Life sometimes throws us curveballs.
The curveballs can be good or bad.
But whether good or bad, they break from our expectations.
They can leave us breathless with horror.
Or dazzled with wonder.
Grateful beyond expression.
Saddened beyond telling.
A man looks forward to retirement, expecting long years of enjoyment with his wife, but learns he has Stage 4 cancer weeks before his retirement date.
A woman, long hurt by life, assuming that she will always be alone, suddenly and amazingly falls in love with a wonderful man she hadn’t dared to hope existed for her.
The curveballs of life are enough to counsel us, I think, to check our expectations.
For believers in the God Who has revealed Himself to the world in Jesus Christ, it means, above all I think, learning to pray the hardest prayer of all: “Thy will be done.”
I can tell you that much of my life as a Christian, even to this day, has been spent learning to conform my expectations to the will of God, to truly learn to pray with my Savior, “Not as I will, but as you will."
I have not yet learned how to fully yield to God’s will for my life over against my expectations of what my life should be.
I have not yet fully learned what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 6:19, that my life is not really my own. And that is doubly true. It's true first, because I didn't bring my life into being. And it's true second, because Jesus Christ died and rose to give me new and everlasting life. Still I struggle over proprietary rights with God. I struggle to accept that my life does not belong to me and God doesn't dance to the tune I punch in on life's juke box.
Maybe you struggle with this just like I do.
If that is our common struggle here this morning (or one of them), our Gospel lesson for today tells us that we are not alone.
John the Baptist had certain expectations of the Messiah or the Christ. Messiah (Meshiah) is the Hebrew word for Anointed One; Christ, Christos in the original Greek of the New Testament, carries the same meaning.
John rightly understood that the Messiah, Who He correctly identified as Jesus, was going to bring judgment on this old world of sin.
John also understood that Jesus was to be the legitimate King of the Jews Who would bring the Kingdom of heaven to this earth.
But John’s expectations of what that meant, of what kind of King Jesus would be, of what the kingdom looked like, were very different from what Jesus seemed to be as Jesus traveled from place to place, preaching, teaching, and performing miraculous signs.
John was looking for a king who, acting in God’s righteousness, would supplant the corrupt and violent Herod, the king who had slapped John into jail in his own house because John’s proclamation of a new king threatened him.
John wondered what was going on.
Jesus wasn’t what he had expected.
That’s where our Gospel lesson starts and this morning, I hope you don’t mind, I want to focus on just the first few verses of the lesson today. Please go to it, Matthew 11:2-6 (page 682 in the pew Bibles). It begins: “When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’ Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor...’”
John was all-in for Jesus. Yet Jesus wasn’t doing any of the things John had expected of God's Anointed One!
Jesus hadn’t taken the reins of political power, hadn’t purified the temple and the priesthood, hadn’t put the righteous into power, hadn’t established the kingdom of heaven.
In His response, Jesus’ told John He needed to change his expectations. There was to be more to the kingdom of heaven than judgment!
Do you remember what happened when, near the beginning of His ministry, Jesus went to His hometown of Nazareth? To define His mission as the Messiah and the Kingdom He had come to earth to bring, Jesus chose to read from Isaiah 61:1-2. Please turn to it on page 517. It says: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn...”
Jesus does bring judgment, of course. It’s the judgment we pass on ourselves when deciding whether or not to receive the offer of life and forgiveness and joy that comes from God through Jesus alone. As Jesus told Nicodemus: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” And the aged Simeon said of Jesus when the Lord was only eight days old, brought to the temple by Mary and Joseph to be circumcised: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed."
People cast judgment on themselves--we cast judgment on ourselves--whenever we choose the darkness of life without God and when we choose sin over the brightness of forgiveness and fresh life that comes from Jesus, the Light of the world.
But judgment is not ultimately why Jesus came into the world.
And it isn’t why He will one day return to the world.
Jesus also told Nicodemus: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
All who believe in the Name of Jesus are saved to live in the kingdom of heaven where, Revelation 21:4 says that Jesus “will wipe away every tear from [believers’] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
This is why Jesus presents the evidence for His being Messiah to the emissaries of John the Baptist that He does. The words Jesus cites come from Isaiah 35:5-6. Please go there, page 497. Here, God’s ultimate intentions--beyond sin and death and judgment--and the content of life in His kingdom are described: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water [living water?] will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.”
Jesus didn't come into the world to force God’s kingdom on us.
He came so that all who trust in Him will receive a new Eden, an eternal city where there is no darkness, only light; no death, only life; no despair, only hope!
Jesus performed the signs of the coming Kingdom so that people would not feel forced or coerced into following Him but so that, in seeing, they would be open to believing in--to betting their lives on--Jesus and Jesus only! And so that by believing in Jesus, that kingdom would invade their (our) daily lives in this world and, one day, at what one of the old hymns called “the consummation,” believers in Christ will live in that new Eden, the new heavens and the new earth, the new creation.
In essence, Jesus tells John's disciples, “Tell John about the signs."
Then, Jesus says: “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."
In verse 11 of our lesson, Jesus says: “among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” Yet John, like you and me and every other human being on the planet this morning, was left with a critical decision when considering the life, deeds, signs, death, and resurrection of Jesus:
- Would he yield to the testimony of Christ’s activities on earth and the promptings of the Holy Spirit to leave himself open to accepting that Jesus is the One Who came into the world to destroy the fallen kingdoms of this world and to bring God’s kingdom into being?
