open book on a table

“What Are We Waiting For?”

A sermon drawn from Matthew 11:2-15

What was John waiting for? What did he need to see, or hear, to know that Jesus was “the one who is to come”? Does it surprise us that John the Baptist would ask this question?

Especially because John has lots and lots of evidence that Jesus is “the one who is to come.” There was that whole story about how John recognized Jesus as “the one” even before he was born – when Mary came to visit Elizabeth, John’s mother – that time John started jumping in Elizabeth’s womb, and Elizabeth prophesies, and then Mary prophesies … surely John would have heard that story more than once – because we know how family stories like that are told and retold in our own families.

For that matter, John had presumably heard more than once about how his father Zechariah had met the angel Gabriel in the Temple in Jerusalem, and then was struck mute, and then got his speech back on the day of John’s circumcision, and prophesied that John himself would prepare the way for the Messiah, that “one who is to come.”

And admittedly, we don’t know … whether these two special children ever visited one another during the years they were growing up, or ever talked about the special circumstances that applied to each of them … but Matthew, who tells this story about John’s question, has already told us that John recognizes Jesus enough at the time of Jesus’ baptism, to feel like there’s something backwards about it. He says, Jesus, you should be baptizing me, not the other way around!

And some of the other gospel writers go even further, and tell us John had also seen the Spirit descend on Jesus as a dove and heard the voice from heaven say “this is my beloved son, in whom I’m well pleased,” and at least once had pointed at Jesus and called him “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” – all of which just reminds us that the early Christians remembered John the Baptist as having been the one who “prepared the way,” who had pointed people to Jesus as someone really special.

But they also remembered this – this question of John’s, this question from the “preparer of the way,” to Jesus, about whether Jesus was the one.

Which might make us wonder – why does John ask this question? What was John waiting for? What was he expecting?

Of course, we probably know from our own experience that there’s a big difference between preparing for something, and actually doing it. All of us who have ever been through school have probably had the experience of studying for a test, and then taking it … and thinking to ourselves, where did these questions come from?

In fact … true story … I was in graduate school once, and had to take qualifying exams, that certify that I had done some research, so now I could go do some more, and the idea behind those tests is that the students discuss what they’ve already done with their professors, and then the professors will write questions that the students are prepared to answer. That’s how it’s supposed to work. So, I went in to the program office to take my prelim, thinking I knew what was going to happen, and when I looked at the question I had to answer, I thought … I see words in this question that were part of that conversation I had with my professors. But I have no idea what this question says.

And then … still true story … there was a fire drill. Everyone had to leave the building and go stand in the courtyard until we got the all clear. Which allowed me to calm down enough to think, OK, I may not know what they’re asking, but I know what I’m prepared to answer, so I’ll just write that. And I guess that was close enough, or else they took pity on me, because I passed that test …

But I feel some empathy with John the Baptist, here, because he seems to be saying … “but … I thought … this was going to be easier …”

There’s a difference between preparing for something, and meeting that something face to face. A difference between expecting something, or someone, and the experience of that something or someone. A difference between expectation and reality.

We don’t know for sure what it was, in John’s case. Maybe John is noticing that he’s in prison, which doesn’t seem very liberating, and it doesn’t look like Jesus is taking steps to bust him out of prison, or de-throne the king who has put John into prison, or generally taking any Messiah-like steps to fix that problem.

Maybe John is wondering why not that much seems to be changing out in the world. We often hear that people in Jesus’ time were expecting the Messiah to lead an army, the way King David had, whether of people, or maybe even of angels, and that army would defeat the Romans and usher in a kingdom that would bring back the glorious days of old. Probably not EVERYONE in Judah at the time thought that, or thought it would be a good idea if it happened, but we have good reason to think that at least some people were waiting for that. There were other historical figures, both before and after Jesus, who did try to make something like that happen. So maybe John was expecting – and wondering whether he ought to wait for – someone like that.

Whatever it was, John seems to have had an expectation about what the Messiah, and the kingdom of heaven, was going to look like and be like. A list of signs to be checked off to be sure this was “the real deal,” and Jesus was not checking off all of those boxes. So John was bewildered and confused and uncertain enough to ask this question … are you who we’re supposed to be waiting for, Jesus?

We hear over and over that the kingdom of heaven comes unexpectedly – that God is surprising. We don’t always think about what that means: that sometimes it means bewilderment, and confusion, and uncertainty; that what we thought we were waiting for, what we thought we could expect – what we’re prepared for, with our checklist in hand – is different, a little, or a lot, or even mysteriously both a little and a lot at the same time – from what rises up to meet us.

And that seems to be a big part of what this text is pointing to: the difference between preparing for something, and experiencing it for oneself.

Because Jesus seems to answer: look, the most important thing, the reality of what is happening in actual people’s actual lives, is exactly what we’ve been waiting for. The promises we’ve gotten from the Torah and from the prophets are already taking place.

