Disappointment and Confusion at Christmastime

With Christmas coming up, you may already be contemplating how you are going to politely return the gifts you receive that didn’t match your expectations.  Things like the shirt that is too large, the pants that are too tight, the knick-knack that you wouldn’t be seen in public with, much less display in your house.

We all want presents that match our expectations.  I am particularly adept at guessing my presents, which drives my wife crazy.  I’ve had to stop, because she threatened to return everything if I continued to guess.  One time as a kid I told my mom that I had seen one of my presents on sale at a store, and so she had to return the present to where she had bought it, buy the cheaper version where it was on sale, and then try to rewrap it exactly as it had been before… but, I knew.  

So, when our Christmas presents don’t match our expectations we get confused and maybe even a bit upset.  Indeed, sometimes the whole Christmas season doesn’t match our expectations, when we expect to be happy and joyous with the incarnation of Christ, but still struggle in this world, experience sadness, and watch our loved ones die.

This is kinda what we’re seeing in the Gospel text for today (Luke 7:18-28).  In the text, John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus with an interesting question.  His messengers ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  

This is an odd question, if you think about it.  John the Baptist is the one who proclaimed Jesus’ coming.  He is the one who leapt in the womb of his mother Elizabeth when Mary, with Jesus in her womb, came to visit.  He is the one who pointed out Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  He is the one who proclaimed Jesus as the one whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.  He is the one who, when Jesus came to be baptized by him, declared “I need to baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

So, John has been pointing people to Jesus.  He even said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” because he knew that his own ministry of calling people to repentance was just a precursor to the coming of Jesus Christ and his Gospel of God’s grace and forgiveness and restoration.  John knew all this.

So, what’s up with him asking Jesus a question like, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  Well, let’s consider at what’s been happening in John’s life.  John had said of Jesus that “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  He also said, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”  John expected the judgment to be imminent; he expected that Jesus’ advent was bringing with it God’s judgement for sin and removal of all sin and evil from His creation.

But, then John is arrested by Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee under the Romans, because he had taken Herod to task for marrying his brother’s wife while his brother was still alive.  So, Herod threw John in jail and will ultimately execute him.  

Add to this the fact that Jesus doesn’t seem to be bringing judgement.  He doesn’t seem to be separating the wheat from the chaff.  John’s expectations aren’t being met.  He expected things to get better with the coming of Jesus, but they aren’t and, in fact, even seem to be getting worse.  The Christmas present of Jesus is not matching expectations.  Jesus doesn’t seem to fit.  So, John begins to wonder if Jesus really is the promised one.  Maybe there’s still a present underneath the tree, because creation doesn’t look like it’s being restored with the coming of Jesus; it doesn’t look like sin and evil are being removed.  And life isn’t getting better for John, in fact, it’s getting worse.  

Sometimes it’s the same in our own lives, isn’t it?  How often do we think that since we have faith in Jesus Christ that things should be getting better.  And when they don’t we get discouraged.  Things don’t always work out for us.  We see that the chaff is still clinging to the wheat.  We see a world populated by “bad trees” that choke out the “good trees.”  We suffer in our jobs, we struggle in our personal lives.  We get sick and hurt, and we watch our loved ones get sick and die.  We see and experience horrible events in this world.  Things are bad and there is still all sorts of evil prowling about the earth.  Things don’t quite measure up to our expectations of what the coming of Jesus Christ should mean.  Maybe there’s something better under the tree?  

So, like John we also may ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  We want to know, is Jesus the way, the truth, the life?  Is he the only one who can save us?  Is he really restoring his creation and will he really remove sin and evil from it?  Because often it seems like things have gotten worse, rather than better. 

So, when John’s messengers ask Jesus this question, Jesus had an interesting response.  First, he healed many people and then he told John’s messengers, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.  And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Jesus is quoting Isaiah chapter 61, where the prophet, speaking from the perspective of the coming Christ, says, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.”

So, Jesus tells John’s messengers to go tell John that Jesus is doing all these things that the prophets said he would do.  He is the anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ.  What he is doing is following on the working of the Law and the ministry of repentance that John had proclaimed.  Jesus is bringing the Gospel to the poor, those who are poor in their own works and rely upon Christ to be saved.  He is binding up the brokenhearted, those who have been crushed by the Law and brought to repentance, and he is bringing out the captives and the prisoners of sin, death, and the devil.  Jesus is doing the work that only God can do, because He is God.  He is God in the flesh who has come to bring his people up out of captivity into the land of the living.

