What Are We Waiting For?

Sunday, 15 December 2019 11:00

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" (Matthew 11:2)

In the Science base this year we got each other advent calendars. Partly because, the closer teachers get to the end of term, the more we feel the need for a sugar hit and a little bit of chocolate just hits the spot. I was saying, though, to my younger colleagues that back when I was a kid you didn’t get chocolates in advent calendars, you got little pictures, usually associated with the nativity story, when you lifted the little flaps. That was still fun, because you didn’t know what your were going to get; you didn’t know what the picture was going to be when you opened the little door. You could make a pretty good guess, but you couldn’t be sure until the door was opened.

This is the third Sunday in Advent and we’re waiting. We’re waiting to celebrate the coming of Christ into the world. We’re waiting to celebrate, again, this story that we have all known since childhood - even people like me who didn’t grow up in a Christian background. We’re waiting to sing the old familiar Christmas carols we’ve sung all our lives at this time of year. There is a sense of expectation, sure, but to a very large extent we’re pretty sure we know what we’re expecting. We’re waiting but we sort of know what we’re waiting for. Or, at least, we think we do.

If we think that, then maybe today’s text should give us pause. John the Baptist sends word to Jesus to ask if he really is the Messiah, or will there be another one along in a minute that they should be expecting. This is is John the Baptist. This is the man who proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah when he baptised him in the Jordan. This is the guy, as Jesus reminds us, about whom it was written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you. He is the herald of the Messiah. He is the man who has spent the last couple of years saying, get ready because the Messiah is coming; the one you’ve been waiting for is coming. Now here you have that same John asking, “Just checking. You really are the Messiah, aren’t you?”

Maybe things aren’t panning out in quite the way John had expected. He’s banged up in prison and Jesus is gathering a great following as a teacher and even doing some amazing miracles, but nothing that might suggest he’s going to prise the throne of David from under Herod and the Romans. Maybe what he’s been waiting for isn’t coming about quite as he expected; this Jesus has taken him a little by surprise.

Maybe that’s something we’ve lost sight of in our preparations for Christmas. There’s a comforting regularity and familiarity about everything. In nativity plays all over the country boys and girls are putting tea-towels on their heads as they have done for generations and mums are dads are eagerly awaiting the moment when their child says their line. Sue and I have put the same decorations on the Christmas tree as we have every year and I’ve put out the nativity set with the same arrangement as they’ve been in every Christmas since I got it. We all, all of us, have an image, a picture in our minds of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, often involving both the shepherds and the Magi despite them being in different gospels and certainly arriving at completely different times.

We are waiting for the coming of Christmas and, to a large extent, we think we know what we are waiting for. There’s nothing wrong with that but we should also be alert to how far Jesus surprised the folk who were waiting for the Messiah - to the extent that even John the Baptist had to check to see if he’s missed a memo. For those who were waiting for the Messiah, Jesus was a challenge. For those who were expecting a king, this was a carpenter’s son who lived all his life among the poor. For those who were expecting someone to lead the people in overthrowing the Romans, this was a teacher who taught them to carry a soldier’s pack for an extra mile. For those who were expecting a great High Priest, this was a man who strode through the courts of the Temple with a knotted rope, overturning the tables of the money-changers and driving them out.

We are waiting for the coming of Christ at Christmas. What kind of Christ are we waiting for? A Christ who will match our expectations? A Christ who will make us feel warm and snuggly and content with ourselves? A Christ who will confirm all our beliefs and values? Or a Christ who challenges us?

A Christ who challenges us to see the poorest man woman or child on the face of this earth as every bit as important, every bit as valuable, every bit as loved by the common Father of us all as the richest king in the finest robes on the most sumptuous throne. A Christ who challenges us to live in peace with each other, to reach across the barriers that drive humanity to war, conquest and vengeance and embrace our enemy as a friend. A Christ who challenges us to question what our faith, the stuff we do here in places like this and whether we bear witness to a loving and gracious God; whether we reflect in the way we do church the love, grace, and forgiveness of God and the joy of the Gospel.

A Christ who challenges us in something unexpectedly simple. We are waiting for Christmas; for the birth of a child. People have been doing that forever, but normally for nine months rather than four weeks. It’s easy, among the stars and shepherds and Magi and innkeepers and assorted donkeys and mangers to miss the point that Christ came into this world as a baby - a human baby - just as you did and I did; just as we all do. And there is no more potent symbol of human potential than a newborn baby.

What are we waiting for when we prepare for Christmas? We are waiting to celebrate a birth - a birth that challenges us just as much as it must have done so many of those who were waiting for the Messiah. The challenge that comes with Christ coming into the world as newborn child just like us. A reminder that we can, as the words of the Psalmist go, execute justice for the oppressed. We can give food to the hungry, set the prisoners free and open the eyes of the blind. We can lift up those who are bowed down, watch over strangers and uphold the orphan and the widow. That is our potential as human beings.

What are we waiting for when we prepare for Christmas? We are waiting to rejoice again that God came into this life as a newborn child to remind us of the potential we all have - the potential we have to look after one another and insist that the poorest and weakest of God’s children matter. The potential we have to recognise that those we are called on to regard as enemies are just like us. The potential we have to live out the teachings of Christ. The potential we have to grow - however old we are -  and be all that we are meant to be as children of God.

Lord we await the coming of your Son. Surprise us and challenge us. Comfort us and remind us always that we are your beloved children but remind us too that that means that we are meant to live as your son, Jesus lived and strengthen us to do so

Preached at Gretna Old parish church