Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What are we expecting?

The Gospel for this past Sunday invites us to take a second look at John the Baptist, after our first look the week before. As attractive as John was to the crowds that flocked to be baptized, he truly puzzled the authorities of the day:
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Who are you and why are you doing what you are doing? That was the big question to which the authorities needed an answer. They needed to to identify John, classify him, and verify his credentials before they could figure out how he fit into their very carefully constructed world.

But that was the problem--John didn't fit into their very carefully constructed world. Jesus would be even less of a fit. As an aside, I find it interesting that we don't have any record of Jesus baptizing anyone--even though, as the Messiah, he presumably was "authorized" to do so. But just as John's baptizing was a scandal to the authorities of the day, Jesus' teaching and healing were scandalous to the authorities. It seems as if God doesn't have much respect for religious authority when God is doing something new. As one of the designated "religious authorities" of today, that often gives me pause!

One of the biological facts of our lives is that we generally see what we expect to see. We unconsciously screen out things that do not conform to our expectations. Whether we're driving down the street and looking at a landscape we've seen hundreds of times before, experiencing a worship service we've experienced many times, or solving a problem similar to others we've solved in the past, our mind automatically screens out the unusual and fills in the gaps with previous experiences. We naturally classify things to avoid being overwhelmed with stimuli.

Advent is the season of expectation. We wait in expectation of the anniversary of our Lord's first coming at Christmas and in expectation of Christ's second coming. But just as John and Jesus were not at all who people expected them to be and did not do what people expected them to do, we need to keep an open mind about what what Jesus coming anew into our lives might mean. Perhaps our expectation of Christmas is simply another holiday, hopefully with family and friends, with a few tastefully chosen gifts in the bargain as well. But, as the Grinch who Stole Christmas found out, Christmas doesn't come from a store. The challenge for us is to put aside our expectations and instead expectantly ask a different question:

What could God be up to this year?

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