Sunday, December 12, 2010

When God Doesn't Meet Our Expectations

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Matthew 11:2-11
If this morning’s Gospel lesson has given you a bad case of spiritual whiplash, it’s understandable.

Last week, on the Second Sunday of Advent, we heard John the Baptist’s confident proclamation of the impending appearance of God’s promised Anointed King—what the Hebrew of the Old Testament calls the Messiah and the Greek of the New Testament calls the Christ. In the coming Christ, John told the crowds who heard him preach in the wilderness, God was getting ready to re-establish His reign over a sinful, rebellious world.

When Jesus later showed up to be baptized by John, in a passage not a part of last Sunday’s lesson, John must have felt that all his preaching had been vindicated. Jesus was the Messiah for whom he had been waiting!

When we fast forward to the Gospel lesson for this Third Sunday of Advent, we come to a very different scene.

Now, if John was like most of the Jews of his day, his expectations would have been that the Messiah, the King of kings, was going to push the bloodthirsty, corrupt Judean kings—the Herodian line—off of their thrones, would save the people from their foreign overlords, the Romans, and would take away the power and prominence the vain and faithless rulers of Judea’s religious life—the priests and teachers of the law. John probably expected a clean sweep of what we would call church and state. And the Messiah, he undoubtedly thought, would make everything in society right.

Instead, since John's encounter with Jesus at the Jordan River, Jesus had undertaken a ministry of preaching, teaching, healing, and miracle working. Great stuff, but not exactly what John had expected! Herod, the Romans, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees were still in charge and, as we meet up with John the Baptist today, he’s in prison, wrestling with disappointment and doubt. With a probable death sentence hanging over him and with the reign of God—the kingdom of God—seeming no nearer than it had been when he first began his ministry, John sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the One Who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

John wanted to hope in Jesus, but this King in Whom he had reposed so much hope didn’t seem to be meeting John’s expectations. John wondered, “Is Jesus the Savior?”

Have you ever been there?

Have the promises of Jesus to hear and answer your prayers sometimes mocked your faith?

Have your life circumstances cast your faith in a sovereign, loving God in doubt?

Have questions pressed on you as you’ve watched loved ones suffer or die, or you’ve struggled with health issues, financial issues, or when your sense of purpose in life has disappeared?

Have you played by God’s rules and watched people who ignore them seem to skate through life as you face troubles and difficulties?

The truth, if we’re honest I think, is that we have all been there in the prison of doubt and uncertainty John experienced in that prison cell.

And so, John did what millions of people have done through the centuries when wrestling with their questions and doubts. He turned to Jesus. He asked Jesus, in effect, “Are You the One in Whom I can place the full measure of my trust and hope? Or do I need to look elsewhere for hope?” (People do that, you know. God disappoints them or turns out to be different from what they expect and they turn from God, never to return. They turn to false gospels that promise them wealth or health or a free pass to perpetrate their favorite sins with the full favor of God.)

Jesus’ response to John’s question in today’s Gospel lesson is not just for John the Baptist, it’s for all of us who have ever doubted, who have wrestled to understand God’s plans in the midst of unbearable pain or indecipherable situations.

Please pull out the Celebrate insert and look at Matthew 11, verses 4 to 6, to see what Jesus said:
Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. 
Jesus didn’t deny that He was the King Who would bring judgment on the unbelieving world. And He would confirm His role as judge of the world many times. In answer to John’s question though, Jesus simply pointed John to all the signs that showed Him to be not just the Messiah, but the Lord of all creation, Who can speak a word and create life where there was death, wholeness where there was brokenness.

To John’s doubt and disappointment, Jesus says, “Consider the evidence. I’m doing the things that God told the prophets He would do when His kingdom came into this fallen world.”

