Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday): December 15, 2019
Year A: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
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What happens when our expectations don’t get met? And what happens when it’s our expectations about God that don’t get met?
The one social media tool that I’ve never gotten into using is Twitter. It’s one of those ubiquitous ways of instantly communicating in today’s world, a very annoying way I might say, to instantly communicate. But Twitter presents its own challenges. You have only 280 to make your point. So, you have to be brief. Very brief.
What does this have to do with expectations about God? Well, a few years ago, an NFL player took to Twitter when a football game didn’t turn out the way he hoped. This player is one of the many professed Christians in professional sports. They pray regularly on the field and off the field.
In this particular instance, he dropped a game-winning touchdown pass during overtime and the other team won the game 16-13. After the game, he tweeted, presumably to God: “I praise you 24/7!!! And this how you do me!!! You expect me to learn from this??? How??? I’ll never forget this!! Ever!! Thx Tho.”
Apparently, the player’s expectation of God hadn’t been met that day.
What about John the Baptist’s expectations? We hear in Matthew’s Gospel today that “when John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another?’”
John the Baptist’s world had shrunk. Literally. The one who was preparing a way in the wilderness is held captive in a prison cell. The one who baptized the Son of God in the Jordan River is dependent on his jailor to bring him a cup of cold water to drink. The one who was so sure of who Jesus was, now wonders, “Are you the one who is to come?” Really? He’s got his questions and doubts.
Matthew writes, “When John heard what Jesus [the Messiah] was doing …” Actually, what Matthew could have written is, “When John heard what the Messiah was not doing …”
Jesus wasn’t following John’s outline for his ministry. Jesus was not following John’s mission statement for him, his step-by-step plan for successful Messianic ministry. John had told people the axe was lying at the root, ready to chop down the unworthy trees. He had promised the chaff would burn with unquenchable fire.
But Jesus didn’t seem to be pointing the finger of judgment. There was no smoldering woodpile of sinners. He was helping the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead raised.
This may have been a disappointment for John. He was at that very moment sitting in prison, awaiting his own beheading, because he had dared to stand up and challenge King Herod for an unrighteous marriage. His expectation may well have been that Jesus was the kind of king and ruler who would free him from prison.
Instead of Jesus pointing a finger of judgment, of condemning Herod, getting a revolution together that would free John from prison, Jesus is pronouncing forgiveness, healing the sick, bringing Good News to the poor.
Sometimes Jesus said and did some strange things, or certainly unexpected things, or things that aren’t what we hope for. And because of that, John asks, and the disciples ask, and we ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for someone else”?
Each of us has expectations about the kind of Savior we want. I suspect that some may want a Messiah who points out where everyone else is going wrong. Some of us want a Jesus who will champion our favorite cause, who will assure us that God is on our side of the issue.
Sooner or later, though, our ideas of Jesus bump up against reports of what he is doing, either in Scripture or the world. Jesus – the real Jesus, the real Messiah, Lord, Shepherd, Savior, Friend, Redeemer – will at times upset our expectations. And he will ask, “Do you want to follow the living Christ, or do you want to worship your idea of who he should be? Do you want the thrill and hope and challenge of a life with the living Christ? Or merely the comfort of worshipping an idol of your own making?”
We know that the season and mood of Advent is of expectant waiting. The three purple candles are sometimes seen as akin to being symbols of peace, hope, and love. However, the third Sunday in Advent is sometimes referred to as Gaudete Sunday, and it takes on a tone slightly different from the others. In Latin, the word “gaudete” means rejoice. There is a subtle shift on this Sunday to a knowing that the fullness of Christmas will come. That is said to be the reason for the more festive pink or often rose color candle. And often the pink roses that are on the altar.
So, here we are on a day that means to rejoice, we’re in the hopeful, expectant season of Advent and I am talking about following Christ being challenging.
Sometimes the challenge is how to rejoice when our expectations are shattered.
Eight years ago, the Friday before third Sunday of Advent, we received word that 26 children and teachers died in Newtown, CT. Earlier this week, we heard that three people and a police officer were killed in Jersey City, New Jersey in what can only be described as a hate crime and act of terror.
Perhaps a nice, feel-good sermon about the joy of Gaudate Sunday doesn’t seem quite so appropriate.
Let’s face it. It is easy to believe in God when our lives are going well. The sun is shining, and we feel grateful for our good fortune and thank God for what we have materially and for the people in our lives.
But when our lives become difficult, when we experience senseless acts of violence, or we drop the touchdown pass or we have to explain the presence of pure hate among us, we sometimes start to question our faith.
Today’s Gospel gives me another glimpse of why it’s possible to preach hope in the midst of turmoil.
Matthew shows us the answer to this basic question of Jesus: “Just who are you anyway?”
Jesus refers back to the passage from Isaiah for his answer to John. He says in effect, “I cannot answer for you. You have to decide on your own whether I am real. Look at the evidence. What do you see? Do you see a political ruler who’s going to free John? Or, do the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and are the lepers healed?”
Jesus couldn’t give John scientific proof that he was the one. But what Jesus could do was point to what John could see. John would have to make up his own mind, draw his own conclusion from what he saw.
What evidence would we see in our world? People are hungry, people are being tortured, people are blowing each other up, people are shooting school children and teachers. I suspect we might have the same question as John.
But, we know the story of the coming of the Christ Child and the resurrection. We also know the crucifixion. We know there are plenty of problems in our world. But we also know this world can be a better place. We often don’t hear about the many things people do to make the world a better place, but they happen every day.
And this better world is the world that Jesus calls us to.
I’m reminded of a story about a man walking along a beach who noticed hundreds of baby sea turtles scurrying to get into the water. Sea turtles hatch during the summer and only about one in 50 reach adulthood. Most of the sea turtles he saw were being eaten by the birds that were circling overhead.
The man also saw a woman scooping up as many baby turtles as she could into a cardboard box. She then carried them to the water’s edge and tossed them into the ocean.
The man decided this was silly and told her he thought so. “Picking up one here or there and throwing it into the ocean isn’t going to make any difference. Why even bother?” The woman looked at the little baby sea turtle in her hand and heaved it into the ocean. She turned and said to the man, “It made a difference to that one.”
I guess God could have reacted to all the sin and problems in the world the way the man did to the turtles. Do nothing. But, instead, God entered human history and sent Jesus to be our Messiah.
We are invited to go to Jesus with our questions, concerns, wondering. We can participate in the ways Jesus has given to his church to know him better. Gather in community. Pray. Take communion. Worship. Praise him – even when you feel all else is lost. And always know that Christ is the source of rejoicing.
Let this be our Advent dream and hope! Let us be messengers and ministers of God’s love, justice, and compassion in all that we say and do. In these final weeks of Advent and every day share the story of God. Share the story of God’s bountiful grace and mercy at work in the world. Share what Jesus commanded John and his disciples and commands us as well: Go and tell others what you hear and see. Prepare the way of the Lord. Let us save at least one sea turtle.
 Matthew 11:2, NRSV
 Matthew 11:1, NRSV
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