A few years ago in Reader’s Digest a lady reported searching for the perfect birthday card for her husband. She came across a promising one. On the outside it read: “Sweetheart, you’re the answer to my prayers.” Then she turned to the inside, which was inscribed like this: “You’re not what I prayed for exactly, but apparently you are the answer.” OK.
In a strange way, I believe that something like that was running through John the Baptist’s mind as he sat in a prison cell (Matthew 11:1-15). He and his people had hoped and prayed for years for a Messiah, one anointed by God to lead the nation, a deliverer who would vanquish occupying forces, conquer all enemies, establish a great kingdom, and usher in an era of peace and prosperity for the people of God. John, recently, had come to believe that his prayers had been answered. The Messiah was none other than his own cousin, Jesus of Nazareth. The one he baptised at the Jordan (Matthew 3:13-17). Now while he is in a prison cell he begins to wander if cousin Jesus is the One!
2 When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11) Hey, cuz (cousin), are you the one or should I wait for someone else, someone more experienced, someone who would really vanquish the Roman Empire from our turf in all of Israel? John feels let down while doing time in a prison cell for speaking the truth against the establishment of the Herod’s. He is looking for answers. This is not a bad thing.
Have you ever felt really let down by something? Maybe it was a meal at some well-known restaurant. You’d looked forward to tasting this particular chef’s cuisine for so long but when you actually got to try the food, it was strikingly ordinary. Or perhaps it was some long-anticipated movie: maybe it was the sequel to another film you had really enjoyed and so you had waited for years for the next instalment of the series to come out. You eagerly went to the theatre on opening day only to discover the new movie turned out really boring.
Let downs from family, national political leaders and local churches leave us feeling disappointed, deflated and de-energised. It seems that there are a lot of let downs during this most wonderful time of the year in which we celebrate God becoming one of us (Emmanuel). John was looking for signs of judgement against Rome, against the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of Israel and cousin Jesus was saying stuff like, “See, I send you out like sheep into the midst of wolves. . . . They will hand you over to councils . . . and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next . . . Do not fear those who kill the body. . . . . Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matt. 10:16-31).
Back to John’s question, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3) So John sends some of his entourage to find out the answer to his question. Off to cousin Jesus they travel and when they finally meet him this is how Jesus answers the disciples of John, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. 6Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” (Matt. 11:4-6) Don’t you get it cousin John – mercy triumphs over judgement. Remember what Yahweh said in Isaiah 35:
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’ 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
Does that sound like a let down cousin John? No way! It is a message of joy for mercy is being extended by physical transformation, geographical transformation and spiritual transformation of the whole earth. Mercy, grace and peace to the whole of the cosmos. Rejoice, for sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Let down — you got to be kidding cousin. My message is a one of redemption and joy, healing the ill and carrying them through life’s journey. Cousin — it the same way in which Yahweh carried Israel upon eagle wings. The answer for your question cousin John is found right in the ancient text of Isaiah. We have God’s joy in our blood. (Walter Brueggemann citing Frederick Buechner)
As we experience let downs in life and especially to those suffering from let downs during this current Advent/Christmas season let us be reminded of how Matthew ends chapter 11 “28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (TM)
The undercurrent of our texts is the difference between people’s expectation even John’s and the reality of who Jesus was and the actual character of his ministry. (Ben Witherington) Questions about the authenticity of Jesus the Messiah come because our experiences do not match up with how we expect Yahweh’s will to be carried out. Yahweh’s mission was not to pronounce judgement while His Son was ministering on earth but to restore and heal the cosmos and humanity though His grace.
I don’t know where life may be defeating you this Advent. I don’t know how Jesus may be disappointing you this Advent. But I would suggest to you this Advent that any disillusionment you feel may not necessarily be a bad thing. For what is disillusionment, if not, literally, the loss of an illusion? And in the long run, it is never a bad thing to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth? Did Jesus fail to come when you rubbed the lantern? Then perhaps Jesus is not a genie. Did Jesus fail to punish your enemies? Then perhaps Jesus is not a cop or a crime syndicate leader or boss. Did Jesus fail to make everything run smoothly? Then perhaps Jesus is not a mechanic or computer technician. Over and Over again, our disappointments draw us deeper and deeper into who Jesus really is . . . and what Jesus really does. (William A Ritter) Jesus is our Messiah!
May we learn from Matthew 11 and Isaiah 35 that God in Christ Jesus longs for us to keep company with Him. He knows all about our let downs in life. The gospel of Christ Jesus is not a let down – rejoice in the Lord always again I say rejoice.