United Christ Parish, Fertile, MN
Advent 3/December 12, 2010
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
So, what are you waiting for?
Ask that question of all the little ones in our lives and you know what the answer will be: they’re waiting for Christmas, waiting to rip open all those presents-under-the-tree.
Fifty years ago, when I was a little boy, each December I was regularly encouraged not to get my hopes up too high. It was the last thing I wanted to hear, because my expectations were already sky-high, having spent weeks with my nose in the Sears Wishbook.
“Son, just don’t get your hopes set too high.” I can still hear my mom murmuring those words…
And they were good words, wise words, for a little guy to hear. Santa’s sleigh is only so big after all, and money doesn’t grow on trees.
The problem with being told not to get your hopes too high is that, over time, people take that to heart….and after a while they set aside all their great expectations in favor of more modest hopes, more measured anticipations….and life gets flattened out, the highs canceling the lows, and we put our heads down and keep our noses to the grindstone.
As one wag has put it: “Don’t expect much, and you’ll never be disappointed.”
But it’s disappointment that we run into in this morning’s gospel lesson from Matthew, chapter 11.
John the Baptist, languishing in King Herod’s prison, is taking stock of his life. John thought Jesus might have been the One, but now he’s not so sure—things aren’t turning out the way John thought they would. So he sends a couple of his buddies to ask Jesus, point blank: “Are you or aren’t you the One we’ve been waiting for?”
And my question is this: Did John the Baptist wonder that because he was expecting too much of Jesus—expecting more than even Jesus could deliver?
So, John, what are you waiting for? And I imagine John responding like this: “I’m waiting for a little divine ‘payback.’ I’m waiting for these occupiers, these rotten Roman scoundrels to be given the boot. I’m waiting for folks to start taking their responsibilities seriously—I’m waiting for my people Israel to act like they’re truly the chosen ones of God.”
But none of that was happening. And John, in his narrow prison cell--not sure the key would ever jingle and the door be thrown open--John was wondering if his expectations of Jesus had been a tad too high.
So he sent messengers to ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And, fortunately for us, Jesus didn’t answer with a simple Yes or No.
Instead, Jesus let his actions do the talking for him. Presbyterian preacher Frederick Buechner paraphrases Jesus’ response this way: “Tell [John] there are people who have sold their seeing-eye dogs and taken up bird-watching. Tell him there are people who’ve traded in aluminum walkers for hiking boots. Tell him the down-and-out have turned into the up-and-coming and a lot of dead-beats are living it up for the first time in their lives.”
I don’t think John was flirting with disappointment because he expected too much from Jesus.
No. John’s problem was that he expected too little. John’s hopes weren’t high, deep or “thick” enough. And so Jesus re-set John’s hope and our hope, in soaring language borrowed from the prophets of old.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Well: sit up and take notice. People are “coming to their senses”—literally!---the blind now dazzled by light, the deaf now tapping their toes the music, the dead now refusing to stay put where we buried them.
Please, it’s as if Jesus is pleading with us, please ratchet up your hopes too high—and watch me exceed those hopes, whatever they might be!
And that’s what I’d like us to bore in on for just a few more moments.
What if our moms and dads got it all wrong? What if instead of tamping down our hopes and moderating our expectations, they had told us: “don’t hold back, don’t expect too little, don’t cultivate modest anticipations, don’t low-ball God.”
We Lutherans, especially we northern European types, God’s “frozen chosen” of the upper Midwest—Lord knows, we’ve got safe and modest and realistic down pat. We are paragons of moderation!
But what if all along we’ve been aiming too low, when we should be shooting the moon?
There is, after all, an excess, an over-flowing-ness in the Word of God that is always catching us up short. Take our First Lesson from Isaiah 35, for example. It’s about the wilderness—the dry, parched places of life where we feel utterly cut-off, bereft of all hope.
But this wilderness is turning lush and verdant, as God renews all things. “It shall blossom”—not just a little bit, not just “enough”—but “abundantly( v. 2).
And the lame don’t just limber up—they aren’t merely content with hobbling around—no, “they leap like a deer!” (v. 6) The speechless manage to do much more than croak out a few syllables—rather, “they sing for joy.” (v. 7) The dry land doesn’t just show a few hints of greenery—it becomes like a northern Minnesota wetland in the summer, teeming with life.
And right through the middle of this barren, God-forsaken “dead man’s gulch”—the kind of place any sane person would avoid at all cost—right through the middle of it we see not just a narrow rocky trail—but a wide highway, the Holy Way, the way back home for God’s exiled people.
Isaiah 35 invites us in this Advent season to set our hopes too high for a change—because the higher we hope, the higher will God outdo us in giving us all that we will ever need.
So, my dear friends, what are you waiting for this morning?
Are you waiting for a little peace and quiet, a break in the relentless routine? Are you waiting for spring? Are you waiting for a ruined relationship to be knit back together? Are you waiting for the economy to turn around, the country to come back together, the world to settle down? Are you waiting for a way through your wilderness--whatever that wilderness might be?
Whatever you are waiting for—I invite you to ratchet up your hopes. Toss moderation out the window. God wants to give you more than you can ask or imagine. That’s why God sent us the baby Jesus, that’s why God keeps showing up in Water and Wine and Word, that’s why God will send us Jesus one last time, to set all things to rights.
Whatever you’re waiting for, whatever you’re hoping for…hope for more…because God will give you even more than what you hope for. That’s the only way God knows how to give!
It’s what this season, and what the Christmas holy days just around the corner, are all about.
We may not think about that every waking minute of every cold day in December….but such boundless hope keeps breaking through, especially in the great songs of this season. Listen for it!
Our hope and expectation,
O Jesus, now appear;
Arise, O Sun so longed for,
O’er this benighted sphere.
With hearts and hands uplifted,
We plead, O Lord, to see
The day of earth’s redemption
That sets your people free!
Even we lumpy,pasty, pale, shy Norwegian Lutherans….even we paragons of moderation….even we know how to sing those words in Advent (in four-part harmony!)--and maybe we even believe them!
Tune your ears to such music, my dear friends, perk up your ears to hear the humming hope of the whole world, being ratcheted up, because God in Jesus Christ is renewing the whole creation—God is exceeding all expectations, in the Baby born for us in Bethlehem.
So, I ask you one last time: what are you waiting for?
If God in Jesus Christ is restoring our senses, reclaiming every wilderness, depriving death of its terror-filled hold on us, bringing us home ….if God is making all things news in the life, death and resurrection of his Beloved Son…if the future belongs to this God, who is setting all things aright…
…what are we waiting for, even now? Why bide our time until God wraps it all up? We have permission to start living in this very moment as if God’s preferred future had already arrived.
What if we leaned forward into the Kingdom that is coming toward us, giving ourselves away recklessly, waging peace relentlessly, pursuing justice obsessively, letting God’s abundance flow through our pocketbooks effortlessly, befriending everyone whom God places in our path--voicing the hope that is in us?
There’s nothing stopping us. We can live like that, even before the Kingdom comes in all its Final-Advent fullness.
There’s nothing holding us back.
So, what are we waiting for?
In the name of Jesus. Amen.