Summary: John the Baptist has some pointed questions for Jesus, and sometimes, so do we. How does God respond to us in our times of weakness and disappointent with him?
The Perfect Plan. Anne and I had a perfect plan last weekend. It involved new window shades for the windows on our staircase. It was a plan that was a long time in the making. For months, Anne lurked in the tall grass of the internet. Waiting for the perfect storm of sale price and coupon. And then, with viper-like speed and precision she struck, at JCPenny.com. 50% off plus a coupon, plus free shipping. It was the trifecta of savings, the holy grail of online shopping, beautifully executed.
Then, last Saturday, came my time to contribute. And that proved to be the only variable that Anne didn’t account for. The husband factor. Anne took Killian to go get some groceries, and I dragged the step ladder to the landing with the windows. It didn’t exactly fit on the landing, but that shouldn’t stop me from trying, I mean, what could possibly go wrong with a step ladder unstable on a staircase? Well, about 10 minutes in, we found out. The ladder tipped over and jammed into the wall, and I tumbled down the steps. Not pretty.
The big savings plan didn’t work. We got the shades at a deep discount, but add on the cost of 1 new ladder, plaster patch, putty knife, 3 boxes of bandages, and a large bottle of advil, and… well, you get the picture. Things didn’t go according to plan. And just so I don’t forget any time soon, I have some great bruises and scabs to remind me. We wanted so badly for everything to go perfect, but it went off the rails.
Maybe you can relate. Maybe especially during this time of year. There is a certain hope that we have when we unpack Christmas boxes and start decorating our houses. “Maybe this will be the year everything goes EXACTLY according to plan! This year, maybe what I see and hear will match up with the scene I have in my head!” But inevitably, as if it’s a law of nature, it doesn’t. The tree is too big, someone put the turkey in the oven, but never bothered to turn the oven on. The ornament you can’t find, the family member who can’t come over, the Pastor who doesn’t put the right hymns in the service, the one light that takes out the whole strand! SO MUCH CAN GO WRONG! There are all kinds of ways to mess up Advent and Christmas, it’s not even funny.
And I’m going to say, “good.” That’s right, “good!” I can’t think of better Advent and Christmas lesson for us to learn than what we learn in those moment. The moments when things don’t go the way we expected, or our plans don’t work out the way we wanted, or when reality doesn’t match up with finely painted fantasies about the season. Good.
Because Christmas and Advent aren’t celebrations of fantasies, or wishes, or even our best laid plans. They are celebrations of a very real Jesus, born into a very real world. And a Jesus who does his ministry in ways that often surprise us, sometimes confuse us, and let’s be honest, even frustrate us at times. It’s good for us to be shaken out of our self-focus and be confronted by a God who has his very own ways, and means and methods. Ways of operating that are always higher, and better and more significant than our own. And ways that very rarely match up with how we think things should be, or how we would do things, or according to the ways we thing things should work.
Is anyone unhappy with me yet? We’re not supposed to talk this way during this time of year are we? But we can’t get around it. Everything I just said is written write there in the Gospel lesson. We have to talk about it. John the Baptist cannot be avoided. Not last week, and not this week either. But before we talk about this particular passage, let’s go back and talk a little about who John the Baptist is. First off, he’s not Baptist. He’s not Lutheran either. But he was a guy of whom the prophets had been foretelling centuries before he came.
If you go all the way back to 1 Kings, you will meet a prophet named Elijah who confronted Kings and the establishment of the day. His message was one of firey judgment and redemption. In the first chapter of 2 Kings we read about how he dressed, “He was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist.” We read about how Elijah was taken up to heaven on a chariot of gold, but the Bible makes it clear that this isn’t the last time someone like him will walk on the earth. At the end of Malachi, the last prophet, we read these stirring words: