I was in London last Sunday, staying in our son’s apartment. On Sunday morning, I walked the mile or so to St John the Evangelist on Goose Green, where we have worshipped before. It’s a church building of a similar age and style to ours, with a vibrant congregation, a robed choir and a talented and eclectic music director. It’s a bit like home, but with more incense!
Like Christ Church, the church looked different to normal, but in their case it was for Advent. The Eucharist was celebrated at a table out in the open, because a very large painting was hanging in front of the altar.
The painting was of a mother and child in the refugee camp in Calais, and was the centre-piece of an art exhibition called “What are you Expecting?”. This explored the message of Advent: what do we expect when we think of Christ, and what do we expect when we encounter those on the margins of society.
Naturally, they had an Advent ring. Over the four Sundays in Advent this reminds us of those who prepared for the coming of Christ. Advent 3, today, concerns itself with John the Baptist who prepared the way.
We are used to the scripture readings which describe John’s part in the Baptism of Our Lord. I have preached several times about John the Baptiser, the Forerunner, and pointed him out in our mosaic behind the altar, although he’s hiding today.
Using the imagery of Isaiah, someone else who is hiding today, he was a voice crying in the wilderness, declaring that God was on the move and everything was about to change. His expectations gave him the confidence and ability to turn his back on the religious establishment, to go the desert, and to seek God in the wild and untamed places of life.
But today’s gospel offers a very different picture, a darker picture, of John. The words that stand out are right at the beginning: When John heard in prison… We see straight away how bleak things were for John. He must have had a fairly good inkling that things were not going to end well. So he sent his disciples to find out if Jesus, the one for whom he’d prepared the way really was the Messiah. It seems natural that, from the depths of his despair, he would want assurance that his life had not been in vain.
So what happened? How did John get from the vast expanse of the wilderness to the confines of four walls? How did he go from being a prophet with all the answers to a prisoner with questions?
At one level it started when he criticized King Herod, telling him it wasn’t lawful for him to marry his brother’s wife. Herod had him arrested, bound, and imprisoned. Salome, of course, comes a little later in the story. That’s the historical answer – but scripture often invites us to see and listen more deeply, to discern the spiritual meaning.
Herod may have put John in jail, but John’s own expectations have imprisoned him. Herod’s jail, the physical bricks and mortar, is an external symbol of the inner prison in which John now waits. It is the interior prison of disappointment and disillusion.
He is confined by his own unmet expectations. He has heard about all what the Christ, the Messiah, is doing, but where is the axe, the fire, the winnowing fork? Is there any wrath, any vengeance, in the middle of cleansing lepers, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead?
So John sends his message, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” It’s as if John is saying, “You, you’re the one? Isn’t there someone else? Perhaps someone who better matches what I was expecting?”
John has been corralled by his own expectations of who the Messiah is and how the Messiah should act. There are many words of hope in this reading as Jesus points out to John’s messengers the evidence of the kingdom breaking through. But it’s not clear that the words will be persuasive.
That is the danger of defining our expectations too tightly. We imprison ourselves with our view of God, the kingdom, the world, our own lives that is too small, too narrow. We try to confine God’s work and life to our expectations. But that is not how God works.
We expect God to make our lives easy and instead he calls us to live more deeply. We expect God to eliminate our suffering and instead we discover God standing with us in the midst of our pain. We expect God to privilege us, but he calls us to identify with the least, the last, the lost. We want him to make us strong but he calls us to discover his strength in our weakness. We hope God will destroy our enemies but he commands us to love them. We want to be the leaders but God told us to be servants.
Every time one of our expectations, our assumptions, is not met our prison walls crumble a little. The way has been prepared and we must decide, will we escape or simply rebuild the walls? It would be so much easier if Jesus would just come, do, and be as we expect. But he won’t. He won’t leave us in our cells no matter how comfortable or safe they might seem to us. He loves us too much.
The refrain from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” goes
Ring the bells that still can ring;
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything;
That’s how the light gets in.
We will escape only when we let go of our expectations. We will escape when we open our minds and hearts to a bigger kingdom. We will escape when we trust God more than our ideas about God.
“What are you Expecting?”.
The Season of Advent is the season to escape our narrow expectations of God. Where have you imprisoned yourself with expectations, whether of hope or dread? In what ways do you work to shore up your prison walls? How have you isolated yourself from the love, healing, and life God offers?
Your cell is locked, but only from the inside. Open the door and a new world awaits you. What will you see and hear? 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. That would include us. God is always coming to former inmates.
Our broad theme for these four Sundays of Advent is Behold I make all things new. It’s part of a verse from Revelation 21. Advent is a good time for us, individually and as a parish community, to reflect on how our expectations limit us, and how throwing the door open might inspire us in thinking of our future together. And if we don’t have time to reflect in the madness that is the run up to Christmas, there might be an opportunity in the slack time that follows.
“What are you Expecting?”.
The full verse from Revelation, appropriate for these troubled times, is …
Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”