The Jewish people of the first century were expecting a different kind of Messiah. And Jesus was not it. After all, they’d suffered under foreign oppression for centuries. After the Babylonian captivity and exile in the 6th century BC, they were ruled by a string of oppressive kingdoms – the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks, and now Roman oppression. So, it should not surprise anyone that they longed for deliverance, for the reestablishment of the promised Davidic Kingdom under which they would be totally free once again.
The Jewish prophets of old spoke of such a time under the Messiah’s reign. But they’d been waiting centuries. Generation after generation was born, lived, and then died. When might He come? WOULD He ever come?
Motel (MAH-til) the Tailor, in Fiddler on the Room, captures the yearning quite well when, on the eve of his Jewish community’s expulsion from their little town of Anatevka. He asked the town Rabbi: “We've been waiting for the Messiah all our lives. Wouldn't now be a good time for him to come?” To which the Rabbi responded philosophically, “I guess we'll have to wait someplace else.”
One of the prophecies Israel looked toward was this one from Zechariah: “For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city will be captured. Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as when He fights on a day of battle. In that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives . . .and the Mount of Olives will be split in its middle from east to west by a very large valley, so that half of the mountain will move toward the north and the other half toward the south.” (Zechariah 14:2-4)
A few verses later Zechariah continued: “And the Lord will be king over all the earth; in that day the Lord will be the only one, and His name the only one.” (Zechariah 14:9)
And then there was this prophecy by David in the second Psalm: “Why are the nations in an uproar and the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, “Let us tear their fetters apart
And cast away their cords from us!” He who sits in the heavens laughs,
The Lord scoffs at them. Then He will speak to them in His anger and terrify them in His fury, saying . . . You shall break them with a rod of iron,
You shall shatter them like earthenware.’” (Psalm 2)
There are dozens of such promises scattered throughout the Jewish Scriptures, and the Jews of Jesus’ day longed for their fulfillment. Their plight under Roman oppression was hard and heavy.
As an aside, there are also dozens of Messianic promises in the Jewish Bible that speak of a suffering servant-Messiah. And because of those equally numerous prophecies, the rabbis and Jewish scholars believed there would be two separate Messiahs – one they called Messiah son of David, the other, Messiah son of Joseph. We do not have time now to discuss how those two Messiahs are fulfilled in one Man – Jesus, except to reiterate the point – the Jews of Jesus’ day were expecting a kingly Messiah.
For example, after feeding the 5,000, we find this text in John’s gospel: “Therefore when the people saw the sign which He had performed, they said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone. (John 6:14-15)
His twelve disciples – even after living with the Lord for three years, expected Jesus to be the kingly Messiah. Here is what they asked after the Lord’s resurrection and just prior to His ascension back to His throne: “So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
In fact, many Bible scholars believe Judas betrayed Jesus because Jesus was clearly not going to deliver them from Roman oppression.
So, all of that was by way of introduction to today’s message. As you know, we are now in the Christian season of Advent, the time in the Christian calendar when many of us expectantly wait for the celebration of the Christ’s first coming. But as we prepare to celebrate the BIRTH of Jesus, Advent should also be a time that we continue our expectant preparation for the RETURN of Jesus. And to that end, living a holy lifestyle should be foremost in our hearts. It should be our primary goal as we journey toward that Celestial City.
I emphasized the word, ‘expectant’ because that word forms the basis of the theme of today’s message on this third Sunday of Advent.
My primary text comes from the 11th chapter of Matthew’s gospel: “Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” (Matthew 11:2-3)
The context of the passage finds John the Baptist in a Roman prison. He’s sharing a filthy cell with rats and vermin – and has every reason to believe his life hangs on a proverbial thread. So, no wonder he sent word to Jesus, asking Him, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?”
Now, please remember, Jesus and John are relatives. Probably cousins. We learn of their familial relationship in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. So, it would be reasonable for John to EXPECT his miracle-working relative to come to his rescue.
But John’s EXPECTATION is a really important point with direct application to our lives in this century. For many of us, Christmas is a time of visits with family and friends, of parties and get-togethers. It is a joyful, joyful time of year. Yet, for many others, the Christmas season is a time of sadness, loneliness, and emptiness. And much of our sadness is related to our unmet expectations in life. We expected comfort and stability in life, and we suffered – and still suffer – adversity. We expected close relationships with family, and we ended up emotionally distant – even when family lives nearby. We expected God to answer our various prayers – and sometimes He did, but at other times He did not.
And so, the question before us this afternoon: What are our expectations of Jesus on this third Sunday of Advent? And what if He doesn’t meet those expectations – as He did not meet the expectations of even His disciples in that first century?
Many of you will remember the story in Luke’s gospel of Jesus’ visit to His hometown of Nazareth. While there, as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath and read this text from the prophet, Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19) Jesus then closed the book and, as everyone’s eyes were on Him, He said, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
At that point, the congregation expected Jesus to do in that town – the town where He grew up – the miracles He’d performed in Capernaum and elsewhere. Apparently, they believed they had the right to EXPECT this hometown boy to do for them as He’d done for others.
I think we can all understand their argument. Jesus grew up in Nazareth. The people asking for miracles were His childhood friends and neighbors. He’d been in their homes, and they’d been in His. Why shouldn’t they expect Him to heal their sick and touch their hurting as He’d done in other cities? But they were about to learn, as we’ve all learned in life – God doesn’t always do what we want Him to do.