And Jesus shows John’s messengers this by healing the sick and lame and deaf, and raising the dead.  Jesus’ work and mission is shown by his actions of healing his creation.  Jesus is Lord over creation, and he has begun its restoration.  And so he gives John’s messengers very tangible evidence that he has come to restore all things.

So, blessed is the one who is not offended by Jesus.  He is the true Christmas present.  He may not always match our expectations, but he is the true gift.  He is restoring us and all his creation, but this restoration does not all come at once; neither does the judgment or the separation of wheat from chaff: this is where the scandal comes.  Jesus did not come in power and glory in the first advent of his incarnation; no, instead, he came as a suffering servant to die and rise for our sins and to cleanse and restore us to him.  And now he is veiled in our presence through Word and Sacrament while we await his final advent when he will finish this restoration and cleansing.  

This is all very offensive to some people.  They want a present that matches their expectations of how God should be and act.  Why and how would God come in the flesh?  Why and how would God die?  Why and how is it possible for the dead to rise?  Maybe Jesus was just a good doctor or psychologist and that’s how he healed people?  Maybe we should interpret the things he said and did as metaphors?  At any rate, how and why would God associate His Word with water?  How and why would Jesus’ body and blood be in and with the bread and wine.  

A lot of what the Church proclaims is offensive to people.  Oftentimes in churches we spend a lot of time organizing our building, getting the right things in place, picking music that we think people would like, all in an effort not to offend people.  

But, our whole proclamation that God came in the flesh to die for our sins and rise for our justification and that he continues to be with us in the waters of baptism, the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, and in the written and proclaimed Word is offensive.  The central message of the Church is offensive to a fallen world. 

The Word of the Lord that the Church bears is offensive to those who don’t want to be told that they are fallen creatures, sinful, and in need of forgiveness; it is offensive to those who want to find easy answers to the complex problems posed by sin in this world; it is offensive to those who want a perfect world here and now, because this world is still fallen and we are called to wait patiently for Jesus’ return on the Last day – for only on that final advent day will the world be made perfect, and until that day comes we will continue to battle evil, decay, and death in this world.

And so the promise of God in Jesus Christ that the world is being restored through him is a present that many people reject, because Jesus doesn’t seem to match their expectations.  He has not yet brought the judgment and has not yet brought the full restoration of creation and he has not yet removed sin and death and evil from this world.  This “not yet” is still to come and we hold to this promise through faith.  

So, blessed is the one who is not offended by Jesus Christ.  For it takes faith to believe that Christ has, in fact, already defeated sin, death, and the devil.  It takes faith to believe that Christ is still in our midst in the middle of this fallen world.  It takes faith to believe that Christ is returning to restore this fallen world.  So, God has blessed you by bringing you into this faith.  He has opened your eyes to see the wonder and grace and mercy in the Christmas present He has given you in Jesus Christ.  You have been given sight and made well and cleansed and given ears to hear and have had the Good News of the Gospel preached to you.

And he has not left you, his Church, alone.  He is still with you, still working through his means of grace so that as we proclaim him to people He brings them to faith so that they too will not be offended by Him and may experience the foretaste of the feast to come and know that the Lord your God is even now in your midst, saving you, rejoicing in you, quieting you, and exulting over you.  

He will be with you always, and when Christ returns you will be gathered to him forever as Christ finishes what he started with his incarnation and death and resurrection.  This is the present that was given to the world on that first Christmas morning, bestowed upon you personally in your Baptism, and which continues to unfold to the end of the age until it reaches its final consummation in the age to come with the return, the final advent, of Christ in power and glory to restore all things.  

So, we place our hopes in the Christ who has come and who is to come again, and we long for the day when what was revealed to St. John the apostle in Revelation 21 will arrive:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”



(Image: Katholische Pfarrkirche St. Johannes der Täufer in Rott im Landkreis Landsberg am Lech (Bayern/Deutschland), Fresken im Chor von Johann Baptist Baader, von 1779; Darstellung: Johannes der Täufer im Kerker.  By GFreihalter – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51533380)