(A sermon based on Matthew 11:2-6 for the 3rd Sunday of Advent)
Every year during Advent, during these weeks leading up to December 25, we hear a good bit of talk about the need to keep Christ in Christmas. For some, that means saying “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays”; for others, it means writing “Merry Christmas” rather than “Merry Xmas”; for still others, it means having Christian displays on government property; for a few radical folks, it means really focusing on Jesus and downplaying the commercial aspects of the season.
As for me, I’m comfortable saying both “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays”; after all, I am a Christian who respects the fact that the holy days of other faiths occur at this time of year. As for me, I am more interested in protecting the rights of individuals and of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other institutions to be able to display the symbols of their particular faith than I am of placing such displays on property that belongs to all of us. As for me, I’ll usually write out “Merry Christmas” but will occasionally in my own notes or in a message to someone who understands with me that the “X” in “Xmas” is the first letter in Greek name for Christ will write “Merry Xmas” (I never say “Merry Xmas” because that just sounds silly). As for me, while I will give and receive presents and while I believe in and anticipate the coming of Santa Claus, I will work at focusing on Jesus by observing Advent and by observing the Twelve Days of Christmas to which my Christian calendar points me; the latter practice gives me eleven days to focus on Christ in Christmas without the blessed distractions of presents and Frosty and Rudolph.
But you know, while some of us may get vexed about such matters, I must tell you that they are not the real problem for us; none of them is the main problem when it comes to keeping Christ in Christmas for today’s church people including those of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald. No, our main problem is the kind of Jesus on which we focus not just at Christmas but all the time. Our main problem is whether we focus on Jesus as we want him to be or as he really was and is. And we have a second problem that is related to the first: do our lives express our following of Jesus as he really is?
John the Baptist was struggling with himself over Jesus—and we can hardly blame him. After all, John had come preaching that a Messiah was coming who would baptize with fire and with the Spirit; his fiery preaching had accentuated the judgment that the Messiah would bring. John had identified Jesus as that Messiah. But now John’s preaching had landed him where strong preaching will often land a preacher—in trouble; in John’s case, that meant in jail facing the possibility of execution. John had given his life to preaching that the Messiah was coming and now he was very likely literally going to give his life for his faithful preaching.
But Jesus was not cleaning house, at least not in the way that people expected. He was not running the Romans out of Israel. He was not organizing a rescue party to free the political prisoners, including his faithful forerunner John. And so, quite understandably, when John heard in prison what Jesus was up to, he sent some of his followers to see Jesus with this question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus, in other words, was not meeting John’s expectations. He was not meeting those expectations because it was not his business to meet John’s expectations; it was rather his business to meet his Father’s expectations.
There is a valuable lesson to be learned here: God is not obligated to meet our expectations, either. When we think about Jesus’ second coming, as Advent leads us to do, we would be wise to remember that practically nobody—maybe literally nobody—expected a Messiah who would be born to such humble circumstances and under such scandalous circumstances as Jesus was in his first coming, who would challenge his people’s religious establishment even more than their foreign oppressors, and who would be executed in the most shameful and cruel manner possible. And they based their expectations largely on their reading of the Bible. So we should be careful about presuming to know how Jesus will come back; we should keep our eyes open for him no matter how God chooses to reveal him.
We have our expectations about how Jesus will come to us and be with us right here and now, too. Perhaps we expect him to confirm our biases and prejudices—to look down on the same people on whom we look down. Perhaps we expect him to support our goals in life, even if we try to reach those goals through means that hurt people and reflect a heart driven by lust and greed. Perhaps we expect him not to love other people because we really don’t expect him to love us.
But what answer did Jesus send to John? “Go and tell John what you 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 blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” “This is who I am,” Jesus said, “I am the One who was sent from God to bring help to the hurting, healing to the broken, and good news to the outcast and marginalized.”
Then Jesus said, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” In other words, we are blessed if we accept the kind of Messiah that Jesus is rather than trying to fit him into the mold out of which we think he should come.
How do we demonstrate such acceptance? We do so by the kind of heart that we develop and by the kind of life that we live. We do so by accepting Jesus’ love and grace and by then spreading it all around in whatever ways we can.
We are not in the same position as Pope Francis, who was named last week as Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Francis has been a breath of fresh air as he has rejected the pomp of the papacy and called his Church to care about the poor and disenfranchised. In a now iconic photograph, he is pictured kissing a man who was disfigured by disease. There are reports that he sneaks out of the Vatican at night to minister to the homeless.
I am not the Pope and neither are you. We are who we are and we are where we are. But we all, no matter who we are and where we are, demonstrate what kind of Messiah, what kind of Jesus, we believe in by the ways we think, talk, and act. We demonstrate it in the ways that we care or don’t care. We demonstrate it in the ways that we help or don’t help. We demonstrate it in the ways that we love or don’t love.
I heard a commentator refer to the Pope as “shockingly Christian.” So was Jesus. Are we in “shockingly Christian” in the ways that we think, talk, and act? Or are we shockingly—well, unchristian?