What do you expect?

John’s representatives have come asking their questions of Jesus, and now Jesus has some questions of his own for the crowds that gathered around him.  John’s disciples wanted to know if Jesus was the real deal, and Jesus had responded with an interesting list:  “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…”  This certainly sounds like a work of God, and John’s disciples go back to their master seemingly satisfied.  And then Jesus quizzes the people about John.

What did you go to see?  What did you expect, where John was concerned?  The rumours were of a wild man, appearing from nowhere, calling people to repentance.  Strangely dressed, and with stranger habits, John stood as an interesting alternative to the religious views of the day.  The priests demanded repentance and sacrifice, but saw those things as obligations in the midst of life rather than a gateway to a life transformed.  The religious establishment prefers order and ritual – obedience and compliance – but John claims an unpredictable space between sin and salvation.  ‘Repent for the kingdom is coming…’; ‘prepare for the one who is coming…’; ‘I am his messenger, but not fit to tie his sandals…’

“What did you go out to see…?” asks Jesus.  A prophet?  A freak-show?  A confrontation between the establishment and some radical preacher?  Whatever you thought you might see, you got more than you bargained for (says Jesus), because John stripped away all pretence about religion – about how God might speak and to whom God might speak.  John is both the greatest AND the least in the kingdom of God; yet another paradox placed as an hopeful example in the midst of God’s people.

The questions around John and Jesus – the discussion between and among their disciples focuses on a problem common to people of faith in every age; as our understanding of God changes – as our experience with the Holy grows in the telling – we are torn between good choices.  This was good, but this other seems better.  One calls us back to the path, but the other brings us to a major intersection, and asks us to choose.  What Matthew’s gospel (ch 11) suggests is that if John is legit, then so is Jesus, and if this is true, how do we choose?  Jesus confirms that one must follow another – echoes of John’s statement “he must increase and I must decrease”  So Jesus is presented as the logical ‘next step’ on the journey toward the coming kingdom of God – but Jesus is not content just to offer his evidence.  Jesus dares to ask about our expectations.  “What did you go out to see?”

He knows what is being said.  John came ‘fasting and praying’, and the people said he was possessed.  Jesus comes feasting and praising, and the people proclaim him ‘glutton and drunkard’.  Jesus’ assessment reminds us of the obvious; God is constantly being revealed to us – easy to see, but hard to accept.

It is a truth that continues to challenge us.  God is present – Christ is Risen – the Spirit of the Living God guides, protects, encourages and strengthens us – but we are unable or unwilling to recognize God-with-us.  The thriving Christian church of the ’50’s and early ’60’s is remembered as an institutional triumph first – a work of God made real by the effort of ‘we, the people’.  In ‘our’ triumph, we ignored societies needs; we imagined that the church thrived because society needed us – the war had taken all the good out of the world; the church brought the good back.  Now, as the church withers and struggles, we blame society for not caring enough about us.  What did we expect might happen?  That the church would replace all that was bad in the world with God’s perfect goodness?

Jesus’ take on John’s ministry suggests that our expectations are constantly challenged by the reality of God.  We are right to ask “Where is God in (all) this?” – but we must remember that in John, God was in the sparse food and edgy kingdom talk just as God was in the warm welcome of Jesus compassionate plea to ‘sin no more’.  Such comparisons dare me to ask if we have ever been willing (or able) to notice God at work?  Is it really so difficult to see God, in the challenging, the mundane, the ordinary, the outlandish things that are constantly unfolding before our eyes?

With John in prison, and Jesus taking up John’s teaching, and the religious sub-culture that John and Jesus represented holding their collective breath, waiting for a sign, Jesus points first to John and says “There is was!  God at work among you; God’s kingdom coming close to you…and you missed it.”  You couldn’t see the forest for the trees – and now you wonder about me.

Maybe the poets and prophets of our past have tricked us.  They went to such elaborate lengths to describe God – The presence of God was (rightly) imagined to be so overwhelming; so monumental, that we thought it mustn’t be real.  Poet and prophet dress up the work of God so it seems worthy of God – but God does not depend on glory and grandeur.  God does not wait for the perfect opportunity to impress.  At the just the right time – while we, in our sins imagine what the work of God MUST be like – while we wait for God to be perfect, God acts.

God acts in the likes of John the baptist; scruffy and marginalized; in the voice of Zechariah, gloomy and certain that only God cared; in the presence of Peter, Paul, Timothy and Titus – and many other ‘perfectly flawed people.  And in the person of Jesus; ‘glutton and drunkard’ they called him because they were too pious to see that God grinned at their accusations and blessed them in spite of themselves, daring them to get involved in the kingdom work.

What do you expect to see?  What do you imagine it is like?  Wisdom vindicated by her deeds looks very much like thousands of tiny, troubled churches – tilting at windmills, and disagreeing about nothing – all desperate to make a difference in their communities.  People can’t see God in what we do because everyone expects more of God than we can possibly offer.  They don’t see God in us because we can’t see God in one another.  They want the extraordinary God of the poets and prophets because we, in preaching on those texts and pandering to that expectation, have lost sight of God’s constant, ordinary activity among us.

We have come to expect that, if ‘God were with us’, glory, extravagance  (and therefore, success) would attend our every effort but that is a twisted expectation.  We have forgotten that God’s promise in Jesus means that our every breath is drawn in the presence of God; by the grace of God; to the glory of God.

With John in prison, awaiting his death, and Jesus well on the way to an inglorious end in Jerusalem, it seems hard to imagine that anyone travelling with them could see God at work.  But the lesson of John’s witness – the lesson of Jesus life, death and resurrection is a lesson in God’s constant presence.  God ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ is involved; at work; and constantly revealing the kingdom’s glory in our inglorious midst.  Thanks be to God that our every effort does not have to result in show-stopping, earth-shaking evidence of God.  We only need to be willing to see God in the ordinary things; in our worship and our witness; in our families, in our neighbours, and yes, even in our enemies – and that will be proof enough that God is.  Amen.


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