The One Coming 3rd Advent
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 John 1:6-8, 19-28
Way back in 1967, a movie came out that stirred things up in our country. It was widely received because of the star-power represented: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier. But it was also controversial, because it portrayed interracial marriage in a positive light—and there were still, at that time, 17 states where it was illegal! Those of you who are chronologically advantaged know that I am talking about the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” The young woman’s parents know that her fiance’ is a highly-respected physician, but they are shocked when they discover that he is also a man of color. And both sets of parents have to get used to the idea of this coming marriage. Their expectations were different from the reality they faced—but it turns out great in the end! It turns out that it was only their expectations that were flawed.
Have you ever noticed that so much in your life depends on what you expect?! Expectations are HUGE, and anticipation is one of the ways we prepare for what is coming. These are good things—but we get ourselves into trouble when we are too specific in our expectations.
We know that God is taking care of us, so we expect good things in life AND we anticipate seeing God working out God’s purposes. (I love the passage in Romans 8, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love God.”) But when we begin to try to dictate exactly HOW God is supposed to do that, we are in for a difficult time!
Well, our Scripture readings for today are both about expectations—anticipations of the One Coming, the One sent from God to make things right for God’s people. And, just like the parents in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” the people of Israel had some mistaken ideas about the One God was sending! The Messiah, God’s Anointed One, is described by Isaiah as one who will:
- Bring good news to the oppressed;
- Bind up the brokenhearted;
- Proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners;
- Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God;
- Comfort all who mourn, providing good things in place of the difficult things they have had to live with;
- Build Up; Raise Up; Repair!
- Build up the ancient ruins; raise up the former devastations; repair the ruined cities;
- Future generations will be known by the world to be people whom the Lord has blessed!
When Jesus came, he claimed to be this One spoken of by Isaiah. We read in Luke 4 that, early in his ministry, he was preaching in Galilee and was very well-received. Then he went to his hometown, Nazareth, and went to their synagogue on the Sabbath. He stood up to read, which was the right of any male who had completed his Bar Mitzvah, and they handed him the scroll that included our Isaiah reading for today. He unrolled it to today’s passage and read it aloud. Then he rolled up the scroll, and sat down to speak. (Rabbis always sat when they taught.) Everyone was watching him, waiting to see what he would say. And he said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, he told them directly that he was the One Isaiah had been talking about, 700 years previously!
As they considered his words, the people began to ask, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” They couldn’t believe that this kid who grew up in their little town was The Messiah! He was certainly NOT what they were anticipating. And he wasn’t acting like the Deliverer they were expecting!
Remember, folks were expecting a strong military leader (like David or the Maccabees) who would organize the Jews and, with God’s help (of course) drive the Romans out of Israel. They expected that he would bring in an era of power and prosperity the way King David had done. But if you look again at the text in Isaiah, or in any other prophecy about the Coming One, you will see that there is nothing about these things. Their expectations were skewed, and they were trying to dictate just how God was going to fulfill the prophecies! Isn’t it interesting that Jesus had lived in their midst for 3 decades, and the people had not recognized Who he was? They were looking for the wrong Messiah.
So, we come to our reading in John, which still focuses on John the Baptizer. He has been a witness to the light, crying out in the wilderness, getting people ready for the Coming of the Lord, baptizing the multitudes who came out to hear him. He was causing quite a stir in Judea! So much, in fact, that envoys from the religious leadership in Jerusalem came out to ask him, “Who ARE you?” (They knew he had to be someone special!) And he made it clear to them, “I am NOT the Messiah.” They weren’t ready to give up. “WHO then? Are you Elijah?”
Now, it may seem strange that they might think he was a prophet who lived more than 800 years earlier, but hear me out. According to the Scriptures, Elijah didn’t DIE. No, he rode away into heaven on a chariot pulled by fiery horses! And, in the book of Malachi, it was foretold that he would return “before the great and terrible day of the Lord.” That’s why, to this day, when Jews celebrate the Passover with a Seder Dinner, they have a place set for Elijah and, at one point, someone goes over to the door and opens it in case Elijah has finally returned and wants to join their celebration! Such was the atmosphere of expectation in the land, and thus the odd question, “Are you Elijah?”
John’s answer came swiftly, “I am not.” So they asked him, “Are you the prophet?” (Seems like they are just grasping at straws by this time.) He answered, “No.” So they asked, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for the authorities who sent us. What do you say about yourself??”
And here’s all John had to say about himself—“I am just a voice—a voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ just as the prophet Isaiah said.” John’s attitude was humble, indicating that HE was not the center of his message—he was just the voice crying out what God had told him to proclaim.
Then these guys really got on their high horses. They questioned his authority, his right to baptize people. 1. He hadn’t been to seminary; 2. He didn’t have the approval of the Sanhedrin. Just who did he think he was?! “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John doesn’t try to answer “why”. He was sent from God, a witness to the light, so that all might believe through him. His entire ministry was devoted to getting people ready for Jesus, of whom he later said, “He must increase, while I must decrease.”
John focused everything on Jesus. So he told these guys from headquarters, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the One who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” Do you see how John turned this time of questioning into an opportunity so share his TESTIMONY?! He’s saying, “Don’t look at me—LOOK AT JESUS!”
Yes, John told them that there was a very special SOMEONE in their midst, one that they did not yet recognize…just as the people of Nazareth had not recognized who he was. “Jesus was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”
Friends, we don’t want this to be true of us. We want to develop eyes to see Jesus. You and I face a huge challenge during this season running up to Christmas. We’ve seen what happens:
- When people are so obsessed with shopping bargains that they behave like ravenous carnivores fighting over a carcass!
- When families who are not on good financial footing throw themselves completely off-balance by spending too much money for the holidays!
- There are people around us who are struggling with sadness and loss and loneliness—which are intensified when everyone is supposed to be “jolly.”
How do we open our eyes to see Jesus in the people around us? How might we best welcome the Spirit of Christ into our celebrations? Let’s not make the mistake of having the wrong expectations for Christmas. We remember that Jesus said, “If you do it to the least of these, you do it to me.” May our hospitality, then, reach out to those who might be overlooked. May our generosity extend beyond our friends and family to share hope and joy with people we might never meet. May our Christmas be blessed with the Presence of the Living Christ. Amen.