A while ago, I was talking to someone about our vacation plans. We had a vague idea of flying into Southern California and after a few days of seeing San Diego and the missions, drive inland to eventually get to Las Vegas, where we would fly home. At that time neither my wife nor I had been to the desert, nor to the Grand Canyon. When my friend heard this, he recommended one of his favorite places in that region, a canyon that was not often visited by tourists. He described the landscape in colorful terms, illustrated the surroundings and vistas, even suggested where to see a beautiful sunset.
When we eventually took the trip, we followed his advice and visited the canyon. And we were not disappointed. In fact, the beauty of the place far exceeded our expectations.
I wonder how people of that time would describe John the Baptist to those who had never seen him. First, they would start with his appearance – thin with a face creased by years of living in the desert, naked save for a camel skin he wrapped himself in. Perhaps his eyes shone when he spoke; perhaps his voice penetrated. He lived on wild honey he gathered from bees; he ate only locusts.
Based on that description, what would people expect when they came to see John the Baptist? Jesus himself gives us the answer. Some expected to see a travelling preacher, an individual whose words and thoughts responded to rather than challenged the world, a reed swaying this way and that. Others expected a great sage, or a wizard perhaps, someone full of ancient wisdom who would enlighten those who followed his way, and who would someday soon reveal himself and his power. Or perhaps they expected to see a prophet. After all, it had had been hundreds of years since Israel had seen the last of the Old Testament prophets, the prophet Malachi. Maybe John would break that dry spell by revealing God’s will and the future of their people.
What they found in John the Baptist fulfilled but also far exceeded their expectations. A prophet, yes, but more than that, the fulfillment in himself of a prophecy from the prophet Malachi. John as prophet revealed to the people what was happening, not events in the future, but happening right now. He spoke God’s will to the people. Those who sought John the Baptist as a preacher, as a sage, and as a prophet were all correct but reality far exceeded their expectations.
John the Baptist was confident and bold. He expected a messiah who would turn the religious and political order upside down; like a tidal wave, sweeping away the irreligious and the corrupt. But then he was arrested, and it seemed his life was ending prematurely and without success. From what he has been hearing about Jesus, he’s beginning to have doubts – not about the meaning of his calling, but about who this person Jesus was.
Jesus was eating with the tax collectors who worked to collect taxes to support Rome. Jesus wasn’t castigating and condemning sinners, instead, he was sitting down to meals with them and making God’s forgiveness easily available to them. Jesus was even encouraging people to forgive their enemies – including their Roman enemies!
Jesus was not at the head of a triumphant parade to impose God’s mighty kingdom. Was John mistaken? Was Jesus not the Messiah? He sent his disciples to ask Jesus that very question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
When John’s disciples arrive with their questions, Jesus doesn’t give direct answers. He tells John’s disciples to go and give testimony to what they saw and heard around them – the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them.
It was a tribute to John’s humility and the working of the Holy Spirit within him that he was able to throw aside his Old Testament beliefs of what a Messiah meant. He suddenly realized that his expectations of a Messiah were being fulfilled in a way that far exceeded those hopes. John’s expectations were replaced by a more wonderful reality. The Messiah didn’t come, as John had expected, to destroy the wicked, but to restore them; to give them the possibility of a second chance. Jesus was inviting the ignorant, the sinners, and the foolish back to God’s highway – the right way.
Even today, we struggle to accept Jesus the Messiah according to who he is verses who we expect him to be. There are Christians who want to impose a different message on Jesus, one to their own liking. We are still hurting, praying, and hoping for a Messiah in our life. And yet the Messiah has already arrived. Pray to the Holy Spirit for a measure of John’s humility and be willing to recognize a Jesus as a savior who comes to us in unexpected ways. We expect a Savior who saves us from ourselves, but instead we have a savior who saves us for himself.
This is the season of expectation – Advent. It is when children and adults too, make lists of what they would like to receive for Christmas. What are your expectations of who is arriving on Christmas?
This Advent, during this reflective time, expect and hope for a renewal and deepening of your faith. Expect to have your eyes opened to God’s love around you. Expect the strength to walk in your faith. Expect to be cleansed of sin and the desire to sin, to have your ears opened to hear his word and your lips to proclaim his praise. And expect to be the one who speaks God’s good news.
God will far exceed your expectations.