We are drawing ever closer to Christmas, and before I get to the sermon I want to explain one thing. When you were coming in, hopefully you received a little stack of three square cards. Pull those out for a second. On the front side you see a woman singing in the snow, and what does it say in the text? Lessons and Carols, December 18. That’s next Sunday. And then on the back you see a map to our church, and a couple of the carols we’ll be singing next week.
Why do you have three square cards talking about our Lessons and Carols service? Well, the hope is that you can think of a few people who might be interested in coming next week. Maybe you know someone who enjoys traditional worship or classical music. Maybe you know someone who has drifted away from the church, and you’ve been thinking about inviting them back but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Maybe someone has been on your mind lately. Next week the music will be excellent. And it will be the best sermon of the year…because there isn’t one. The music and the Scripture readings will tell the story of Christmas on their own. This is a non-threatening Sunday to invite someone who enjoys traditional or classical music.
And so you have three cards – not just one card, three. Now Elinor and Briana spent a ton of time tying these together nicely, if I had done it I would’ve used duct tape. So don’t let their labor of love go to waste, ask the Holy Spirit for some ideas on someone to invite next week. And as a side benefit, if you can think of three names already, I give you permission to tune out the rest of the sermon. But otherwise you’re stuck listening to me.
Last week we heard about John the Baptist preparing for the coming of the Messiah and Pastor Carol encouraged us to prepare our own hearts as well. This week we fast forward a bit in the story, and John the Baptist is in prison for speaking against something the king had done. And he hears what Jesus is doing, but he has a couple of questions. So he sends his own followers to talk to Jesus. Hear Jesus’ response.
2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Imagine that you are having a quiet moment with your spouse or a boyfriend or girlfriend. Maybe you just had a date night with a candlelight dinner at your favorite restaurant. You’ve had pleasant conversation all evening. And so just before you leave the restaurant you say to them, “I love you.” And the other person responds sweetly, “Well, that’s nice.” Would that answer trouble you?
Words matter a lot, but sometimes what ISN’T said is even more important. In our text today, Jesus says quite a bit, but he leaves out something. When John asks if Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus replies with six very specific things he has already done. “#1 the blind receive their sight, #2 the lame walk, #3 the lepers are cleansed, #4 the deaf hear, #5 the dead are raised, and #6 the poor have good news brought to them.” All of these are well-known, very famous prophecies about the Messiah from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. He’s basically saying, “I’ve done all the things expected of the Messiah, so what do you think that means?”
That’s great. But there’s a problem. There’s a seventh sign mentioned in Isaiah. Isaiah 61:1 says he will “proclaim liberty to the captives.” Interesting. Very interesting that Jesus would omit proclaiming liberty to the captives when giving an answer to John…who is currently captive in prison. I’m guessing John’s disciples noticed what Jesus DIDN’T say right there. And so Jesus adds in v6, “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” In other words, John, you’re not going to be saved from prison. You’re going to die there. But don’t be offended!
I bet you didn’t know that Jesus was the first to use the old, “no offense, but…” line.
So John’s first problem is that he expected Jesus to be taking over by now. And instead the ruler has put John in jail, and Jesus says he’s not going to free him. That’s a big unmet expectation.
John’s second problem is that he’s been preaching repentance and judgment. This is the guy who liked to call the religious rulers, “you brood of vipers!” And yet he keeps hearing stories of Jesus’ mercy and forgiveness and healing. Where’s the judgment? Once again, Jesus tells him, “no offense, but that’s not how I’m going to do this.”
When have you had expectations of God…but they weren’t met? How did it affect your faith?
Today is Not That Day
You see, what John didn’t know was that Jesus was only going to do two thirds of his job during his 33 years walking the earth. The last third he saved for later…much later…hasn’t happened yet. We talked a couple weeks ago about how we don’t know when that day will arrive.
We know the beginning of the story, we know the end of the story, but we’re in the middle of it.
We know God’s heart. We see it in our texts today. In Isaiah, we see the desert blooming, the weak made strong, the feeble standing, the fearful are assured and confident, the blind can see, the deaf can hear, the lame shall LEAP LIKE A DEER, the mute will sing! There will be everlasting joy and gladness, sorrow and sighing shall flee away. That’s God’s heart! But that’s not what it looks like today.
And so when we know those who cannot see, those who cannot hear, those who cannot stand, those whose sickness remains, those who are poor and have bad news, not good news, those who have died, WHAT THEN, Jesus? That’s a fair question.
Another way to ask that – on a scale of 1 to 10, how much does our world look like the prophecy in Isaiah or even Jesus’ words? How much do the events in your life reflect God’s heart? Do you have everlasting joy and gladness, gotten rid of all your sorrow and sighing? If so, I’d like to buy you lunch and pick your brain to see how you figured it out, because MY life sure isn’t like that.
If it’s supposed to be a holly, jolly Christmas, what about when your family member is ill? If it’s supposed to be joy to the world, what about when you’re feeling depressed? If the cattle are supposed to be lowing as the baby is in the manger, what about when your pet is declining in health?
Is There Hope?
