He’s Not What I Thought He’d Be

Many will say this when they meet Messiah.

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Based on a message by Rev. Ann Markle

Psalm 85:7-13; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18


   Every year during Advent season preachers look at the same group of Gospel texts and try to slice off a little meat left from the last twenty times.  Sometimes what we get is not what we thought it would be.

Exploring the Messianic Secret in Mark's Gospel
By John Michael Perry / Sheed & Ward

John Michael Perry argues that Mark attempted to show that God had a secret Messianic purpose for Jesus that was contrary to what Jews expected. Perry further argues that Mark used biblical texts in his history to show that God's purpose was revealed to Jesus at his baptism and that Jesus knew he was secretly destined for rejection. However, Perry thinks that there is good evidence to support the idea that Jesus did not learn that he was the secret Messiah until after the resurrection. Still, Perry argues that there is much in Mark's theology that has value today, despite the difference between Mark version of history and the actual history. John Michael Perry is a professor of Religious Studies at Stritch College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


   Our last child to leave home did so four years ago this month.  We learned a saying from her that I’d like to pass on to you today.  She and I were once driving through a bad section of Mobile.  She shouted, “Stop here.”  I slammed on the breaks  “The place I’ve been looking for is over there.”  It was a drugstore and she needed the $6 lipstick.  She had a coupon and knew exactly what she wanted.  “I’ll go in with you -- that’s a rough place.”  She said, “No, I can do it myself now.  It’ll only take a second I know exactly the one I want.”

   So I pulled up and waited for her nearly 20 minutes.  Finally I went in to find out what was happening to her, and of course, she was a little short of money.  “Are you sure that’s what you want?”  “Yeah, this is the one.”  So we were finally on our way.

   She took out the lipstick, screwed it open, rubbed it all over her mouth, and looked in the vanity mirror.  Then she took out a tissue and wiped it all off.  She wadded up the tissue and the lipstick and stuffed them into the glove compartment.  “What’d you do that for?”  “I didn’t like it.”  “I thought you knew exactly what you were looking for!”  “I did.  I’ve wanted it for a long time.  But it isn’t what I thought it was going to be.”

   “It isn’t was I thought it was going to be.”  We were to hear that little number over and over again.  I told here, “What a waste of money.  Take it out and through it in the street.”  “OK,” she said, but she didn’t do it.  By the next afternoon, the cheap lipstick had melted all over the inside of the glove compartment.  It wasn’t what I though it was going to be, either. 


John Was Wrong

   In reading the expectations of John the Baptist from our Gospel portion today, we wonder how he could understand the real Jesus so rightly in so many ways but so wrongly in others?  It’s so easy for us to consider Jesus, his mission and history through the 20/20 hindsight of two thousand years, but not so easy for the prophets and people who came before him with their expectations and predictions.  We consider the people of John’s day to be pretty simple in their ability to understand the deep realities of theology, for they were common folk.  But the fact is, they were not all that simple or uninformed.  They debated theology and tried to understand the plan of Yahweh for their future through the only oracle they had to work with -- the cryptic sentences and poems of ecstatic prophets, six hundred years old already. 


The Waiting Game

   The problem with their speculation came through long centuries of waiting. Five hundred years before John’s words, Yahweh’s people suffered defeat by a huge army of heathens; they had been taken into exile; they had been reduced from the grandeur of Solomon to a people without even a homeland.  Many thought they were also without their god.  Ever since the exile, people waited for a Savior with King David's warfare genius who would vindicate and raise them once again to a position of worldly glory as Yahweh's chosen. So they waited and waited in expectation.

   They waited while they were conquered and taxed and oppressed and crucified by nation after nation, heathen after heathen. They waited while their leaders and women and children were forced to become slaves and worse than slaves. Those who prospered to some degree were reviled, seen as enemy agents, labeled as scumballs.

   Through waiting, the tide turned for a while.  The Macabbees triumphed temporarily, the desecrated temple was rededicated, the systems of worship were restored.  And in John’s day, nearly 200 years later, full redemption was in the wind. But the people were still oppressed by a great and powerful beast -- Rome. Surely all those years of faithfulness, survival, rebuilding, would come to fruition soon.

   People could just feel it coming!  The faithful, their prophets and teachers, thought they knew exactly what the Savior would be like from the Scripture pictures. They knew David, they knew Moses, the psalmist, Zechariah, Zephaniah, Malachi and the other prophets.

   Then along came John: he was an odd, charismatic and fearlessly religious man.  He shouted in the colorful language of the old-time prophets as the voice of Yahweh from the wilderness of sin.  John’s proclamation was to get ready now, that the day was very near now.  Some believed that John himself might actually be Yahweh’s Messiah.  He baptized; he demanded they repent and turn their lives into the wind of the Messiah’s chariots of fire.

   The people knew what was required of them in the waiting period -- caring for the poor, sharing their food, clothing and goods, keeping Yahweh's commandments.  But they simply didn’t do what they knew was required.  We know what we’re supposed to do also, don't we?  Those first century waiters simply didn’t take their instruction seriously any more than we 21st century waiters do.  Then and now, lives are full of important things like making a living, caring for families, buying cheap lipstick.  The Kingdom had taken too long.  The waiting was too tedious.  Too many preachers had come and gone.  It could be another couple hundred years, for all we know. 


John Was Right

   John was right on about some things: the Messiah was coming very soon. The Messiah would, in fact, baptize with the Holy Spirit and water when he came. The Messiah would scold the people of Israel, teach them wrong from right; and he would do all this in Yahweh's sacred name. People need to get ready, to make the crooked ways straight, to turn their lives around, to prepare a way and a place for Immanuel.

