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Monday, December 16, 2013

The injustice of expectations

Well, we had a snow day yesterday, but here is what my sermon was GOING to be about...

Dennis Miller, once of my favourite comedians, once said that the most degrading thing you can do to a human being is to have absolutely no expectations of them.  He was aware that many people have a tendency to fall to the lowest common denominator, rather than rise to the highest.

While that intuitively makes sense, I think that the other extreme is equally as degrading.  In other words, having too many expectations of a person can be damaging.

The Gospel passage for this week (Matthew 11:2-11) is all about expectations, and how they can actually do an injustice to a person.

The first thing we need to realize is the expectation that Jesus' disciples had of him.  They called him "Messiah", which means "anointed one", a term which was used to refer to a king.  Any king.  It was not a term that was reserved for the only begotten Son of God.  In essence, the rule of any king was believed to be sanctioned by God, and so they would literally be anointed with oil to signify that sanction.

Based on the narratives we have in the Gospels, we have every reason to believe that Jesus' disciples expected him to be a king in that limited worldly sense of the word: they expected him to be a political warrior-king who would overthrow the powers that oppressed the Jewish people.

We have very reason to believe that John the Baptist had the same expectations of Jesus.  But Jesus kind of dashed those hopes with all his talk of peace and love and whatnot.  So much so did he dash those hopes that even John the Baptist was starting to ask questions from his prison cell.

Today's Gospel passage takes place about a year after Jesus' baptism by John.  John certainly seems to have believed Jesus to be the Messiah, but a year later, Jesus had not amassed an army or weapons and did not seem to be overthrowing squat.  Jesus had not even sprung John from prison.

Jesus, in other words, was not living up to John's expectations.  So in today's passage, John sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask him point-blank: are you the Messiah?

Jesus responds to them by using John's own appearance to challenge him: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?  A reed shaken by the wind?  What then did you go out to see?  Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.  What then did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet".

Did people following John into the desert expect to see something beautiful, poetic and philosophical?  Because what they got was raw, naked and unvarnished.  Did they expect to see someone wealthy, comfortable and well-fed?  Because what they got was someone wearing the worst clothes and living on the worst diet.  People must have been challenged by John's odd lifestyle choices and appearance.  Looking at a man who lived in the desert, ate bugs and dressed in camel hair, people must have expected John to be off his rocker.  And yet Jesus affirms that John is indeed a prophet.  Jesus affirms that John, while unconventional, was indeed telling the truth.

So while even John may have had expectations of Jesus which involved political and military power, Jesus challenges him to rethink that.

The reality is that Jesus was not about winning power, property or prestige.  He was not interested in political or military conquest.  He realized that the only "conquest" that is possible or lasting is the conquest of self over self.

Human history has demonstrated amply that military and political conquests are often motivated by greed.  Let's be fair and take the history of Christianity as an example.  Never has such a great collection of moral philosophies become so twisted to serve the needs of those in power.

The only way the world can be changed is one person at a time, and that change must come from within.  If we could all practice the virtues that Jesus and most other religious and moral philosophies have expounded, what a world this could be.

I hope this Advent season is one of personal change for us all.

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