This past Sunday I preached a sermon on Matthew 11:2-11. The driving exegetical question was: Why is John the Baptist asking Jesus, Are you the one or should we expect someone else? The question for us was, How are we expecting Christ to come this Christmas? Here is my final point and my conclusion:
Perhaps John misunderstood the kind of judgment Jesus was to bring. John expected a violent, cataclysmic overthrow of the authorities, maybe not unlike the Zealots of his day, and not unlike some of his disciples then and now. John was thinking Jesus would be like Elijah calling down fire from heaven. John, languishing in prison, was confused because he imagined a different kind of messiah than he was getting.
Leon Morris says in his commentary “It was through works of mercy and not spectacular victories over Roman armies that Messiah’s work would be accomplished.” John Howard Yoder concurs “that the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history.”
Not everyone, including John caught on to this. Are we catching on? John was getting impatient. He was expecting the enemies of Israel to be destroyed but instead later in the chapter [11:20-24] Jesus proclaims that foreign cities will be better off than Jewish cities at the time of judgment. Surprise! He says that the kingdom will be hidden from the wise and made known to children[11:25]. Surprise!
Jesus’ immediate message for John the Baptist does not include any mention of punishment for the wicked but it is about judgment and justice – restorative justice. He does not say, “Just wait John, when I come back a second time then I’ll do some damage.” No, he says, “People are healed, death is overcome by life, good news is preached to the poor.” This recalls Jesus’ sermon in the temple when he read Isaiah 61:1-2 and claimed he was the fulfillment of this text. It is about the “jubilee,” the year of the Lord’s favor, when all things would be set right. Mercy is at the heart of Jesus’ mission and thus also the church’s mission. But this is not what we were expecting. Surprise!
N.T. Wright says that “Just as wicked people don’t like the message of judgment because they think [rightly] it is aimed at them, so sometimes good people [like John and Jonah and us] don’t like the message of mercy, because they think [wrongly] that people are going to get away with wickedness.”
John, and Jonah, announced a message of judgment and encountered a God of mercy. Jonah complained under his wilting vine. Nineveh was supposed to go up in flames [that would have been justice in his view], but instead God had mercy. John is doubting in prison. He thought Jesus was supposed to get rid of Herod and all other evil tyrants, but instead Jesus healed the sick and proclaimed good news [v.5-6].
What about us? We may feel like John that the injustices we suffer and see in the world need to be avenged. Bad people need to be punished in order for there to be justice. But we misunderstand God’s judgment. That is the world’s view of justice. God does promise to bring justice, but it is not the punishment view of justice; it is God’s restorative view of justice.
Jesus ends his message to John [v.6]. “Don’t stumble over the fact that I don’t fit your expectations of messiahship. Blessed are those who don’t wait for another violent Messiah to come but in faith accept what God is doing through me.” Those who recognize, and are not offended because they expected something else, will be blessed.
After many years in the church we may also like John become tired, disillusioned and confused about God’s judgment. Like the older brother of the prodigal son we are upset when the father extends mercy to the prodigal. We’ve been faithful to the traditions all these years and because of our experiences we have certain ideas and expectations about who Jesus is that keep us from recognizing and fully embracing God’s work today. We become blinded and calloused to the unexpected and surprising grace and mercy of God in Jesus.
What about us in the coming days of Advent? Do we have rigid expectations of what is justice and righteousness look like, thus closing ourselves off from the surprising ways that Jesus might work in our midst? Are we open to recognizing God’s work among us in ways and through people that we might not expect?
Like John we may have doubts and questions about Jesus. John struggled to reclaim his understanding of who Jesus is and that is also the quest of our lives as we anticipate celebrating Christmas. How will Jesus come to you this Christmas? What are you expecting? Are you ready for a surprise?