A Different Reality (Third Sunday in Advent)

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So here’s what I really want to know about today’s Gospel reading:

John the Baptist’s disciples approach Jesus with a seemingly odd question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  It’s an odd question because John the Baptist is presented as the forerunner of Jesus.  And previously in Matthew’s Gospel – at Jesus’ baptism – John even resists baptizing Jesus because John says that Jesus should baptize him!

But since then, John has been put in prison by Herod Antipas, and he’s basically awaiting execution.  Meanwhile, Jesus has been gathering his own disciples and going about the countryside preaching, teaching and healing.  The things that Jesus has been doing have started to become known to lots of people, even John who’s locked up in prison.

The thing is, it appears that what Jesus is doing – and the way Jesus is claiming to usher in the kingdom of God – doesn’t exactly fit with what John was expecting.  In last Sunday’s Gospel, for example, John was preaching about stuff being cut down and burned up.  He called people a “brood of vipers” and wondered who warned them about the wrath to come.

But Jesus isn’t doing any cutting down or burning up.  Instead, Jesus tells John’s disciples to go and tell John what they 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 by this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has already done all of those things.

They’re great things!  They’re wonderful things!  They’re the things that people are even talking about.  But they apparently don’t fit John’s expectations of the future he expected God to bring about.  If Jesus is indeed God’s Messiah, then God is doing things very differently than the way John expected. 

And so the disciples of John the Baptist head off to tell John what Jesus had told them.  And here’s what I want to know:  Did John the Baptist accept that God was acting in a different way than he expected, or did he tell his disciples to sit back and wait for another because this wasn’t the way the future was supposed to turn out?

I don’t know.  Matthew doesn’t tell us.  But perhaps Matthew includes this story as a way of reminding us that, while God’s promises are certain, God often fulfills those promises in ways that we don’t expect.  And Jesus’ words to John’s disciples were a reminder that, in order to appreciate what God is doing around you, it often requires:

  • Adjusting your vision to the new reality – in fact, what Jesus was doing really shouldn’t have surprised John all that much.  In our reading from Isaiah, the prophet writes that God is coming “with vengeance, with terrible recompense.”  But what’s the sign that this is happening?  The sign is that “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”  It’s not the fire and the axe.  And it’s exactly the stuff that Jesus is doing.  But it’s not what you see when you train yourself to only look for your ideas of vengeance and recompense…
  • Emotionally adapting to the new reality – I suspect John probably knew this stuff intellectually.  He had clearly read the scriptures and knew the writings of the prophets.  But it’s one thing to know in your head that God may do things differently from what you expect.  It’s another to be sitting in prison, knowing you’re probably about to die, and really wanting to see a little comeuppance on Herod or the Romans or the system around you.  Sometimes, the hardest part of accepting the way God is working in your life is to emotionally adapt to a reality that’s different from what you really wanted or hoped for…
  • Living into the new reality – in the end, John doesn’t get a vote on how God will act and redeem the world.  But he does get a choice.  Is he going to actively participate in the different reality, or is he going to sit it out and watch.  And in his case, that may simply mean, is he going to tell his disciples to listen to and follow Jesus after he’s gone, or is he going to tell them to sit tight and wait for another – perhaps someone who more fits his hopes and expectations…?

We don’t really know what John did.  Matthew doesn’t tell us the follow-up story.  But what we should know is that when Jesus goes on to talk to the crowds after John’s disciples head back, it means that Jesus is addressing these questions to us as well.  And that’s because, even for people who accepted Jesus as Messiah, it was almost always the case that Jesus didn’t quite meet their expectations of how God was supposed to act. And it continued to be the case that the future to which Jesus called his disciples was always going to be different from what they first imagined.

Advent is a season in which we’re called to prepare for the future of God’s coming into our lives.  But like John – and even Jesus’ first disciples – the future that God brings about in our lives is usually different than what we first imagined.  At least, that’s always been the way it is for me!  In my best moments, I can recognize that God is doing something new in my life – but it’s often different than what I imagined or expected.

Today’s Gospel reading is a reminder that Jesus is, indeed, coming into our lives all the time. But it’s also a reminder that in order to really appreciate God’s work in our lives, we too, often need to be people who:

  • Adjust our vision of what God is doing – like John the Baptist, I often think I know how God will act and what God will do in my life (at least, I tell God what I’d LIKE God to do and how I’d LIKE God to act!)  But when the future doesn’t work out like that, I sometimes wonder why God isn’t acting.  And often, because we’re focused on what isn’t going the way we expected, we can miss out on the possibilities and the opportunities that God’s unexpected future is placing before us. Often for me, and maybe for you, too, the first part of living into God’s future in my life is being willing to look at what is, instead of for what isn’t, so that I can see the new things God is doing and the opportunities and possibilities that I couldn’t even imagine because I was busy telling God the way I wanted things to be…
  • Emotionally adapt to the new reality – I don’t know how it’s been for you, but since Covid I’ve had to learn a lot of new routines and new ways of managing my life.  Amazingly, some of these new routines and new ways actually seem to be working better than the old ways!  And yet, every once in a while, I feel weird about it.  After all, I’m not doing stuff I used to do (even it’s just stuff I know is busy work!)  And I’m doing things differently than I used to.  And it just feels wrong!  And in my better moments, I realize that getting comfortable with the new reality is just as important as knowing in my head that the future is different from what I expected…
  • Actively live into the new reality – After all, the real point of Jesus’ words here is not to simply get us to adjust our vision and accept the ways God is working in our lives.  The point is to call us to actively live into God’s future.  It’s about actively taking Jesus up on the new possibilities and opportunities that Jesus is placing before us in a new and different time.  It’s the exact opposite of sitting back and waiting for another time, which we hope might be more in alignment with our hopes and expectations…

You know, the irony of this Gospel reading is that we usually think of John the Baptist as the guy who comes along and tells others to repent.  But in effect, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus implicitly tells John the Baptist that he needs to repent – that is, he needs to turn around and adjust his vision, his attitude and his behavior to a new and different reality that God is bringing about in his life.

And that’s really the Advent kind of repentance that Jesus calls us to as well. Jesus calls us also to be people who are constantly willing to adjust our vision, so that we can see the things God is doing in our lives, even when those aren’t the things we expected.  Jesus calls us also to be people who are open to God’s different future, even when it’s not the future we envisioned.  And most of all, Jesus calls us not to sit back and wait for another time, but to be people who live into the new possibilities and opportunities Jesus offers us each day.