   But John also had some things wrong. John and his people expected a warrior-Messiah, who would chop and burn and crumble the enemy to dust, and thus put Israel back on top. But contrary to expectations, this Messiah came and conquered through love, through radical inclusivity, through weakness, through ultimate surrender to the heavenly Father, who let his Son, their Messiah, die in a most public and indecent way.  Like the melted lipstick, Jesus wasn’t what they thought he would be.

   He came as a helpless baby wrapped in a dirty diaper. He didn’t descend from the clouds in a spaceship. He didn’t spring from the head of Jehovah.  He was conceived in a young, unmarried girl, born in the midst of oppression and chaos, considered by all to be a bastard, and was publicly nailed to a cross as a common criminal. He was certainly not what anyone thought he was going to be. Remember how John later sent men to ask Jesus if he was, in fact, the one whom John proclaimed him to be?  He doubted because this Messiah was no David.


What Kind of Messiah?

   This lesson brings a question that demands an answer.  Are we awaiting the coming of a Savior?  Then what are we waiting for?  What are you waiting for in your life?  For kids to be grown?  For retirement from some burn-out job?  For death, then heaven or hell?  For "things to get back to normal"?  What kind of Messiah are you awaiting now?  The gentle Jesus, meek and mild, who will cradle us in his arms like a lost sheep, put us up in mansions or deluxe retirement homes and never challenge us to do anything extraordinary?  Perhaps we’re waiting for the grizzly and violent prophet, who will raise up the lowly and crush the rich folks?   Maybe you’re waiting to find out if your opinion is right about the coming of the Messiah.  I’d certainly like to be proven right about at least some of my hair-brained theories.  Wouldn’t you like to be right?  Wouldn’t you like to get what you expect and not some cheap imitation?

   We need to be prepared to be unprepared, or be prepared to be surprised, maybe even disappointed, maybe even afraid of what the next Messiah turns out to be. Does this idea seem so radical?  Some saw George W. Bush as the Messiah who would save the US from the liberals.  Well, you didn’t get what you expected.  He’s nothing like you thought he’d be.  We need to be prepared for the unexpected.

   Next, consider what you need to do personally to get ready for the kind of Messiah you expect?  Eighty-four percent of Americans make new year’s resolutions to do something; 48% make them to quit something.  If you’re like me, you have a substantial list of self-improvements to make, but what priority on our lists is making preparation for Messiah’s advent?  Should we resolve to do what we feel we should do?  Or should we lay our feelings aside and commit to the Scriptural plan of preparation?  These are difficult questions to answer.  There are no right or wrong answers, just honest answers or dishonest answers. 


Word vs Tradition

   There’s always a price to be paid for crossing lines of tradition.  There’s always a certain rebellious spirit set loose when lost truths are pried free from the crust of custom.  The type of preparation that’s prescribed by Scripture doesn’t play well against Christian traditions because it’s just too Hebrew, too foreign.  What we must understand is that our Lord sprung from the stem of Jesse and it’s back to that stem we must go if we are to be grafted into the Christ tree.

   Speaking of trees, I appreciate your willingness to remove the Tannenbaum from the sanctuary this year.  Long before I came ‘round, some folks recognized that an idol is still an idol, no matter how it’s dressed.  Think of the lipstick -- its melting in the glove compartment didn’t make it any less lipstick.  The absence of a Christmas tree may seem a little thing, but it’s a huge leap in preparing the way of the Lord.

   I appreciate those who now appropriate the sacred name Yahweh instead of just grumbling because it breaks with their tradition.  Resolving to use the sacred name is far more beneficial than quitting smoking or going on a diet for 2002.  Other preparations being made here are changing us for the better, the holier, the more appropriate.  I believe He appreciates his people’s willingness to turn from Ba’al to the revealed truth of Scriptural preparation.  The best is yet to come for those who prepare rightly.

   Let me now ask you if you need a broader vision.  Are you the type that says, “We’ve always done it that way?”  Then you really do need a broader vision of just who your Messiah might turn out to be.  Do you worship the Bible but only know what’s in it from the prophets of Ba’al’s on TV?  Then you need a clearer revelation of your coming King.  Do you feel comfortable and cozy in the armchair of your waiting style?  You’ve arrived and should take over the preaching or you need a more risky vision.


Advent Questions

 ("Facts About Christmas" is the hot search phrase right now)

   Because Advent celebrates both comings of the Messiah, it gives us wonderful encouragement to ask all sorts of questions. Questioning tradition or perception, while unsettling and provoking, is also edifying.  The staircase to higher faith is full of creaky steps of doubt.  Questioning what you’ve always taken for granted is a great way to flex your spiritual muscles. You see, we're waiting. Waiting, and trying to get ready. We're not sure of what kind of Messiah is in the cloud. But Scripture promises that those prepared for the unexpected will not be disappointed; his coming will be really, really good. A heart's desire.  A desire of nations.

   Now we can see how John got it wrong in expecting the dire and disastrous, rather than the burning, purifying, vulnerable love of the realized Jesus. And we can also see that John got it right in that we need to repent and get ready. There's more to do in this season of preparation than to buy presents, bake cookies, trim the tree and sing worn-out hymns. We need to make straight his pathways and prepare to meet our Lord, whatever shape he may take.

   Today I ask you to resolve to question your long-held priorities, motives, beliefs, religion and tradition.  He may not be what you thought he was going to be!  With Advent, you’ve been granted entry into another new year to wait and prepare.  We are thankful.  What will we do with your year for his sake?  {Two minute envisioning session.}