December 15, 2013

Advent 3, Year A

Isaiah 35:1-10

James 5:7-10

Matthew 11:2-11

Prepare for the Unexpected

If you made it to this church through the ice and snow last week, you might have noticed that the bulletin listed me as the preacher.  You might also have noticed that I wasn't here—at least I hope you noticed.  I wasn't absent because I didn't have a sermon ready.  I actually did have a sermon, which I'd started writing early in the week.  Of course, then Nelson Mandela passed away in the middle of the week and inspiration took me in another direction, so I wrote another sermon.  But then, the ice and snow made it clear that I wouldn't be getting to church to deliver any sermon at all.  So, instead of spending Saturday polishing the sermon up, I baked a batch of Christmas cookies. 

So much for being prepared.  Advent is the season of preparation—preparation for the birth of Christ—and so I've worked really hard this month to embrace the peace and joy that come from being prepared for things in advance.  But what was I supposed to learn from an ice and snow storm that undermined all my efforts at being prepared?  I guess I learned that you should never be caught without butter and flour on hand.

I sometimes feel like God gives us mixed messages about being prepared.  Sometimes, the gospel is about keeping watch and being ready, with our lamps lit and oil to spare as we wait for the God who is coming to meet us.  At other times, the gospel is about not making plans for what to eat and wear tomorrow.  Why waste time preparing, since God is with us here and now?  According to the teachings of Jesus, we shouldn't be caught unprepared, but we also shouldn't over-prepare for a future we can't predict or control.

The more that I contemplate the season of Advent, the more I see that it isn't just about striking the right balance between planning too much or planning too little.  It's about a very delicate art.  The season invites us into a paradoxical activity of preparing. . . for the unexpected.

Preparing for the unexpected.  Preparing for the unexpected isn't about making plans based on clear predictions and promises.  Preparing for the unexpected also isn't like kicking back and waiting passively for something spontaneous to happen.  Preparing for the unexpected means both getting ready for something and being open to anything.  Preparing for the unexpected is the spiritual art of Advent.

One of our greatest teachers of this art in Scripture is John the Baptist.  His ministry was largely about preparing people for the Messiah.  The author of Matthew's gospel saw John the Baptist as what the prophet Isaiah had called, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord."

And yet, John himself wasn't quite prepared for the Messiah when he showed up.  When John hears about Jesus, he isn't quite sure that Jesus is the one that people have been preparing for.  Matthew's gospel highlights the different styles of John and Jesus: John's disciples fast, while Jesus' disciples eat and drink.  There was some suspicion among John's disciples about whether Jesus really was the one sent by God.  Jesus just didn't conform to their expectations.

In today's gospel, John has good reason to wonder whether Jesus can possibly be the Messiah.  John the Baptist is in prison for speaking out against the ruler Herod.  So, from what must have seemed like a hopeless situation, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"  Is Jesus the one that John has been preparing for?

And then Jesus doesn't give John a straight answer.  Instead, he gives John's disciples a few references to the prophecy of Isaiah.  He says, "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."  It's an impressive list that seems to prove the Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah—the one sent by God and the one foretold by the prophets. 

But there's actually something missing from this list.  The fuller version of the prophecy from Isaiah is this: the Messiah-figure says, "the Lord . . . has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners."  When Jesus sends a message to John about the prophecies fulfilled in his ministry, he mentions healings and the proclamation of good news to the poor—not liberation of captives and release of prisoners.

Why?  Well, perhaps for this reason: these prophecies would not come true for John the Baptist.  He was a captive and prisoner under Herod, and he wouldn't be freed.  Jesus would not fulfill every prophecy in a direct and personal way for John the Baptist.  Was John prepared for this?

When we prepare ourselves to see in Jesus the revelation of who God is, we have to be prepared for the unexpected.  The promises and predictions that we thought would be fulfilled for us might not come to be.  And our expectations of how God should act in the world might also be disappointed.  Instead, we are left with a list of things that we have heard and seen—healings, transformations, good news—and we have to decide: Is Jesus the one we've been waiting for?

What John may have learned from his life, and from the connection of his life with Christ, is not how to firmly predict how the Messiah will act in our lives, but how to prepare for God-the-unexpected.  After John was executed by Herod, Herod eventually "heard reports about Jesus" (Matthew 14:1).  When he heard about Jesus healing the sick and bringing good news to the poor, Herod thought, "This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him" (Matthew 14:2).  In other words, Herod saw in Jesus a continuation of John's life.  John's life continued in an entirely unexpected way.

Even though John didn't know it, his life and ministry would outlast his death through his connection to the endless life of Christ.  Earlier in his ministry, John declared that the ax was poised to cut down trees at the root.  But the prophet Isaiah had more to tell us about God's work in the world: "A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots."

The Messiah we know in Jesus does not conform perfectly to every expectation that we have of him, or to every prediction of what he can do for his people.  What he does do is prepare us for the unexpected: in God's hands, our lives may not turn out as we predicted, but they may also surpass what we planned.

As we prepare to welcome the Messiah into our lives this season, we can also enter the paradoxical mystery of preparing for the unexpected.