MIND THE GAP
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. (Matthew 11:2-11, NRSV)
I’m a dessert lover. My favorite Thanksgiving leftover this year was Amy Karriker’s banana pudding with gluten free vanilla wafers. I tried to make it last, but who am I kidding? It was gone by the next day.
As a kid, I used to say, “I’ve never met a dessert I didn’t like.” This claim was disproven as an adult at the Clinch Mountain Lookout Restaurant, near Rutledge Tennessee. Colleen and I had made a special trip there, because it was recommended by so many people. “You have to go to that place!” they said. “Get the vinegar pie!” they said. And so I, the trusting soul, did. I went, and I ordered the vinegar pie. I fully expected to love it. Spoiler alert: I did not. I think it’s the only piece of pie I’ve left unfinished. Why you ask? Because it lived to its name and tasted like vinegar. The first bite was terrible and the second bite was worse. After the third bite, I waved the white flag and surrendered…defeated by a pie with a smell reminiscent of dyeing Easter eggs and a taste like I had just chugged a whole bottle of vinegar. I suppose it’s an acquired taste that I will never again try to acquire. In short, the pie fell majorly short of my expectations!
“Happiness equals reality divided by expectations.” That’s a popular formula espoused by happiness experts. Reality divided by expectations. Unrealistic expectations lead to disappointment and disillusionment because reality rarely measures up to our ideals, hopes, and dreams.
In today’s scripture lesson, John the Baptist is in jail. Locked in a cell, he battles his own expectations about his superstar cousin, Jesus. The man who called Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” questioned whether or not he’d gotten that right. It’s an honest account of someone who doubts when expectations aren’t met. I think we can all relate to that.
Prior to this story, early in the gospels, John was in a much better place in life. He was at the top of his game, boldly preaching to anyone who would listen, and even to those who would rather not.
John wasn’t exactly polished and his social skills seemed questionable at best. He held nothing in common with the religious leaders of his day. Instead of studying the Torah in the temple, John lived out in the wilderness, clothed himself in camel’s hair, and yes, snacked on locusts and wild honey…which probably tasted better than vinegar pie!
John wasn’t afraid to step on toes either. He preached with the passion of the prophets, warning people of God’s imminent wrath. While the religious establishment thought John was a raving lunatic, the common people responded, coming in droves to be baptized by John in the Jordan River.
The highlight of John’s ministry was baptizing Jesus in the Jordan. This event inaugurated Jesus’ ministry, which soon eclipsed John’s. Granted, John’s job description was to prepare the way for Jesus. After that, who knew what was next for this fiery prophet? Eventually he wound up in trouble with the high and mighty including King Herod Antipas. Being king and all, Herod thought nothing of violating the ethical mores of his day. He was unassailable.
King Herod had divorced his wife in order to marry his niece, Herodias. Ancient tabloid stories were as messy as modern ones. The prophet in John could not keep silent in the face of Herod’s scandalous behavior. He denounced the whole lot of them and was promptly thrown in jail. With no freedom of speech to protect him and no public defender to stand up for him, John the mighty preacher, the powerful prophet, baptizer of the masses and the Messiah, languished behind bars.
Stuck in jail, John had time to think, and in his thinking he noticed the gap—the gap between the fire and brimstone messiah he expected and the feed the poor, love one another, turn the other cheek messiah Jesus was in real life. William Willimon, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke, writes, “Our religious expectations are rarely fulfilled by God’s appointed prophets. What we want out of God is not always what we get…[a] gap [exists] between our expectations for the Messiah and the reality of the Messiah.”
In deep despair, John started to wonder about Jesus and second guess himself. Maybe he’d been wrong about his cousin. Maybe the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism had just been a voice in John’s head. Maybe Jesus was not the messiah after all. John’s thoughts and spirits sank when, in the nick of time, he was able to send a message to Jesus, carried by those who had been his faithful followers back in the glory days.
John’s followers took the message to Jesus asking, “Are you the One we’ve been expecting, or should we continue waiting?” He’s asking outright, “Are you the Messiah?” In typical fashion, Jesus avoids a straight answer. He responds, “Go back and tell John what’s going on: The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side. Is this what you were expecting? Then count yourselves most blessed.”
I wonder what John thought of this answer. Did he finally understand that while Jesus didn’t fit his idea of a messiah, that Jesus was exactly the messiah that God wanted? The scriptures don’t record John’s reaction, but we do know that John died a faithful follower. He must have realized that the world did not need another conquering hero, but instead humanity desperately needed someone to teach and embody God’s path of love, peace, kindness, and compassion.
French philosopher and mystic, Simone Weil wrote, “Joy fixes us to eternity and pain fixes us to time.” Understandably, John was sinking in the misery of his imprisonment. In Weil’s way of thinking, John was fixed to time, to his present circumstance and nothing more. Perhaps after he received Jesus’ message, John saw beyond his immediate circumstance, beyond earthly limitations, to a time beyond time. Perhaps the affirmation that Jesus was the Messiah fixed John to eternity.
Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy. Like John’s life, our lives are not always health and happiness. There often remains a gap between what we long for and what we actually get, the gap between the reality of what is and the dream of what could be.
This is why we need Christmas. We need the two nobodies from Nazareth stuck with their newborn son in a Bethlehem barn to remind us that God’s love can be embodied in the most unlikely people in the most improbable places. An early Christmas wish is this: may divine love be born in the midst of our pain. I wish you peace and joy as together we journey to Bethlehem. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
December 15, 2019
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Eternal God, for those who wander, provide guidance. For those who doubt, provide freedom from anxiety. For those who are tired, provide rest. For those in a spiritual winter, provide the warm presence of loved ones. Help those experiencing disappointment with life this day. Encourage them, inspire them, and incline them to the things in life that make for real joy, namely a deep connection to you and openness to all who need your help. Fill us with joy as we look with happy anticipation to the old Bethlehem stable, the birthplace of divine joy.
The first few sentences of this prayer were adapted from Debra Grant’s, The Jesse Tree: Advent Devotions for Personal Growth.
 The Living Pulpit, October-December 1996, p. 35