There’s another message in Jesus’ words, though. It’s this: Change your expectations of the Messiah. Change your expectations of God.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that there is any limit to God’s power or to God’s willingness to hear prayers offered in Jesus’ Name. In Jesus, we meet the sovereign, almighty God of the universe Who made us, Who can violate the natural laws He Himself created by performing miracles (and does), Who is committed to bringing injustice to an end, Who will allow those who refuse to trust in Him to go their own ways for eternity, and Who, by His cross and resurrection, has destroyed the power of sin and death for all eternity for those who believe in Christ!

Everything that Jesus did, including His sinless life, His sacrificial death, and His rising from the dead, show us Who Jesus is and the good plans God has for those who repent and believe in Jesus.

But Jesus’ kingdom hasn’t come in its fullness yet.

Right now, you and l live in a world in which bad things happen to faithful people. It can cause us to question, just as it did John the Baptist.

The week before she died, Karen, a member of our former parish and a friend of Ann’s and mine, wrestling with her suffering, holding onto Jesus in the midst of it all, confided to me, “I keep wondering what it is God wants me to learn from all of this.” Though deeply faithful—I would say because she was so faithful, because she so believed in Jesus—Karen wondered, as John the Baptist had wondered, when Jesus was going to act decisively. When would God finally act to bring about the promise given by God through the prophet Isaiah and repeated in the New Testament book of Revelation: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more…”?

That promise will come to pass. The God Who has never broken a promise will make it happen. The God Who was born in a stable, lived among us, died for us, and rose to give us life can be counted on to make things right.

Until then, He gives us, He gives the Church, and He gives the world this current life in which, as Jesus says, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

This life, with all its troubles, is God’s gift to us. But we know that God gives new life. So, why doesn’t God set things perfectly, totally, completely right for us now? Please turn to page 707 in the Bibles that are in the pew racks. There, you’ll find Second Peter, chapter 3, verse 9. Read that verse aloud with me, if you would,
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. 
Every day we live in this world is an opportunity to do exactly what Jesus invited John to do: To look to Jesus; to see what He has done and understand the compassionate, powerful God Who has done incredible things for His people…Who is still doing them.

If we’re inclined to see Jesus as a hedge against the nasty realities of life, a cosmic Santa Claus who makes life just go away, we need to change our expectations. As was true for Jesus, before our resurrections, there will be challenges to face, hurdles to overcome, crosses to bear.

But God doesn’t let us have pain, hardship, or uncertainty because God is slow in acting or because God lacks the power to act. God is giving us the gift of time:
  • Time for us to repent and surrender to Him; 
  • Time for us to share the good news of the baby born in a manger who went to a cross and rose from the dead for all sinners; 
  • Time for us to serve others in Jesus’ Name; 
  • Time for us to grow as believers who are fit for eternity with God
Today, Jesus invites you and me to seize the days we have, one by one, and to live this life fully: to turn from sin, to live for Jesus, and, just like Jesus, to spread His love by what we do and who we are. And when, like John the Baptist, we wrestle with our questions, Jesus calls us to focus our hopes on Him, and not anyone or anything else.

Ann’s and my friend, Karen, who I mentioned earlier and of whom I’ve spoken before, left a note for me to read after her death. (She had written notes for many people to read after she died.) She said, in part, “Please help everyone to know that just because I have died doesn’t mean that their prayers did not ‘work.’ Healing is so much more than having a whole and perfect body…I’ll be seeing you again—then we can forget all of this sadness…”

While we await the return of the Messiah Who came to our world on the first Christmas, we can live in this uncertain and sometimes sad world with the absolute certainty that Jesus will make all His promises good for all who trust in Him. When we let that certainty fill us, we can face everything with joy and peace, the very blessings of which the angels sang on the night of Jesus’ birth.

May we join their song every day we live and on into eternity with God! Amen
Here's a video featuring the incomparable Carolyn Arends, singing her song, 'Seize the Day.' Arends' music was important to Karen, the woman mentioned in the sermon. We played Arends' song, 'All is Well,' during Karen's funeral in 1999.

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