“The biggest difference between you and God is that God doesn't think he's you.”
- Annie Lamott
John the Baptist had been a faithful follower of Jesus, faithful since the womb. He’d been the voice calling in the wilderness, the voice proclaiming the Messiah was coming: “Wait, wait until you meet Jesus,” he’d said, “I’m not even fit to tie his shoes...”
John had been the prophetic poster child for belief, for patience, for “you won’t believe your eyes,” and faithful expectation. “I have seen and testify that this is the Son of God,” he’d told them once. And everyone believed him.
But at this point in the story, John seems to have lost his patience.
“So, Jesus, are you the Messiah or should we be waiting for someone else?”
Why is John asking this question at this point in the story? Always before, he’d seemed so sure.
Well, he’s in prison, for starters. Most of us haven’t been in many, unless we count A&B Burgers in the ol’ Salem prison. Still. Most of us, I’d imagine, know the feeling of being trapped, of waiting, and maybe we’ve gotten a little impatient with God too.
When will you act, God, like you said you would? Should I be looking for something else?
The prophets taught that one of the markers of the Messiah was that he would release the captives and set the prisoners free. If Jesus was the Messiah, he should have had the keys to the prison at his fingertips. So, if Jesus wasn’t breaking John out of there, then was he really the Messiah after all?
It was a natural question, and I’d say a pretty good one. It can be harder to wait on God when you’re stuck behind prison bars, and the one you expected to break you out...isn’t.
John had seemed so confident before, seemed to believe, to know that Jesus was the Messiah, that he would do everything that he promised. But in this moment, the moment perhaps, when he’s realizing that sunlight will always be a memory, that maybe he's in prison for good, that he wants to know - needs to know - with more certainty.
He expected Jesus to redeem them from Roman oppression, to usher in the Messianic Era, and what Jesus is doing in the meantime...it isn’t enough. So John asks the question - maybe we need to be looking somewhere else because you’re not acting like we thought the Messiah would.
And what about you? What have you been expecting of the Messiah?
We all come to life with expectations for the way things are supposed to be:
This is what life will look like when I lose weight...when she asks me out...when we buy a house in that neighborhood...when I get accepted into this school... when I get promoted...when we can retire...
This is what God will do in my life, this is what my spiritual life will look like when...
If I just pray hard enough, then God will...
We thought Jesus was going to do one thing and he didn’t. We thought life was going to be one way and it wasn’t. And we can start to wonder after awhile if it’s worth the surrender of our soul’s allegiance to this God who makes promises on his terms and in his time...or if it would be better to grab for ourselves whatever we can get in the meantime.
And sometimes the longer that we wait, the harder it seems. When God doesn't do what we expected him to, it can make us question what he's doing at all. “Just have faith!” we sometimes tell each other, as if our Faith-O-Meter can be turned back on at the flip of a switch. And in those moments when God himself hasn’t met our expectations, it can be tempting to turn toward him and say,
"You’re not acting like we expected you would. Are you really all that good, all that all-powerful? Are you really the Messiah or should we be waiting for someone else?"
Jesus was surrounded by people with all sorts of expectations about the kind of Messiah they thought he should be. And sometimes those people are you and me. Jesus wasn't acting like John expected him to and his faith started to falter. And I'd imagine most of us know that feeling - how easy it is to give our expectations the trump card, as if we know what’s best in the moment and for the world. We want things to be as we’d make them. We want the Messiah to do what we'd want him to. And if God created us in his image, wrote Voltaire, then "we have more than returned the favor.”
But in the end, if we live that way, we’ll end up with a god who looks just like us and a world we’ve created to suit our tastes, desires, wills, and expectations. It sounds good at first. Maybe. But as I really think about it, I’m not all that sure I want to be God after all. I don’t want my expectations to play out in the universe, not really, not when I look at the mess humanity’s made of the world.
The good news is that God has something better in mind for you than anything you’ve imagined you want or think you need. He’s here to break you out, to set you free, and to fill you with himself.
C.S. Lewis put it this way:
“Christ says, ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. Hand over the whole self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked - the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.’”
When we allow him to give us our identities instead of trying to assign him one, our priorities change into his priorities. What he wants for us becomes the desire of our hearts. Jesus can only be the Messiah for us when we release all our expectations of who we think he should be and what we think he should do.
And in this knowledge, Jesus responds to John and to all of us who find ourselves in prison at one time or another, all of us who find ourselves in dark places, questioning the so-called good news we'd always before banked our lives on.
“Go give John the evidence,” Jesus responds.
We are always looking for evidence and here, Jesus gives it.
The evidence, the proof John needed was found in the word of the disciples, the story of what they’d seen with their own eyes, brought back to prison for John who couldn’t see it behind his prison walls.
Sometimes, when we can’t see the Messiah moving, when we can’t see beyond our own prisons, when our faith won't extend beyond our own disappointments, we can trust the Church to trust for us, to witness what they’ve seen and heard. And even when we’re doubting, even when we can’t see, we can put our hope in what others have seen and experienced of Christ.
Just before Dietrich Bonhoeffer was thrown into a Nazi prison for his participation in an assassination plot against Hitler, he wrote this:
“The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged...He needs his brother as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation....solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”
This is the gift of the Church, that we don’t have to have faith alone, to see alone, to know alone. The Church witnesses for us and with us and to us, and even when we’re locked in a dark holding cell, when we've found ourselves waiting on a God we’ve just about given up on, we can lean on the light our community has seen on our behalf.
“Come and see,” Jesus was always saying, inviting, beckoning, drawing us in. But when you’re blinded by your own prison, sometimes the “see” needs to come to you. Eyes, we have need of thee...
Pastor Brynn Harrington
As you examine your life, are there any expectations of God you’re trusting in more than you trust in God himself? What would it look like today to release God from your expectations of who you think he should be and what you think he should do? How have you seen the "evidence" of Jesus in your own life in the past? Is there anyone in your life who might need a reminder of God's light today?
Blessed are you, O Lord my God, King of the Universe, and blessed are you that you are king and not I. Grant me a malleable heart and moldable character that I may find wisdom in discerning wants from expectations, needs from desires. Free me from the burden of expectations where you have promised naught, and empower me to expect everything you have, and hopefully. In the name of the Messiah, I pray. Amen
In our day of mobility, it’s easy to expect to get where we want, when we want. Today, if it’s possible, take public transportation to and from home. If its not, try parking as far from the door as possible. As you take the extra few minutes to get where you need to go, reflect on the questions for consideration above.
Pastor Aaron Engler
- Lk. 1:41.
- Mk. 1:7.
- Jn. 1:34.
- Is. 61:1.
- Long, Thomas. What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith.
- Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity.
- Psalm 37:4
- Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together.
- Jn. 1:39.
- 1 Cor. 12:15-16.