What did you expect to see, anyway? Matthew 11:2-11

A sermon preached by Patrick H. Wrisley on December 11, 2022, the Third Sunday in Advent, Year A

On this third, Sunday of Advent, the lectionary plunks us down in the middle of Matthew’s gospel far away from the Stories of Jesus’ impending birth with all the angels, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and the cattle lowing off in the distance somewhere. Why is this?

It’s helpful to remember that the first two Sundays in our advent preparations focus upon the future coming of Jesus at the culmination of time when he comes again in judgment. The last two Sundays in Advent zero in on Jesus’ initial coming to us through his birth.  In particular, the third Sunday in Advent is known as Joy Sunday and the scripture passages focus on John the Baptist and how he is the one who prepares the way for the coming Messiah. As you listen to the text, keep in mind that John the Baptist and Jesus are blood cousins and have known one another nigh thirty years. John passionately preached how he was preparing the people of Israel for the coming Messiah and the upcoming Judgement the Messiah would bring. As John delicately puts it in Matthew 3:10: The ax is already at the foot of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

We might say that John the Baptist might not be the first one you invite to a Christmas party because his tone is a wee bit Debbie-downerish. The Baptist had a very focused and narrow understanding of what the Messiah would and should be doing. For John, the Messiah would be a powerful political figure and commander who would rally the Jewish people back to become a sovereign nation once more; it would again be a holy and pietistic nation living out the Law of God casting holy judgment upon those who didn’t. Now, this is the last we hear of John in Matthew’s gospel until today’s text Matthew 11:2-11. As you listen, hear if you can pick up a twinge of buyer’s remorse from John’s words. One gets the impression that the Messiah he introduced in chapter 3 was not living up to his expectations. Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Matthew 11:2-11

2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.[1]

Expectations versus reality. It’s when we manufacture in our minds the way things or people are supposed to turn out or be and but then they don’t match our expected desires. There’s a gap between what’s expected and what’s reality. Like Clark Griswold and his family driving across the country excitedly going to Wally World, they arrive only to discover it’s closed. Our Story this morning is laced with misplaced perceived expectations and hard realities. It sets us up for the subliminal questions we are asked to wrestle with from our text: What are our expectations of this coming Messiah? Who or what do we expect to see, visit, or meet on Christmas morning? Do we expect anything to even happen at all on Christmas Day, for that matter?

First, there are John’s expectations of Jesus. John has been arrested by King Herod because John had the audacity to publicly call Herod out for sleeping with Herod’s brother’s wife. For John, his ministry was check-mated and all he could do is languish in prison and hope God would make good on his promises to separate the good wheat (insert, repentant, contrite Jews) from the chaff (i.e., the unrepentant Jews and Gentiles) and burn the chaff in unquenchable fire (Mat. 3. 12). Unfortunately, these were not the reports John was hearing about.

Since we last saw John in Matthew 3, Jesus has begun his ministry and has been tempted by Satan to use his power and status as the Son of God to achieve earthly power and dominion; in so many words, Jesus tells the devil, “Get a life” and then proceeds to lay out a template for how the people of God are to live with one another; we call those the Beatitudes.  The people of God are not to be perusing power but are blessed when they are poor in spirit, meek, or persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

Furthermore, Jesus as Messiah was not confronting and hobnobbing with the political powerbrokers trying to rest power from them; on the contrary, in the first 12 chapters of Matthew Jesus is hanging out with the community’s outcasts and dejected ones. Instead of debating Herod in the palace, Jesus is moving among the people out in the countryside, in the backwater places of Palestine with the poor, the sick, the diseased, the foreigner, the prostitutes, and the crooks. He is living a Messiahship of grace and inclusion whereas John was expecting a Messiahship that would usher in the separation and exclusion of all those sinful people. So, he sends his disciples to see if Cousin Jesus is bona fide.  Is Jesus really the one or was the Baptist to look for another, because quite honestly, Jesus doesn’t seem to be fitting the bill at all. You can almost hear a tinge of disappointment in John’s questions. Jesus was not fulfilling the Baptist’s expectations of Messiah. “Are you the one or are we to be looking for someone else?”

