There is a strong contrast between Advent and Christmas. It is a little like the contrast between waiting to have a baby, and then actually having that baby. When I was expecting Lilibeth, I had lots of ideas about what he or she would be like: first and foremost, would it be a boy or a girl; what colour eyes would the baby have; would the baby take after me; and most important of all would the child be fit and healthy. So I waited for the baby to come and I tried to get things ready as best as I could with so little knowledge of what to expect. But when Lilibeth arrived, everything changed. It was a little like I thought it would be, but also very different. Lilibeth looked more like her Dad. She was a girl (obviously). She takes more after my Mum than she does me. Her eyes are the same colour as my Dad’s. But the biggest difference is in the way I felt and viewed the world. The moment that I held my beautiful little girl in my arms I knew that my life would never be the same again, and nor would I ever want it to be. I had experienced what it is like to feel true unconditional love at first sight, and no amount of preparation and expectation could prepare me for that, knowing that I was now responsible for another human being for whom I would gladly lay down my life if I ever needed to. And because of this I truly grasped how much God loves us; after all He too was prepared to give his life for us.
During Advent we get ready. We get ready to celebrate the birth of another baby and we get ready for his coming again. Once Jesus came into the world, things were never the same again. Never. Now Jesus was not the kind of saviour that everyone had in mind; in fact it was a bit like the difference between the expectation and the reality of Lilibeth’s arrival. Jesus was a different kind of baby. No prince, although we call him the prince of peace. And certainly no king, although we call him the king of kings. He was born to regular working people. Not in Jerusalem. Not to a rabbi. But to Mary and Joseph. The people of Israel had been waiting more than 500 years for him. Prophet after prophet had expected him to come and save them.
The last prophet before Jesus came was John the Baptist. John was just a few years ahead of Jesus, and he warned the people to prepare for Jesus.
Now, in today’s Gospel from Matthew, we find John in prison and he hears that people are talking a good deal about a young man, a teacher and preacher, who is very different than any they had seen before. And John, the prophet who came to herald the coming of Christ –is not sure what is going on. So he sends word to Jesus, “Are you the one?”
And that is a question for the whole world. We live in a world that celebrates Christmas, but gives very little thought to what Christmas is. In a very real sense it is still unthinkable for us to understand that God came among us, not valuing the wealth and human comforts we value. God came among us living in a working-class home in an occupied country, and his idea of saving had nothing to do with taking down the Roman army.
It is a little like giving birth, and finding out the baby is nothing like you thought he or she would be. Today, even John the Baptist isn’t sure. But Jesus has the answer. And it is simple. He tells John’s followers: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
The saviour of Israel did not come riding on a white steed, taking up armour against the enemy. Rather he came walking, healing all that came to him and preaching the good news. And that is John’s answer.
We are an Advent people. We have the great joy of Jesus, the Messiah. And we have been asked to wait for him to come again. To prepare and to wait. And from time to time, some people will believe that “the One” has returned. This has happened a few times during my life. There was a fellow named Jim Jones who led people off to live in a commune, and some thought he was the one. There was a fellow named David Koresh, who said he was the one, and people went with him to live in his commune in Waco, Texas.
The truth is we are tired of waiting. We Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Christ to come again. Perhaps we have not always waited very well, but we have been waiting. And it is normal for us to want to ask, “Are you the One?” But Jesus told us how to figure it out. If we think we have found the Christ, we can expect that he would be healing people in large numbers. We can expect he would be preaching the good news, and especially among the poor and marginalised. It is unlikely that he would instruct his followers to come live with him in a cloistered environment, forgetting the poor and the needy outside the chosen group; probably he would move around a good deal and would be found ruffling feathers amongst the establishment. In any case, it is not likely that he or she would be here to meet our expectations of a saviour.
Christmas has become popular throughout the world. But not Advent. Waiting for the unknown is difficult. Celebrating is fun. But celebrations ring hollow when we don’t know what it is we are celebrating.
This week I was unfortunate enough to catch a little bit of some Christmas home and cookery programme on the TV hosted by a young woman in her mid-20’s. She took us through turkeys stuffed with mashed potatoes, to wire mesh Christmas tree ornaments and table setting with pine cones and bricks sprayed gold. It was pretty much the celebrating of Christmas without a reason. But it was television, and I wasn’t expecting much. Then she said something that woke me up. She said it was important to remember what Christmas is all about. Great, I thought. We’re going to hear something about Jesus. But what she said was, “The real meaning of Christmas is the family dinner.”
Something is lost; something very big is lost, when Christmas is celebrated without Christ. And when we celebrate Christ, we have to remember that God gave us what we needed, not what we wanted. God is not Santa Claus looking at our list of wants. Santa celebrates God, but God is bigger than that. Santa is just a little part of the celebration.
The real celebration, the true celebration has something to do with God caring so much for us that he came and lived among us. Not as a prince but as a healer. Not as a warrior, but a bringer of peace. Jesus came as someone worth waiting for, the fulfilment of the great prophecies of old, the prophecies of the Messiah. Jesus is the good news.
The prophet Isaiah wrote, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray. “
And if not even fools go astray, there is hope for us all. Amen.