Advent 3A, December 11, 2016

December 12, 2016

What Do You Want For Christmas?

Matthew 11:1-11


2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 7 As 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? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly 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.


I’m not exactly sure how this tradition of Christmas gift giving came in to being. I’m sure a google search would provide me with some insight, but I don’t want the facts to get in the way of what I’m inclined to think. And what I like to think is that this gift-giving tradition has grown out of our sense of having been given a great gift in the life of Jesus Christ. I know there’s some disconnect between the material indulgence we engage in during this time of the year and the birth of Jesus in a stable, but this is what we’ve got and I’m not upset about it.


Maybe I should be, but I’m not. I know there’s some crass commercialism that goes on in the name of Jesus Christ, but I also know that this time of the year inspires extra giving and extravagant acts of outreach to those who are in need. There’s some contradiction in the way we celebrate the birth of Jesus, but I choose to believe the goodness of the way we behave this time of the year outweighs the badness. I know it’s foolish to think we can go out and buy some happiness for ourselves or others, but it is possible to purchase a little pleasure, and I can’t believe God is offended by our desire to have some fun.


Clearly, John the Baptist wasn’t having a good time when he sent his disciples to make this inquiry of Jesus, and the fact that he had become a prisoner is an indication that this world often goes off the tracks in a bad way. John the Baptist seems to have become distressed over what was going on, and it caused him to wonder if Jesus actually was the one who had come to redeem Israel. It’s hard not to associate good times with blessings from God and distressing situations with some kind of abandonment from God, and I think John the Baptist was maybe feeling like he had been mistaken about the identity of Jesus. Back in Chapter 3 he expressed certainty about who Jesus was, but here in Chapter 11 he’s not so sure. Things hadn’t gone the way he expected, and it was distressing to him.


We don’t know how John received the answer to his question. We don’t hear from John again in the Gospel of Matthew. He was executed soon after this by Herod. Certainly things can go perfectly wrong in this world. Those who serve God in the most faithful ways can be treated in the most horrific ways, but this isn’t God’s will. God’s desire is for people to be touched in healing and restoring ways, and that’s what Jesus revealed. When John’s disciples asked him if he was the messiah he responded by saying that 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. Jesus identified who he was by saying what he was able to do, and what he revealed was the way in which God worked through him to touch the most vulnerable people in the most redeeming ways.


Jesus reveals to us what the work of God looks like, but such work isn’t always so clear. If it had been clear to John the Baptist he wouldn’t have had to ask if Jesus was truly the one, and this is saying something because Jesus considered John the Baptist to be one of the most holy men to ever live. John the Baptist loved God and lived to serve God, but even he couldn’t quite tell if Jesus was the chosen One of God to redeem the world.


So often, what we are looking for doesn’t match up with what we get, and it’s critical for us to know how to be open to the new thing that can happen instead of the thing we were hoping to find. I was reminded of this as I listened to an interview on the radio with Mary Tyler Moore. I heard the interview on Friday, but it was recorded in 1995, and it was replayed because of the recent death of her husband, Grant Tinker, who was the producer of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.


I enjoyed the interview because I am old enough to have watched the show regularly – which ran between 1970-1977. One of the best characters in that show was Ted Baxter. Ted’s character was a news anchor on a local television station, and he is best described as a silver-haired self-important imbecile. Mary Tyler Moore played one of the producers of the news program, and she regularly had to deal with the situations that were created by Ted’s unfortunate combination of pomposity with idiocy.


Mary Tyler Moore said the writers of the show were looking for a younger man to play the part of the self-important news anchor. They were looking for someone who might serve as a love interest of hers, but they were instantly taken with the way Ted Night portrayed that character. He wasn’t what they were looking for, but they were taken with what he brought to that part and they adjusted. The show might have been successful if they had found the character they wanted, but in my opinion, Ted Baxter, made that show work. A self-important imbecile can create a lot of great situations.


This isn’t a show that changed the world, but it provided some good entertainment, and as I’ve already indicated, I don’t consider a little pleasure to be a bad thing. I consider entertainment to be a gift, and I don’t think God is put-off by our inclination to share gifts with one another.


There is, however, a problem that can occur. There is a problem when we have unreasonable expectations about what we are to receive. When our son was young he used to create these elaborate and extensive Christmas lists. Santa didn’t say Ho Ho Ho when he saw his list – Santa would laugh out loud! But Lucas didn’t expect Santa to deliver everything. His theory was to list every possibility in hope of getting some portion of what he wanted.


I operated by a different theory when I was a kid. I never really made a list for Santa Claus. It’s not that I didn’t want anything, but I was always hoping for something to show up that exceeded my expectations. We all have our strategies for getting what we want, and hopefully we all find ways of accepting what we get – for Christmas, and in life.


I don’t think Jesus met anyone’s expectation for what the savior of the world would look like. John wouldn’t have sent his disciples out to ask about him if Jesus had turned out to be who he expected. John didn’t reject Jesus, but he didn’t quite get him. I’m guessing he was expecting a little more retribution, but what Jesus was delivering was this message of relief to those who were the most victimized by the powers of this world. John the Baptist was driven by authentic love for God, but passion for God doesn’t always translate in to understanding of God.


Jesus considered John the Baptist to have been the greatest of all the prophets of Israel, but Jesus didn’t think he had the greatest understanding of the kingdom of God. And that’s what Jesus wanted us to seek. John was well motivated, but he didn’t quite grasp the unbounded nature of God’s love.


Of course, Jesus certainly didn’t meet the expectations of the religious executives of the day. They didn’t get John the Baptist either. They weren’t well motivated or well informed. They could only see what would be best for their own enterprise. To give them some degree of credit, they were convinced that they were already doing the work of God. They weren’t open to anything new, but they probably weren’t consciously opposed to the movement of God. They were just blind to the truth by their own sense of self satisfaction.


So we see in the Bible this range of people who set themselves up with the wrong expectations of the incarnation of God. It’s easy to want to be more like John who was executed for his beliefs than to be like the religious authorities who contributed to execution of Jesus, but our primary objective is to have an even better understanding of God than the finest prophet that ever lived. Our invitation is to be open to the kingdom of God as it was revealed by Jesus Christ. Our challenge is to not let our passion or our preferences get in the way of our relationship with the One who truly reveals the nature of God.


So what do we want for Christmas? I don’t think it’s wrong to want to have some fun giving and receiving gifts from those we love and care for. As I say, I love this tradition of giving that has grown up around the celebration of the birth of Jesus, but I think it’s important that we always seek to expand our circle of giving. It’s pretty self-indulgent to limit our giving to those who can return the favors or who are within our own families. And it’s wrong to think the best gifts are the ones that cost the most money, but the worst thing we can ever do is to think we fully understand who Jesus is and what it means to follow him.


The presence of Jesus Christ defies all of our understanding. Jesus is more gracious than we can ever expect and more demanding than we can deliver. Jesus is more challenging than we can imagine, and he’s more forgiving than we can conceive. It’s a good thing for us to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in to our lives each year because we are always in need of a new encounter with Christ. Jesus Christ is far more alive and present than we are regularly open to believe, but he’s also more illusive than you would expect from the savior of the world. It’s not easy to encounter Christ, but Jesus is always there for us when we are in our greatest need.


I don’t know what you are hoping to get for Christmas, but what I hope we all are able to receive is a fresh encounter with the One who truly comes in the name of the Lord.


Thanks be to God!




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