Now Jesus when confronted with these questions could have thrown his cousin John under the bus and replied, “WHAT!? Someone ELSE?! Why, you go tell John, ‘Who has made you judge and jury of my Messiahship?!’”  No, Jesus doesn’t do that. He takes John in his own expectations and then reframes them for his cousin. “Tell my cousin John what you yourselves see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and poor souls are being evangelized.”

What you and I miss with Jesus’ response is that he is quoting prophetic Hebrew scripture from Isaiah 35 and 61. Jesus is telling John’s disciples to go back and tell John what they are personally, experientially, encountering when they are around Jesus. Jesus is subtly reminding John, “Cuz, you expected me to do that, but God wants me to do this. My goal, God’s goal, is to love people into the Kingdom and make the circle of fellowship ever wider and larger. John, I know you had your expectations of me and what I was to do but your expectations are too small. My expectations include a greater, larger, more inclusive vision.”

Yet, John was not the only one who had his expectations broken. It seems the crowds with Jesus also had their own expectations about who and what John the Baptist, the one who is to prepare for the Messiah’s way, was to be. In rapid-fire succession, Jesus addresses the crowd’s expectations of John: What did y’all come out and expect to see? A mealy-mouthed, wimpy prophet and preacher? John is a spiritual giant! Did you expect to see a fashion show of finely dressed traveling evangelists? Did you expect to see someone like the Old Testament prophets? Let me tell you, John’s not only a prophet but he was prophesied about by those Old Testament prophets! No one like him has ever been born but he is the least of all people in the Kingdom of Heaven.

It seems everyone has their own opinion and expectation, about the way things should be. We are no different, really. We come to Church and pray at home with an image and expectation of who God is and what God should do about “those” people. We have our own expectations of who Jesus is and how he is to respond to us and our questions, problems, and issues. We have our own expectations of who is worthy of God’s love and who is not. We have our own expectations of how our religious leaders are to act, dress, and behave. We are human beings, and we bring our emotionally, socially, culturally, and spiritually infused expectations based upon our own personal and corporate histories to bear on how we see Jesus, God, and what we expect God to do in our lives.

Beloved, what are your expectations of Jesus? What do you expect God to do for you? What are the expectations you place upon your own spiritual leaders? What are your expectations for Christmas Day? Is it about gifts, a big meal, hanging out with family and friends, or is it about new life, new birth?

As we make our way through Advent, let’s do a few things. First, ask yourself if you have any expectations for Christmas Day. If not, why not? Next, ask yourself if the expectations you have placed upon Jesus, God, are realistic or do they reflect your own emotional, political, or cultural agenda. If so, how do they and how are they either in line with or contrary to the values of God expressed in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5? Finally, ask yourself if your expectations of Jesus are too small like John the Baptist’s were. If they are, what’s the largest, most fantastic image of Jesus’ vision and ministry you can imagine? Now, ask how you are going to play a part in making his vision a reality? 

Today is Joy Sunday because today, we celebrate that our expectations of God are so much smaller than they truly are, and Jesus asks us to expect more out of him than we ever imagined. I close with a prayer the great Reformed theologian, Karl Barth, wrote in his book, Fifty Prayers, regarding Advent. Let’s pray:

Lord, may you now let us this year once more approach the light, celebration, and joy of Christmas Day that brings us face to face with the greatest thing there is: your love, with which you so loved the world that you gave your only Son, so that all of us may believe in him and therefore not be lost, but may have eternal life.[2]

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So be it.

© 2022 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and may not be altered, re-purposed, published, or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] Fifty Prayers by Karl Barth, https://a.co/cQ9Uiz9.

About patrick h wrisley

A Mainline Presbyterian Orthodox Evangelical Socially Minded Prophetic Contemplative Preacher sharing the Winsome Story of Christ as I try to muddle through as a father, friend, head of staff, colleague, and disciple.
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