Listen now to the Lord’s response: “There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the sky was closed for three and a half years, and a severe famine spread over the entire land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon. Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian" (Luke 4:25-27).
In other words, God does what He chooses and for whom He chooses. And no one – not even Jesus’ neighbors and childhood friends – has a right to expect or demand He do otherwise.
If you remember the vignette, Jesus’ remark infuriated them. In a flood of rage, they drove Him out of the town and tried to throw Him over a nearby cliff.
And don’t think for a moment on this third Sunday of Advent that people have changed over the centuries. Many still nurse bitterness toward God over withered dreams and crushed hopes. They rail against Him because an accident took someone they love, or their marriage crumbled, or their child wasn’t healed, or no one visits or calls, or they are in chronic pain, or – add your own disappointments. And so, some who once walked with the Lord, some who once held their homes open to Him, some who had holy Communion with Him became so disillusioned with Him because He had not met their most desperate expectations. And since they are unable to throw the Lord over a cliff, they instead throw away their faith.
It’s a danger we all face, and we face it quite often during our lives as we wonder why He says no when we need so much for Him to say yes. Why does He work miracles for others, but not for us?
In my fifty years of walking with Christ, I’ve come to recognize these questions are critical questions of faith – and I don’t think God will let any of us gloss over them. Our ability to mature in Christ DEPENDS on how we answer those questions, because each time we don’t receive what we ask, each time we get knocked to the ground, each time Jesus doesn’t meet our expectations, we face only two choices: throw Christ over the cliff or persevere in our faith that God will work grace into our circumstances – regardless of how things look or feel.
In her short life – she was only twenty-four when she died – St. Therese of Lisieux discovered, “Everything is a grace. Everything is the direct effect of our Father's love – difficulties, contradictions, humiliations, all the soul's miseries, her burdens, her needs – everything. Because through them she learns humility, realizes her weakness. Everything is a grace because everything is God's gift. Whatever be the character of life or its unexpected events, to the heart that loves, all is well.”
The answer to the question, Is God good all the time and in all circumstances? is rooted in what St. Therese can teach those who listen. When doubts hammer our heart into the ground – God is good. When tragedy explodes through our life – God is good. When all of hell itself rises against our soul and overwhelms our strength – in all circumstances and at all times, God is good.
We come to that conclusion because it is simply not possible for God to be anything else but ‘good.’
Before I conclude this message, we need to look briefly at the Lord’s response to John’s disciples when they asked the Lord if He was the Messiah, or should they look for someone else.
Here is what the Lord answered: “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.”
Notice the Lord’s short answer. The blind see. The lame walk. Lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised. The poor have good news proclaimed to them . . . all of which comprise a sermon in themselves.
Essentially, Jesus told John that although He was not going to meet his expectation, but yes, He is the Messiah. He is the expected one.
And, oh, by the way – the message to you and me is the same: Just because Jesus does not meet OUR expectations – He is the Messiah, the promised one.
And now, one final comment. Focus with me on Jesus’ last statement: Blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.
Why would ANYONE take offense at Jesus? It boggles my mind how mean-spirited so many people are, especially at Christmas time. How many mock the very idea of Christmas which has always carried the theme of peace among all people, of kindness, of sharing our abundance with those less fortunate than we.
What is wrong with the message of God’s love, mercy, compassion? What is distasteful about the story of a baby in a manger? Why do so many in the media, in government, law courts, and schools find offense at Christ?
The answer is quite simple, if we know the Scriptures. It’s because this struggle is NOT between flesh and blood, but with satanic forces. Ephesians 6:12 (Amplifed Version) 12 For we are not wrestling with flesh and blood [contending only with physical opponents], but against the despotisms, against the powers, against [the master spirits who are] the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spirit forces of wickedness in the heavenly (supernatural) sphere.
Jesus Himself tells us (John 10:10) The devil is a thief whose job description is to kill, maim, and steal. Steal what? Life. Joy, Hope – from children and from adults. So, we shouldn’t be surprised at the Ebenezer Scrooges among us.
Yes, the reason so many take offense at Jesus is rooted in the supernatural. That is why the Holy Spirit takes so much time in that 6th chapter of Ephesians to remind us not only of our enemy, but ALSO of the spiritual weapons at our disposal. We will not take the time now to review them, but please, make some time today to read that sixth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church as Ephesus.
And, so while it is important to recognize the satanic forces around us that find offense at Jesus, let us be careful that WE do not take offense at Jesus. How can that happen? Most often by slowly, almost imperceptibly succumbing to grumbling, fault-finding with others and finding fault with God, cultivating a spirit of thanklessness.
Don’t let that happen to you. And I also have to work at it to not let it happen to me – a spirit of thanklessness.
You may remember what the apostle Paul suffered for the sake of Christ – beatings, stoning, hunger, exposure to the cold, loss of friends – and likely of family – but please focus your attention on this – the REASON he persevered and the reason WE can persevere, even when God does not meet our expectations. Hear now what he wrote to the Christians at Philippi: “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13)
Listen! You and I can do all things through Christ – ALL THINGS through Christ – who by His Holy Spirit strengthens us. And in so strengthening us is also CHANGING us.
John the Baptist had his own set of expectations. And he was disappointed when his cousin – when his Messiah – did not meet those expectations. But the Lord sent John’s disciples back to him with this message – a message also to you and to me this Advent season, a message that applies to every day of the year: Yes, John – I am the expected one. The works that I do demonstrate that truth to all with eyes to see and ears to hear.”
And may the Holy Spirit always help us to never take offense of our Messiah.