Jesus lays it out:

… the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with a skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

That’s exactly what we’re hoping for from the kingdom of heaven, isn’t it? What Jesus seems to be saying, in fact, is: when we see the life of the kingdom happening around us, isn’t that already, right here, right now, … well … the actual life of the kingdom of heaven? Isn’t that the presence of the kingdom, the power of God at work? It’s happening, it’s happening here and now! This is it. This is what that looks like, this is what that feels like. What was “to come” is already here. The waiting is over.

This may be what Jesus means when he says that people are already barging in to the kingdom of the heavens [another way to think about that language of “violence” Jesus uses] – that up until now, people had been talking about it and preparing for it, but now, people are actively turning towards God in repentance and taking hold of the power of God in their lives, walking up to the door and knocking, saying “OK, God, here we are … the meek, the poor in spirit, the mourners …” and are already praising God for their experience of God’s grace and God’s blessing. Saying, like Jesus mother, “God has done great things for me!” And rejoicing in what God has done, and is doing, rejoicing in the presence of God.

So, even though it is true that the world around us is not yet perfect – even though not every suffering soul has had their specific suffering relieved in a specific, desired way – still, everyone who comes into contact with Jesus recognizes that something is happening, something transformative, something life-changing …

Sometimes, we ourselves admit, the changes are spiritual and invisible rather than physical: people who encounter Jesus experience new awareness, new insight, new understanding – we sometimes talk about that as the blind receiving sight; people experience a new sense of purpose, of invitation to do something with their lives, a new desire or impulse to share and to make an effort to bring about justice – we sometimes talk about that as the deaf hearing; people are moved to embrace and accept and welcome people they once rejected, moved to see those people as whole and valued children of God rather than as cast-offs, people we sometimes refer to as “lepers.” When this is what’s happening, in our lives, or in our communities, once again, we also recognize not just the “signs” of the kingdom to come, but the operation, the presence of the kingdom here and now.

This may really be one of the things Jesus means when he says that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John: because while John was busy preparing the way, he didn’t seem to see himself as being in the kingdom … while now, Jesus points out, there are those who already see themselves as being in the kingdom – those people who are starting to have an intimate sense of the presence of God, already here, in this world, and to appreciate that God is actively working, here, in this world, and in their lives, to bring about God’s results in God’s time …

People like, for instance, Jesus’ own mother, who we just heard from, who knows exactly how it feels to be in a partnership with God, and to be living in a world in which God brings life and change and blessing, even in very unexpected ways.

And being in the kingdom, Jesus seems to be saying here, is even greater than preparing for it.

But that does raise a question for us, because we know that we ourselves may share some of John’s difficulty. On one hand, we ALSO see a lot of disconfirming signs; there are things that make it obvious that the kingdom of heaven has NOT come in its fullness. Make it seem like the Messiah has NOT been here. We can’t fool ourselves into thinking that we are living in the promised land … because there are still lots and lots of things that are wrong with the world we’re living in. We are sure that God is not OK with violence, the threat of war and the making of war, the threat of war closer to home – domestic violence, child abuse. We’re sure God is not OK with the suffering caused by greed and indifference – with addiction and bribery and robbery … or the suffering caused by diesease, and death …

This isn’t the life that God wants people to live. This isn’t the world that God intends for us to have. This isn’t God’s shalom.

We know that.

And so, sometimes, we ourselves get bewildered and confused and uncertain, because we think – we’ll have to wait until all the conditions are perfect, to live like the children of the most high. We think we’ll have to wait for Christ to come in glory to begin to love one another as Christ has loved us. We think we have to wait to see the full contours of the world to come, before we can rejoice like Mary in the blessings of God’s grace and justice.

But Mary did not wait for that. Jesus did not wait for that. The disciples did not wait for that. And because they did not wait for that, we, too, poor as we are, have had good news brought to us. We ourselves, many of us, have had experiences of seeing the truth as if for the first time; hearing the call of the Holy Spirit to work that matters; finding ourselves doing things we never imagined we’d be able to do – being raised to new life. Even if we know that we still have a long way to go, we know that the presence of God is a reality, or can be.

So, what are we waiting for?

On one hand, we are waiting for the full experience of the kingdom, the full enjoyment of the heavenly banquet.

But on the other hand, we are not waiting for anything. We are prepared to say, here and now, God is doing great things, in this world, and in our lives. God is alive and at work, and because of that, we are already experiencing the presence of God and the fruit of the Spirit – the love, joy, peace, and all the rest that is the substance of the Christian life.

And to the extent that we want more of the immediate experience of God’s presence and activity – which we do – we know how to pursue it in ways that hold real promise: we read the Bible and meditate on the word of God, we pray, we serve, we open ourselves up to the workings of the spirit, we even take the risky first step or two, laying aside habits that have become obstacles, inviting and meeting people we might not have thought we could, asking questions, entertaining new possibilities, looking around for and paying attention to the places and the ways that

… the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with a skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

Because “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at [Jesus]”– and wherever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, there Jesus is, in the midst of them. Wherever, whether that be a palace, or a wilderness, or a manger, or a room in a church in Southern Indiana, where God has work for us to do and ways to empower us to do that work.

Image: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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