In other words, is Christmas really joyful and hopeful? Well, let me illustrate why I say yes.
First, you should know that I am a notorious, grumpy Scrooge when it comes to Christmas decorations at my house. The absolute worst thing, by far, is putting lights on the tree. Weaving the lights in and out so it twinkles from the inside looks great, but it also leaves my hands red and scratchy. I never know quite how much to weave so that I have the tree adequately covered without leaving a bunch left at the top or a giant dark hole at the top. And the only thing worse than lighting the tree, is having to take the lights off and re-light the tree. <shudder>
To top it all off, our tree is the perfect artificial tree – meaning we got it as someone’s hand-me-down for free. And they even left the lights on it for us – score! But after the first Christmas we were taking off the lights to store them properly, and I was thinking to myself how dedicated these people were to the art of lighting a tree. Strand after strand after strand came off until I finally realize – they left the lights on because this was a pre-lit tree. And I just un-did it! The only thing worse than re-lighting a tree, is re-lighting a tree that you know was supposed to be pre-lit if you hadn’t been too dumb to realize it! It truly pains my soul. I might need to see a counselor or something.
Now the last four years, our oldest son Charlie basically couldn’t care less about the Christmas tree, the lights, or the ornaments. On the Charlie Richter scale it registered a big fat zero. Zilch. Nada.
But THIS year, our youngest son Caleb is obsessed with lights of any kind. And when he saw the Christmas tree lights? Oh man! A few days ago we were eating breakfast and he stopped eating, puckered up his face distressingly, pointed to the tree, and proclaimed, “Ight!” We hadn’t plugged in the tree, yet, and he NEEDED it on! It’s a lot more joyful to have a Christmas tree with lights when your child delights in it.
And it got even better yesterday when we finally tried ornaments. Instead of wandering away in boredom, Charlie LOVED it this year! He joyfully took the ornaments to the tree, danced around as we placed the ones that were too high for him, and several times throughout the day he came over to comment on and admire his handiwork.
And so, for all my notorious Scroogery about Christmas decorations. For all my complaining about how the decorations were annoying, not joyful. This year we finally saw reason for joy even in those decorations. No promises on getting past my grumpiness next year while putting on the lights, though. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
The point is this – this may not be the year you experience the joy of Christmas. Next year may not be the year. We’ve been waiting 2000 years for the ultimate joy of Christ’s return. But we know that’s where things are headed. The fact that Jesus came in the flesh, that he did what he did, that he said what he said, that he died and rose again – that shows us that God’s plan is still on track. We’re still headed toward a world that reflects God’s heart. It’s just not all the way here yet. Someday the Christmas decorations will be joyful, not annoying or sad. It may take a few years, but God’s plan is still on track. You may not have joy this year, but some year you will.
Is this a joyful year? Have you ever had a joyful year? You can have one again.
Wait for Jesus?
But does that mean we just wait around for Jesus to come back and finish the job? Well, I don’t think so.
First off, that wouldn’t be very good news. In Iraq right now the Battle for Mosul rages on as it has for weeks. They did some interviews with civilians trapped in the city, and time and time again they brought up how they were losing hope. As they sit in their houses trying desperately to survive long enough for the army to reach them, it is nerve-wracking and soul-sucking and tiring. When your job is to go into bunker mentality and just survive a random amount of time for someone else to come save you…if they ever get there…it isn’t good news. That’s bad news.
So if we’re just here on this earth to go into bunker mentality and hope that we’re the generation that sees Jesus come again to fix everything, that’s not good news. It’s bad news.
But that’s not what Jesus said. He said “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Not just something in the future, something that’s as close as the palm of your hand. Something that exists in some form today. And he didn’t tell his followers to shut their doors and pray for his return, he told them to go out into the world, sharing the good news, baptizing people. He told them that it was their job to live like the kingdom of heaven is at hand today, and then he disappeared into heaven.
Christmas is good news, it’s joyful, because we’re a part of the solution. God works through us to make one little sliver of this world reflect the kingdom of heaven a little bit more. Our choice is to be followers of Jesus regardless of our joy level this Christmas. You can follow Jesus even if this isn’t the joyful year. And you can follow Jesus if this IS the joyful year. Because you’re a part of the solution. You’re a part of the plan. You’re not just in a bunker waiting. You’re a part of the action.
Does Christ want to bring joy to someone else through you? Does Christ want to bring joy to your heart as you live like the kingdom of Heaven is at hand today in your life?
Sisters and brothers, if your expectations of God aren’t being met, if this isn’t a joyful year for you, find hope in the fact that God’s heart is to see things put back together, not abandoned and destroyed. Find hope in the fact that in Jesus we know that God’s plan is still on track – it may take a while, but it’s on track. Find hope in the fact that there will be a joyful year – if it can happen to my Scrooge attitude on Christmas lights it can happen for you!
And if this is a joyful year, if things in your life are more in line with God’s heart right now, how can you share that joy? How can you show someone else that the Kingdom of heaven isn’t just a long way off, it’s right here at hand?
Now that we know God’s heart, we can have joy regardless of our circumstances. Amen.