- Or would John turn his back on Jesus because Jesus didn’t match the limited expectations he had of the Savior?
He didn’t do what they wanted Him to do when they wanted Him to do it.
He didn’t thwart the unfair boss.
He didn’t save the marriage.
He didn’t help them get into the National Honor Society.
He didn’t cure a loved one’s cancer.
I don’t say any of this to condemn those who reject Jesus because they have been hurt! Through the years, it’s been my experience that atheists are generally more sensitive about the hurts of the world than are we Christians. (To the shame of we Christians.)
It’s that very sensitivity and the belief that life in this world should be better than it is that leads many atheists to spurn God.
But, when I was an atheist, I had to ask myself, “Where does my sense that things ought to be better come from if not from the God Who made us for something better?”
The truth is that a godless universe would give us no reason to hold up things like love, justice, or grace as ways of life to which human beings should aspire.
If we are all the result of some random collision of elements derived from some unknown force and if all of life is a contest for the survival of the fittest, our stubborn human ideas about right and wrong would be inexplicable.
For me then, atheism, though perhaps understandable as a reaction to life, simply doesn't account for all of life's realities.
Others become atheists because, like John the Baptist who wrestled with doubts in a cell in Herod’s prison, the God they tried to believe in didn’t meet their expectations. Their picture of what God should be like was based on their preferences, not on Who God has revealed Himself to be. They tried to domesticate God.
In the first volume of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, in which four children from our world visit an alternative universe and are told about Aslan. Aslan is a figure of Christ in Lewis' books, "the great King, Son of the Emperor-beyond-the-sea." When informed that Aslan was a lion, one of the children asks, "Is he safe?" The reply: "Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the king..."
Jesus is like that. He is the King. He is good. But if we're looking for safety, we should look elsewhere for our Savior. Jesus calls us to turn away from the safety of our favorite sins, the safety of lives turned inward for our own ends to a life lived for Him and for our neighbor.
It’s at those moments when God fails to meet our expectations that we need to consider Jesus. We need to look at Him closely.
The gospels’ accounts about Jesus’ time on earth tell us all we need to know to have saving faith and to expand our faith in Jesus, despite the hard realities of life.
The four Gospels in the New Testament--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--make it possible for us to do exactly what Jesus said that John the Baptist should do: Look at what He did and why. See how He had control of life and death, yet never used that control for selfish purposes, not even self-preservation when they nailed His hands and feet to a cross. See the compassion of God evident in Jesus.
In effect, Jesus says, “Decide for yourself from the evidence Who I am!” Look at Jesus closely and we see the God of the universe Who may be different from our expectations, but Who is exactly the King we need!
Toward the end of his Gospel, another John writes: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples [including, most miraculous of all, His death and resurrection], which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” If you would know God, look to Jesus!
Someone once wrote that life in this world is “nasty, brutish, and short.”* There is truth in that, although there is also much beauty, love, and wonder in this world.
I got another precious glimpse of that yesterday. One of the littlest of our Christmas carolers approached us in the kitchen after we'd been singing in the neighborhood, her nose running. She asked for a tissue. There were no tissues there, so I handed her a few napkins from the dispenser. She took the napkins and blew her nose as well as she could, then handed the napkins back to me. If that isn't precious and beautiful, I don't know what is!
Beauty and wonder still rise stubbornly "like grass through cement" in this fallen world. Despite our sin and the calamities it has brought to our life on this planet, we see glimpses of how perfect this world was meant to be, how dependent and trusting we were made to be toward God and one another, every day.
But if we expect that Jesus is going to make this world--unrepentant and self-driven--into Eden, we misunderstand Him.
If we think that Jesus has laid down a political program by which people of can live out certain principles and give the world a makeover.
One of the worst sins we commit in post-modern Christianity, whether conservative or liberal, is the sin of idolatry, turning Jesus into the God we prefer, replacing His deity and Lordship with our particular political preferences and programs so that we can get what we want in this world. That, friends, is a scandal!
And it's stupid because this world is under a death sentence!
This world must die so that the new world, the new Eden can come into being.
We must die--in the waters of Baptism and in daily repentance and renewal--so that the Kingdom can enter us and so that we can be part of the Kingdom.
The God we know in Jesus, “able to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine” has bigger plans for us than remodeling this dying creation.
Plans not to harm us, but to give us a future no longer darkened by sin or death or futility.
He has come and will come again to establish a kingdom in which tears are dried, the lame walk, even run, and the aggrieved know joy.
Jesus is the sign and the seal of God’s good intentions for the human race.
His death and resurrection are God’s guarantee of life free from sin and death for all who dare to surrender to Jesus Christ.
The kingdom Jesus died and rose to bring into being is living in and among those who believe in Him, the Church, despite the imperfections of we individual Christians.
We are even today empowered by His Spirit to give sight to the blind, cleansing to the leprous, life to the dead, food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, and good news that brings everlasting life.
We see that in the many ministries pursued by the people of Living Water.
May we remain open to being conduits of Jesus’ kingdom each day.
May we become ever more receptive to going wherever our King calls us to be.
And may others see the signs of Jesus in our life and so, with us, come to everlasting life in His Name.
*The writer was Thomas Hobbes. He was actually specifically referencing war. But in my lifetime, war has been a sufficiently central feature of human existence that I feel no hesitation in saying that it reflects life in this world.