Luke 1:46b-55; Matthew 11:2-11
So, we all know what Jesus looks like, right? You’ve seen the picture…the same one that I remember seeing since childhood. There’s one like it on the wall in Tammy’s office and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few more around here someplace. It’s usually printed in sepia-tone, so we don’t have a full-color image, but it looks like Jesus has medium brown colored hair, fairly light skin and Caucasian features. His hair is long, a bit wavy, and Jesus seems to have found the perfect combination of hair care products to keep his flowing locks shiny and soft. In this picture Jesus looks thoughtful, and serene.
There’s just one problem with this picture of Jesus. Jesus was a first-century middle-eastern Jew. He didn’t have light skin or Caucasian features. He didn’t have flowing, wavy medium-brown locks, he had dark hair that was probably fairly coarse. And he was poor, so whatever hair care products might have been around, Jesus couldn’t afford them. His hair wasn’t shiny and smooth. We’d probably call it dirty and tangled. And Archeologists tell us that the average height for an adult man in first century Palestine was just over 5 feet –I bet you pictured him taller than that, I know I always did.
Of course we don’t really know what Jesus looked like, and those images don’t matter all that much. Every culture tends to make Jesus in its own image, it helps us recognize him if he looks familiar. But that brings us to the big question from our gospel today: Jesus, are you the one?
This question is especially surprising when we think about who’s asking it: John. John, who’s been prophesying about Jesus, who baptized him. John, who, according to Luke, was Jesus’s cousin and, you may recall, is the one who leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when pregnant Mary came to call. John, who surely knew Jesus, is asking “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? Even John doesn’t seem to recognize Jesus.
So John asks this question, this question that might seem odd. Is he being impertinent? Is he just thick? Or is it a question of contemplation…is John realizing that perhaps God doesn’t always match up with OUR expectations?
And Jesus gives him an answer…sort of. Jesus’s answer echoes the words of Mary from Luke’s gospel that we heard as our psalm today. (By the way…although we usually use a reading from the book of PSALMS as our response to the first reading, a psalm can actually be any sacred song or poem, so our alternate selection qualifies!)
Mary’s song expresses her deep faith, a faith that’s demonstrated by her willingness to trust that God’s outrageous plans for her are RIGHT for her. But she also sings of the vision behind those plans: God’s strength scatters the proud—those who are usually the winners—and God lifts up the lowly—the ones who are usually stuck at the bottom of the heap. God has fed the hungry and shown that God keeps God’s promises. Jesus’s answer to John’s question talks about the same kind of reversals that Mary described—those who used to suffer will now receive the greatest gifts.
But Jesus’s answer is also one of his famous near-answers. Jesus liked to make his listeners think about what he said … He doesn’t just say “tell John yes, I am the one.”
I just can imagine John’s disciples returning to John in prison with Jesus’s “answer”! And John says (or at least thinks) “ok, ok, so all this good stuff happen, but IS HE THE ONE?”
And of course, we have the same kinds of questions. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It’s the question at the heart of Advent. It gives voice to our reluctance even in the midst of our anticipation. It allows us to express our uncertainty… even from our privileged perspective on this world’s side of the incarnation. It gives us the words to say what our hearts, our souls, are feeling… when our mind tries us to convince us to not to say a thing.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It’s the question we ask from our own prisons that confine us to a limited imagination about God. It’s the question we ask from behind our concrete walls that divide us from others. It’s the question we ask from our jails that justify our views of God—our picture of the white Jesus with smooth shiny hair– over and against someone else’s view.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It’s the question of longing — longing for promises to come true when it seems the cards are stacked against us. Longing for what was, but at the same time looking forward to what could be.
And that’s one of the great gifts of Advent. We get to ask the questions, to wonder about Jesus. To wonder where we can find Jesus and how we’ll recognize him when we do see him. Because, in spite of Jesus’s assurance to John, there are still people who can’t see, or hear or walk. There are people ill with all kinds of diseases. There are still people dying, and plenty of poor who could really use some good news.
So we ask Jesus, if we’re supposed to recognize you because the world around us is in better shape than it was before…it doesn’t seem like you’re really here. Things are still a mess! Are we to wait for another?
This is another of those places where we have to settle for the mystery of “already…but not yet.” Jesus came into the world, lived and died as a human man. God keeps God’s promises. Jesus healed the sick, fed the poor, and taught his followers to do the same. The world really is a better place because Jesus lived. Christians and Christian organizations are responsible for much of the good we see around us. Historically, most hospitals, schools, universities, social service organizations, all had their start in the church. Church-sponsored organizations are often the most helpful when tragedy strikes around the world. Right here in Trenton it’s easy to see the many ways the EMA helps those in need. That’s the “already” part.
But, there’s still the “not yet.” We aren’t yet to the place where ALL the world’s tears are dried, all the pain healed. That comes later, when sin is finally overcome and all will be well. Until that time, our job is to keep asking “Are you the one?” and to keep spreading God’s love around as much as we can.
Yesterday a few of us from St. Peter were at the Trenton Country Christmas at Barn-n-Bunk. We sat at a table giving out treats for kids, these water bottles, and some information about St. Peter. A few people approached our table with a dollar bill in hand, asking how much for a bottle of water. Of course the answer was, it’s free, just like God’s love is free.
Was Jesus there with us, along with the Grinch and Santa Claus? Along with all the good people singing their hearts out, shivering on an outdoor stage? Along with crafters and food vendors? All these folks came together to share an afternoon of the best of our community… and I know Jesus was there.
But I also know Jesus is there when our hearts are breaking. Jesus is there in homes where there is no laughter, no shiny Christmas lights brightening the season. Where illness, or unemployment, or addiction make it hard to feel very “merry.”
It is good to look at our images of Jesus, imperfect as they are. It is good to celebrate the birth of Jesus as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem. And it is good to ask the question: Are you the one? We ask it together – knowing we won’t be able to answer it, to solve it, to tie it all up in a Christmas bow. But by asking the question we lean in to the waiting, the wanting, and the wonder, knowing that God’s answer is there.
St. Peter Lutheran Church, Trenton Ohio ~ December 11, 2016