Get Your Hopes Up

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | December 11, 2022

Matthew 11:2-11

The older we get the more we learn how to deal with disappointment. I remember as a child being told, “Don’t get your hopes up.” It was a way of saying that if you aren’t hopeful, then you won’t be disappointed.

But we do get our hopes up and sometimes it works out – we can say, “It was everything I hoped for and more.”

And sometimes it doesn’t work out –

          the investment goes bad;

          The event was not as promised;

          The person we trusted didn’t follow through;

          The relationship faltered.

We live and learn and hopefully gain some wisdom from experience. The experience of disappointment is part of what makes hope so vital. Disappointment can sharpen hope; it refines it; it provides focus. On those occasions when hopes are realized, the disappointments become less of a burden.

Maybe though there are times when hope needs to be disappointed.

When hope is based on unrealistic expectations;

When it is founded in lies;

When its substance is illusion.

Sometimes we need the disappointment to point us in the right direction.

In today’s story from Matthew’s portrait of Jesus it would seem that John the Baptist was disappointed in Jesus. He had made these grand pronouncements about the Messiah and Jesus was not living up to his expectations.

He inquired of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

Might we too wonder if Jesus is up to the task of our life’s challenges?

In reading his story, the biographers who told his story in the four gospels were sometimes brutally honest. They told of how Jesus didn’t always do what people expected him to do; what they wanted him to do.

When he was 12 years old, he angered his parents by wandering off during a family outing. When he spoke in the synagogue of his hometown, the people who had known him all his life thought he was trying to rise above his station, so they tried to throw him over a cliff. In the Temple he overturned the tables of the moneychangers. The religious authorities were constantly working against him. His closest followers were often at odds with him. They wanted him to be more forceful. Or they wanted him to back off. He called one of them Satan. Even his own mother and brothers wanted to have him locked up in the attic.

It’s as if whenever he did some amazing thing, like walk on water, there was always someone around who found something wrong with it.

So, there were doubts. He who said, “This is the One we’ve been waiting for” apparently wondered if he made a mistake.

The Messiah needed to act a certain way. Where was the baptism by fire that John promised? Where were the power and the glory, the thunder and the lightning? John had set the stage for the entrance of the Messiah. John was charismatic. He was powerful. John said that when the Messiah comes, he will be greater still. You haven’t seen anything yet. The axe is poised to chop. When the Messiah comes it’s going to be big. Things are just getting started.

John was arrested and thrown in prison. He had criticized powerful people. It was one thing to ignite religious passion in the peasants, but when he was critical of the king’s morals, he over-stepped his bounds. Maybe it didn’t matter to John because the Messiah was here, and John’s work was complete. Or maybe the Messiah would come to his rescue. He didn’t expect to rot in prison, though.

What should have happened was that the Messiah would sweep the scoundrels out of power. The Roman oppressors and their lackeys would find their necks under the foot of God’s messenger. Fire and brimstone would fall upon the unrighteous. Their heads were supposed to be the vintage where the grapes of wrath were stored. God was supposed to do some trampling.

It didn’t quite turn out that way. John was stuck in prison and the things he heard about Jesus made him to wonder if maybe he had been a bit hasty. Jesus wasn’t shaking things up. There were no more crowds at the riverbank. He wasn’t recruiting an army. He was quietly going about his work, talking about things like “blessed are the meek.” Not summoning a horde of angels but collecting a small group of common folks; people who worked with their hands and bent their backs for a living.

John sent some of his people to ask Jesus what the deal was. They asked, “John wants to know, are you the one, or should we look for someone else?”

It’s difficult to respond when someone tells you, “You’re not living up to my expectations.”

It’s one thing if we are open to constructive criticism – if we’re trying to improve in some way.

It’s an entirely different matter if we don’t agree with the premise of someone’s criticism. There’s no good way to respond to the loaded question by recognizing the validity of its premise.

It would be like if someone goes to an Italian restaurant and complains to the manager, “Why don’t you have sushi on your menu?!”

The way Jesus answered the question echoed the voice from the burning bush to Moses: I am who am.  

Jesus told John’s people “Tell John what 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.”

He didn’t try to justify himself. Simply, if you are not seeing God at work and if you aren’t hearing it, then no amount of explanation on my part will be enough. The realm of God is coming into view, one leper at a time, one outcast at a time, one life transformed, and one lost sheep back in the fold at a time.

“What you see and hear.” He was pointing people to the realm of God. It was a different way of seeing; a different way of listening. It was not to be found in a new political system or power structure. What Jesus brought to bear was based upon a heart and soul reality; the realization that “God is with us.”

We can be possessive of things that are important to us; especially our religion. History is filled with examples of people acting out of their need to prove their loyalty to God through violence.

Jesus taught a different kind of loyalty. He introduced a radical new concept about God, that God is as close as one’s own parents and that the relationship between God and humanity is like that between loving parents and their children. It is not about fear and retribution, but kinship and love.

It is an easy step for us to move from “Our Father” as in the God to whom I belong and with whom I am in loving relationship, to “Our Father” who is ours, defined by us, and whose actions are determined by our motives and desires. Once that happens, we start thinking we have to defend our image of God. The more we assume ownership of Jesus, the more we will view his mission as one to fulfil our desires. We start seeing God’s will as writing our own happy endings.

History has seen its share of religious over-kill based on the idea, “God is on our side.” As long is God is on our side, we can do anything. Anything usually ends up with killing people, labelling them, out-casting them, and finding ways to convince them that true devotion measured by how much money they give.

It’s not wrong to want to be on the same side with God. But in coming to grips with the idea that “God is with us,” we need to distinguish the difference between God “on our side” and we on the side of God.

God is in every way for you and on your side. But to realize the truth of that reality, we can’t expect to give God a makeover. I’ve been there and done that in many different ways.

What I learned is that if people aren’t buying, it doesn’t matter what the package looks like. Now it’s more a matter simply introducing people to Jesus. Not in a “Are You Saved!” kind of way, but simply by trying to live in a way that speaks for the love and justice that he stood for.

The way that Jesus pointed out is a way we might even consider subversive. He never said, “Let’s everybody get together and do a great thing for God.” He said things like, He said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

He said, “Blessed are the poor in the spirit, the meek, those who mourn and the peacemakers.” 

The way of life that he talked about and demonstrated through his actions is subtle. Rather than saying what it is, exactly, he said “it’s like . . .”

Like a treasure buried in a field; like a lost coin; like a father keeping watch for a wandering child; like a sower throwing seed to the wind; like a small seed that grows into a big plant. As if to say almost, you see it out of the corner of your eye. You realize it when you’re not paying attention. It’s full of irony and mystery.

Jesus said, “Happy is the one who has no doubts about me.” There are two ways to arrive at such happiness. One way is to shrink the gospel to a convenient size; to remove anything difficult about it; to turn it into a set of rules and doctrines. Then there is nothing to doubt because everything about can be known.

The other way is to realize the gospel is too big to contain, too vast to measure and too deep to ever reach the bottom of; it is to realize that at its core is the person of Jesus, beckoning us follow him; where the journey goes and how it ends up are a mystery, but that’s what makes it worth the effort. Even if it ends at a cross, there’s always the hope of resurrection. Amen.

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