Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.
Every Advent I feel like I want to start strong, with the motivation to read daily devotions, taking time to really reflect on the specialness of the Advent season and the coming of Jesus into our lives. Most years though, like this one, I get to about this point and realize I have done exactly zero of the things that I had intended to do, whether because of busy-ness or the unexpected happening in my life.
|Don't worry, I'll be back after|
Christmas to clean up!
I think we’ve all had Advents and Christmases that go something like this. A few years ago, my extended family waited to celebrate together because Grandpa was in the hospital over Christmas. And more recently, for these last two years, I haven’t put up a Christmas tree – last year because I had just moved, and this year because I anticipate moving. But this year I was able to get my Christmas tree fix while I was in Wisconsin over Thanksgiving. As I took ornaments out of the boxes, my mom reminded me of a time a few years ago when I was home for Christmas break while in college. I don’t remember doing this, but apparently I had insisted on decorated the tree that year, but when I left to go back for the January term… guess who was left to take all the ornaments down again? Not me! Oops! Most years, my mom likes to remind me of this time where I didn’t finished what I had started.
How is your Advent going? Are you going to finish strong, or did everything go off the rails starting December 2nd? These texts for this 3rd week in Advent aren’t exactly helping, either. There is still no sign of Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, wise men, star, manger, no Christmas NOTHIN’. Instead, all we have is John the Baptist, for the second week in a row. And he is NOT one we usually associate with Christmas cheer.
This week he is no longer “the preacher on fire” in the desert, preparing the hearts and minds for the coming of the Lord. Instead, John has been thrown in prison for his bold words. A prison that was more like a dungeon, dark and damp and full of chains and despair. But how did he get from “Israel’s Most Famous” to “Israel’s Most Wanted”? Well, we’ve skipped over all the in-between chapters in Matthew where Jesus heals the blind, mute, lepers, and young girls, and Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount about peace and the Kingdom of God, where Jesus hangs out with fisherman and tax collectors and Roman soldiers. And generally NOT acting like the expected Messiah.
The Lord’s anointed was SUPPOSED to come with power and might, with lots of righteous judging and fiery smiting, and be a savior that basically kicks butt and takes names, with the kingdom of peace to come LATER. That was the script that Jesus was supposed to follow. And so far, he doesn’t seem to be exactly living up to those expectations. He doesn’t seem to be finishing what John started.
It’s no wonder that John the Baptist sends people to ask Jesus, “are YOU the one who is to come? … or is it someone else?” And we might very well wonder right there with John, as he watches Jesus’ ministry unfold, and wonders if his prep work for the messiah has been premature. So, with less than 2 weeks until Christmas, we find ourselves, not in a hallmark Christmas card, but in a prison cell with a disappointed John the Baptist.
But disappointment does not just come to us at Christmas time. Though perhaps right around this time of year is when we feel it the most. Expectations are high to pull into December 25th having just arranged the best Christmas ever, only it almost actually never happens that way. Instead, too often, real life happens.
This time of year can also bring up old hurts from people you might only see once a year. Families are complicated, and nothing hurts more than being disappointed by the ones closest to you, the very ones who should be supportive through thick and thin.
And last but not least, we can’t let God off the hook for being a disappointment. Think about all the “if-onlys” and “what-ifs,” even of just the past year – where you had wished that God would have acted more like a Messiah, both in your own lives and in the world in general.
God really seemed pretty distant in 2016. From the Zika and Ebola outbreaks, the continuing Flint water crisis, the unjustly short 3month prison sentence served by the rapist Brock Turner, the tragic shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, massive flooding in North Carolina from Hurricane Matthew, the Oakland fire, not to mention political vitriol, bullying on the rise, and the increase in fear and violence everywhere, it seems. All these things happening might make us wonder if God will make good on the promise to show up, and finish what God started, or if God will just let this world and our lives go off the rails.
And so we wonder along with John, since the fulfillment of the promise is Jesus, the exact wrong kind of savior – that is, if you are looking for someone to bring fire and brimstone and punch bad guys in the face, Jesus is not your man. This is not the savior we were given. The savior we were given came as a helpless baby, screaming into the world with blood and placenta, born to a teenage mother in a dirty cave. This savior grew up and hung out with all the wrong kinds of people. He healed the sick and fed the poor and talked to those on the fringe. He was a homeless traveler who preached the wrong things, like peace and love, and got on the wrong side of the people in power. Jesus disappointed John the Baptist, he disappointed his family, he disappointed his own followers, and he died, disappointing the hopes of a nation waiting for God to act.
And in dying, Jesus was again a disappointment. It seems that Jesus disappointed death itself.
Because dead people are supposed to stay dead, after all. The dead aren’t supposed to rise.
Dry and barren wildernesses, as Isaiah writes, aren’t supposed to be joyful and to blossom, either. We expect them to be, well, dry and barren, not full of life and joy and singing. There aren’t supposed to be streams in the desert, or pools of water where there once was only burning sand.
But then again, the blind aren’t supposed to see either, nor should the deaf be able to hear. The lame are not supposed to run like the dear, and the mute sing for joy. The poor are not supposed to be given food for free. There are not supposed to be fools on God’s highway! And if they somehow find themselves there, they need to GET LOST as soon as possible!
Except that, on God’s highway, even we fools will not get lost along the way. Sinners are welcomed. The poor are fed. The broken are healed and made whole again, and streams run where there was once a barren desert. Even a year like 2016 contains glimpses of hope. Peaceful protesters are heard as the permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline was denied. Catholic and Lutheran leaders worshiped together in celebration of Christian unity. Over 800 girls kidnapped by Boko Harem were rescued. Fifty million trees were planted in India in oneday. These events remind us that the powers of evil in the world don’t always win. There are cracks of hope in the stone that seals our tombs, a light shining through them in the darkness, and the dead don’t stay dead.
Here is our God, who disappoints death’s expectations, leaving behind him an empty tomb.
Here is our God, born to us as a tiny helpless infant.
Here is our God, who sticks by us, no matter what, every year, through all the good and bad Christmases alike.
Here is our God, who died and rose again for you, even when you disappoint yourself and others.
Here is our God, who strengthens weak hand and feeble knees when they are weighed down by change and sadness.
Here is our God, who meets us in all the hopes and fears of all the years.
Here is our God, who will see to the finish what has been begun in all of us.
Speaking of beginnings, Dec. 11th 2011, was the Sunday 5 years ago that I preached my first sermon and was voted to be St. Paul’s very first associate pastor. How time flies, doesn’t it? In that very first sermon with you, I said something that I know ring just as true, five years later:
“I believe that God has been faithful to me, over and over again, in the journey that has brought me to this time and this place. It has not always been smooth going, but God has proven to me, over and over again, that great things happen to those who trust. … God has always gone beyond my hopes and expectations.”
We can’t know exactly where the NEXT five years, or even the next YEAR will take us. But we can know where God is in all the happenings in our lives. God is right here, in the beginnings and the endings, in the disappointments, and the busy-ness and the joys, in the starting strong and in the fizzling out, in the dying and in the rising. Our God is right here. Amen.