Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Let Down? What’d you expect? Matthew 11:2-10; Isaiah 35:1-10. Advent 3

For her office’s Christmas party last year, Trasie’s boss took us to see a play called The Wiz—the Wiz a 1975 Broadway musical, an adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, exclusively featuring African American actors. The 1978 movie one featured Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the scarecrow. The musical we saw featured children, including a little 10 year-old Dorothy who sang her little heart out. She and the brainless Scarecrow, the rusty tin man and the cowardly lion made their way along the yellow brick road surviving obstacles and adversaries until finally arriving to the emerald city—the house of the Wiz; they want to meet the wiz, they have to meet the wiz, the wiz will solve all their problems: give brains to Scarecrow, lubricant to Tin man, and courage to the Lion; and of course get Dorothy and Toto home.

The Wiz appears to them in lights and as this giant metallic head—the lion panics—the Wiz demands they get rid of the Wicked Witch of the Westside. Exasperated but desperate, they somehow rid Oz of this witch, and return to the Wiz’ palace even more excited, with more hope than before; they’re finally going to get what they want. As we all know, thanks to Toto, they experience total let down—The wiz is a fake. Some old dude who can’t do anything “magical” for them. Hopes and dreams are dashed, tears run, agony and despair are felt. Why? They hoped for something big, big change in their lives, they hoped for new life after wandering around lost and desperate…and instead they find this fake old dude.

Why they decided to run this musical during the days leading up to Christmas, I can’t tell you. Why Trasie’s office wanted to go see the musical for their Christmas party, I haven’t the slightest clue. Yet, strangely enough, I found the story of the Wiz, or the Wizard of Oz for that matter, appropriate for this Sunday’s passages. Matthew’s story about John is a tale of hope-filled expectations dashed by three walls and vertical bars. John not long ago was on top of the world hanging out in the desert, eating honey covered locusts and wearing his camel coat—surely a fashion statement—shouting like a wild man that the One is coming with an ax ready to chop unworthy trees down.

Chaff would burn with unquenchable fire. Do you want a revolution…let the kids say Whoop Whoop!

As John is yelling about the Coming One, Jesus shows up on stage, apparently ready to accept all the accolades John will give him. He goes under the waters of the Jordan and emerges baptized, ready. John preached a straightforward sermon: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ The words of Jesus’ first public proclamation: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ I guess there was no copyright on the sermon.

But, I wonder, as the Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, were he and John looking at each other eye-to-eye: John thinking, “Yes, this is the One,”

and Jesus thinking “Yes, I am the one,” only that each man defined “the One” differently. Did John have hopes the Messiah would be one way, while Jesus had another idea about his mission? Did the coming of the kingdom mean God would lead Israel to triumph over her enemies at last, or did it mean the end of all hostility forever? Did it mean God would send Israel a new king for a new age, or did it mean God was coming to relieve all human rulers of their thrones, for God would be the just Judge ruling atop the mountain? Was the kingdom a present reality, in which the righteous already lived with God, or was it a future one for which all creation groaned?”1 These apparently differing ideas about the Messiah are found in the Old Testament; the prophets just don’t seem to agree on what the kingdom would look like!

In other words, John has certain expectations for Jesus the Messiah, which are perfectly legit according to the ancient prophets: the Messiah would bring the Kingdom John dreamed to see—a Messiah kicking tail and taking names; carrying out final judgment, cutting down trees that are not bearing fruit.

Reestablishing of Israel as a power…this is what the prophets said. John’s ready for Jesus rise up and turn the world upside down, but instead John ends up on death row at the hands of the existing powers.

In the mean time, Jesus is about his business being the Messiah according to his understanding: He eats with tax collectors and sinners; he lets prostitutes wash his feet, and forgives [foreigners]; weren’t these are the very people who were supposed to be chopped and burned?2 Jesus is telling people to love their enemies; isn’t he supposed to be mopping the floor with them instead? So now John’s rotting behind bars, worn out and depressed. “What is this guy doing?” he wonders. So John sends word to Jesus: Hey, you see me here in jail? You remember all the stuff I said about you…all that hype I gave you. I made you famous. I had big hopes for you. Was this just a big joke?

I’m sure we all can relate to John’s disappointment. Everyone knows what it’s like to be let down by someone we had high hopes for. Let’s make a long list of all the people who have let us down: From the most mundane like our favorite sports team, to the most intimate: A parent? A spouse? A child? We could be writing all day. It was a total let down when my high school prom date, Nicky Davis, who I considered to be the bomb—smart, good looking, athletic—decided she didn’t want to date because I was too nice. What!!?? What was she looking for? What a let down, and apparently I let her down too—guess it wasn’t meant to be.

Let me ask you, would you put yourself on that list of people who let you down?

Sometimes I leave the church here during the week really bummed out, not because anyone has let me down, but because I put certain expectations on myself that I just can’t meet.

And if we’re honest with ourselves I’m sure we’ll admit that we’re probably on many other people’s “let down list”; more than we would ever care to know.

Let’s face it: we’ve let others down, we’ve let ourselves down, and others have let us down; we’ve probably even been let down by pets…although pets are probably among the least likely to really disappoint us…and they feel so guilty when they do, especially dogs.

