This material was first published by Redemptorist Publications
and is included here with their permission.
“Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11.3)
“It’s not nearly as tall as I expected” said a tourist looking up at the Statue of Liberty.
“I was so disappointed by that portrayal of Mr Knightley” said a Jane Austen fan after watching a dramatization of the book Emma.
We know what it’s like to have expectations, hopes and fears about all sorts of things. Sometimes we’re disappointed but at other times we’re surprised and delighted.
Sometimes our beliefs and expectations about ourselves may be seriously challenged: a demanding exam; a tough job interview; a health screening or even making a proposal of marriage. These kinds of things have long term and personal significance for us and we are deeply and profoundly affected by a disappointing or distressing outcome. It may change our outlook on life and call into question our own judgement and beliefs about other people and our own identity.
John the Baptist didn’t expect to end up in prison. And he hadn’t expected the long-awaited Messiah to do the things that Jesus is doing. The Messiah was supposed to claim Kingship over the people of Israel, overthrow the occupying Roman army and establish his kingdom of peace, justice, joy and gladness in their Promised Land. But when the Messiah came he would also bring judgment with him and John has been warning the people of Israel that someone much more powerful than him was about to come in judgment, sorting the wheat from the chaff and condemning the sinful to destruction.
John believed that Jesus was that expected one but, far from claiming kingship, exercising authority and freeing Israel from her captives, Jesus is healing the sick, showing mercy and forgiveness to sinners, loving the untouchables and restoring the lost to their rightful places in society.
We can perhaps understand why it is that, locked away in the dark, alone and isolated, John begins to doubt if Jesus really is the long expected Messiah and to question his own sense of identity and calling. He feels as if the very foundations of his being are collapsing and he needs to find out from Jesus himself what’s going on. Is he the one who is to come or has John been following a vocation that was, after all, a lie?
Perhaps Jesus understands what lies behind John’s desperate question – the unfulfilled expectation of what the Messiah would do when he came. His response is to offer John a different set of expectations about God’s anointed one: the blind will see and the lame walk; the deaf will hear and lepers will be cleansed. And with those expectations comes the good news that Jesus is doing all these things and there is a blessing on those whose eyes are open to see the truth, undistorted by the prism of their own expectations.
Perhaps some of John’s followers stay behind when the others set off on their return journey and hear Jesus affirming John’s identity as the great prophet who was expected to prepare the way of the Lord. Perhaps they are able to take that affirmation back to John so freeing him from the captivity of his own fears and self-doubts.
I wonder what our expectations are this Advent. Do we expect to celebrate Christ’s birth only with familiar stories, carols and traditions? Or are we open to being touched anew by the poignancy of God coming among us as a vulnerable baby?
And how would we expect Jesus to behave if he was living among us now? Would we expect to see him with the homeless in shelters or on the streets? Spending time with lonely, isolated and forgotten people? Visiting prisoners who’ve committed monstrous crimes that we think are beyond forgiveness? Speaking out against self-righteousness and hypocrisy among those who claim to be his followers?
What about our expectations of Christ returning in glory “to judge the living and the dead”? Or is that something we tuck away in the back of our minds because we don’t really think it will happen?
So many questions. Perhaps today, more than ever, we need to listen to John the Baptist calling us to prepare for the coming of one who will be more powerful, more holy and more gloriously loving than we can imagine.
For if we are prepared when Christ does come again we won’t need to ask “Are you the one who is to come?” Our hearts will know that he is indeed that one and we will worship him who is Christ – Christ, the everlasting Lord.
Let us bring our prayers to our loving God in faith that he will hear us and always work for the good of his children.
We pray for God’s prophets of today that they may faithfully proclaim Good News to the poor and suffering people of our world.
We pray for all in authority over others that they may be ever mindful of the needs of the weakest and most vulnerable in their communities.
We pray for the communities in which we live, work and worship that we may be faithful witnesses of God’s love and compassion towards all people.
We pray for all in need of healing in their lives and for those who minister to them that they may know God’s love and blessing in their distress.
Lord God, our heavenly Father, we thank you for hearing our prayers. Help us to trust you to respond in love and show us ways in which we can be part of your response. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.