Are you the one to come or are we to wait for another? Why is John asking about this now? After all, he is the one who baptized Jesus in the River Jordan. After all, he saw the heavens open and heard the voice from heaven calling Jesus "The Beloved." Why now?
Well, let's look at the beginning of the passage for the answer. Matthew writes, "When John heard what the Messiah was doing...." Actually what Matthew could have written is, "When John heard what the Messiah was not doing."
The Messiah was not taking his advice. John had told the people that the ax was lying at the root ready to chop the unworthy trees down. He had promised them that the chaff would burn with unquenchable fire. And here Jesus was - hanging out with the very people who were supposed to be chopped and burned, eating with tax collectors, letting prostitutes wash his feet, pronouncing forgiveness to Samaritans. This wasn't in the script at all.
I heard that a college student came to his religion professor and said, "You know I used to be OK with that 'What Would Jesus Do?' thing until I started reading the Bible. Sometimes Jesus did some strange things."
Sometimes he did. And because of that John asks and the disciples ask and we ask: Are you the one to come or are we to wait for another? Each of us has expectations about the kind of Messiah we want: Some of us want a first- century Jonathan Edwards - breathing fire and brimstone, scaring the heaven into people. Or maybe an ideological Jesus who will champion our favorite cause, who will assure us that God is for gun control or against abortion? Or maybe a Good Shepherd Jesus who will not demand anything of us, but will assure us that He loves us.
Sooner or later our ideas about Jesus do not conform with reports of what he is doing either in the Scripture or in the world. And we ask: Are you the one to come or are we to wait for another? Jesus - the real Jesus - at times upsets our expectations; He breaks out of whatever box we put Him in. Then it's time for us to ask ourselves if we want to follow the living Christ or simply our idea of who the Christ should be.
Advent is the time to get out of our heads and let go of our notions about "What Jesus Would Do?" and look at what Jesus is doing. If we do not, we will simply create a Christ in our image and worship ourselves.
Advent is the time to let go of those preconceptions of who the Messiah should be and enter the deep December dark.
Advent is the beginning of the church year because we start all over. We leave our scripts of every thing we know and begin the journey toward Bethlehem. Like Mary and Joseph, we stop thinking about some ideal life and look instead at where we are.
No, I didn't expect to be unmarried and pregnant.
No, I didn't expect to be have all those people whisper behind my back.
But here I am, God's handmaid; show me the way.
Like Mary and Joseph, now is the time to leave the familiar country of the old and begin the journey into the dark of newness. We leave our assumptions behind; we leave behind the ways we have put God in a box. We look for God in new ways - not the idea of God, but the experience of God.
Remember what Jesus says to John's disciples: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: The 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."
In other words: Wake UP. Instead of thinking about the idea of the Messiah, look and see what the Messiah is doing all around you and in your life. Stop thinking of God outside yourself - outside your life; look for the Divine Presence right where you are.
We can play the John the Baptist game all our lives. We can just keep asking, "Are you the one to come or are we to wait for another?" But one day we must realize that Jesus is not a concept or a theory to be confirmed or disproved. Jesus is the bringer of life -abundant life - eternal life - and He is bringing life to us right now.
So often we think of Christmas as a religious history lesson. We are interested in how the world worked 2000 years ago. What exactly was the census, and what were the marriage customs? And who were the magi?
All of that is interesting, but none of it gets to the real point which is: Do you experience God being born in your life? Jesus says to us what he says to John: "I did not come for titles-I came to bring life. Do not ask me who I am-look at the life I am stirring inside of you."
The birth of Christ is now and here. Jesus is always being born and because of that people we know - people like us - are being transformed. When I was in graduate school, I took a yearlong Dante course from a professor named Arthur Evans, certainly the best teacher I ever had. About halfway through the last class, Dr. Evans stood up and walked to the door. As he began to step through the opening, he turned and said, "It's your turn to make music together." In other words, the goal of the teacher is not to have the students always focused on her. The goal of the teacher is to empower the students to make their own music.
Jesus says to John's disciples: "Don't look at me; what do you see in yourself or in your world? What do you hear?
Part of you was blind; now can you see?
Part of you was lame; now can you walk?
Part of you was dead inside; now can you feel new life?
That's how they know He is the One. And that's how we know He is the One. Advent is the stirring of the divine life in us and in our world. Advent is the time for us to leave our safe houses and experience that stirring first hand.
In Walt Whitman's poem "Song of Myself" the speaker says farewell to his readers with these lines:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles-
…Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged.
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
The place Jesus stops for you is in your life on this day.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, you have promised that the Word will become flesh and dwell among us. Help us to let go of our preconceptions so that we might open our hearts and minds and souls to receive you. Give us eyes to see your presence in our world and our lives so that through ordinary people like us, your kingdom might draw near. Amen.