Why all the let downs? Because we put our own expectations on others and ourselves, and others put their expectations on us. Why all the dashed hopes and expectations? Because we want people to be someone other than who they are. Someone we want them to be. And often, we want ourselves to be someone other than who we really are, too.

When I first came here nearly a year ago now [don’t forget about the celebremos fiesta Jan, 6] I preached my first sermon about expectations, about the loads of expectations this congregation had for me (and Trasie), and the countless expectations I had for this congregation—to feed me, to be nice to me, to buy me a new car, I didn’t get the car, but Margaret did give me this Mickey Mouse watch. Slowly we are coming to know each other, and rather than just turn one another into a heaping pile of unreasonable expectations, we are all coming to accept one another as we are, to grow with each other in our relationship with God, to help one another discover who God has created each of us to be.

One of my favorite paraphrases of Calvin goes: in order to know God you have to come to know yourself and in order to come to know yourself you have to come to now God. So, spiritually, our relationship with God depends upon self-discovery.

Every day that God gives us life, we are given a new day for self discovery, discovery of who God has created us to be. I must constantly remind myself that I am not necessarily who others define me to be; and I do not have to live to meet others expectations. I am to live as God calls me to live, and realize that God loves me the way that I am.

In the encounter between John and Jesus, I think John was coming to realize that Jesus wasn’t who he thought he would be. And we probably have the same tendency John did. We turn Jesus into someone we hope he is, but is that really who Jesus is? If and when Jesus came into our lives, maybe we were pumped,

ready for the world to be turned completely upside down. Things were pretty cool at first, but then stuff started going wrong and things weren’t working out like we’d been told; and Jesus was the reason… Come on Jesus, are you the one who is going to heal me, are you the one who is going to fix my problems,

are you the one who is going to make me rich? What kind of Messiah are you anyway?

John’s disciples ask a simple straightforward question:

—‘Are you the Coming One, or are we to wait for another?’—Yes or no.

But the question assumes everyone agrees what being the Coming One means.

Jesus cannot answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without accepting the terms of the question, so he does not answer either way. Instead he tells John’s people to go tell him what they hear and see; 5’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,’ Exactly what the prophet Isaiah said the Messiah would do.3

But, then, depending on your expectations, that may or may not be enough.

There were still plenty of blind people in Israel, after all, plenty of the lame people parked at busy intersections rattling tin cups at passers by. All the lepers weren’t cleansed, any more than all of the dead were raised. The poor may have had good news brought to them, but they were still poor—still sharecropping for the rich, still paying taxes to the Romans, still wondering how to make ends meet without getting in worse debt than they already were. Herod was still minting coins with his picture on them and spending them on his grandiose building projects; and soldiers broke the kneecaps of anyone who protested.” 4

Couldn’t the Coming One have gotten a better handle of all that? Wouldn’t it have been more striking if Jesus had said, ‘Go tell John what you hear and see: the terror is over, evil is defeated, the occupation is ended, and the oppressors are sent home’? Wouldn’t the world have been a better place if Jesus had said, ‘the homeless are housed, the poor receive a living wage, the scales of justice are balanced,” [everyone has a fair share]? 5

Even after his death and resurrection, all kinds of ancient hopes lay unfulfilled, like the one we read from Isaiah, the very passage Jesus quotes. Waters did not break forth in a blooming desert. No lions lay down with any lambs. There appears to be no super Holy Highway. For early Christians, it would seem “God’s kingdom did not come, but Titus’s troops did. In the fall of 70 AD, after a long and merciless siege, the Romans burned the Temple in Jerusalem to the ground and most of the city with it. Are you the Coming One, or are we to wait for another?” 6

Jesus would not answer that question, at least not directly. John’s disciples were to make up their own mind, based on what they heard and saw, and so are we; Jesus points out small things he’s done, not big things, things that are happening among little people, not powerful people, with local effect, not cosmic effect.7

During Advent, we celebrate the first coming of Jesus, and anticipate the second.

What kind of a Messiah do we hope will come? “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” Jesus said, knowing better than anyone the disappointing, redemptive ways in which God works—sending a human child into the world instead of a mighty king, sending servants instead of troops—sending people like you and me with all of our hang ups and quirks instead of real disciples to do the work of the Coming One until he comes, for in just this way the kingdom of heaven draws very, very near. 8

Maybe we can prepare during this season of Advent for the Coming One, by learning to accept ourselves as we are and others as they are. Trying to love ourselves and love others, as God does. Then we will be ready to accept Jesus for who he is every time he enters our lives in mysterious ways, both now and in some long awaited future Coming!

1 Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Third Sunday of Advent” year A, Duke Chapel, Dec. 12, 2004.

2 Porter Taylor, "The Place He Stops is Now,"

3 Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Third Sunday of Advent” year A, Duke Chapel, Dec. 12, 2004.

4 Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Third Sunday of Advent” year A, Duke Chapel, Dec. 12, 2004.

5 Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Third Sunday of Advent” year A, Duke Chapel, Dec. 12, 2004.

6 Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Third Sunday of Advent” year A, Duke Chapel, Dec. 12, 2004.

7 Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Third Sunday of Advent” year A, Duke Chapel, Dec. 12, 2004.

8 Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Third Sunday of Advent” year A, Duke Chapel, Dec. 12, 2004.

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