are you the one who did all those miracles and who rose from the dead? Are you the one who will come again? Are you the one?

I talked earlier about managing expectations. Notice, in the answer he gives to John, how Jesus doesn’t do anything to diminish John’s expectations or to put realistic limits on what John is hoping for. Quite the opposite happens. Jesus fully aligns himself with the bold promises made by an earlier prophet, Isaiah. As we heard in our first lesson, Isaiah promised that a day would come when the blind would see, the deaf hear, and the lame could “leap like a deer” (which, if you watch deer leaping from back yard to back yard here in Ralston, is something to behold!) (Isa 35:5-6). As he does in Luke's gospel in his hometown synagoge, at the start of his ministry, so Jesus does here, fully aligning himself with the audacious promises of Isaiah and saying, in effect, I am the one whom the prophets foretold, the one who will save Israel and renew creation.

Jesus says the same thing to us, not managing or limiting our expectations but rather unleashing them to beyond what we can hope for. As Craig Satterlee et al point out in the latest of the excellent Augsburg New Proclamation preaching series, our culture today is full of apocalyptic fears and expectations. Living as we do in the midst of immense social, technological, even geopolitical change, I see these fears and expectations in the midst of popular culture. Two quicl examples, both centered on image we heard in Isaiah today of the highway. I've been watching the AMC miniseries The Walking Dead, with its iconic image of one of the last humans riding a highway into a city teeming with zombies. Like Cormac McCarthy's bestselling novel The Road of some years ago, this image takes the highway, which North Americans have long associated with unlimited freedome and adventure, and turned it into an image of menace, fear, and wrecked hope.

Now contrast that image with the image of the highway from Isaiah:

A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isa 35:8-10).

We approach this Christmas amidst our own personal expectations (will it be perfect, will my loved ones appreciate all my gifts and efforts, will I cope with being alone, with being stressed, with being sad) and amidst our larger fears and hopes (will I find/keep a job, will things get better/worse, will we be safe, will it matter). If we are Christian, and we see our understanding of Christmas becoming more and more marginalized and seemingly irrelevant against the culture's understanding of Christmas, it's easy to echo John and ask "Are you the one?".

The message of this Sunday, and the joy that is the quality traditionally associated with the third Sunday of Advent, is that yes, the one who is coming is the real deal, he is the Messiah, and the road he invites us to walk upon is safe, and straight, and will lead us to a good place. It is a bold and wonderful promise, made with the full guarantee that God made to the prophet Isaiah, that the world will be renewed and restored by the Messiah who brings God's re-creation. There's no need to manage or spin or limit this expectation, merely to embrace it and to look joyfully for the one who is to come.


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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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