Jesus the Unexpected | Matthew 11: 2-11
Updated: Dec 19, 2022
I’m sure we’ve all met someone who wasn’t quite what we expected. One of my favorite examples is when Luke Skywalker meets Master Yoda in the second Star Wars movie The Empire Strikes Back. Luke had learned from Obi-Wan that Yoda was a great Jedi master. Luke set out to meet him, landing and getting stuck in a swamp on Yoda’s planet. The only living being he found was this annoying little green creature. But Luke is excited to hear this creature knows where Yoda is. Luke follows him back to his hut, but the little creature insists on eating and tells Luke to be patient before seeing Yoda. Eventually Luke loses his patience and raises his voice. Then Yoda looks at him in a wise, knowing way and speaks to Obi-Wan from beyond the grave. After commenting on Luke’s lack of patience, Yoda reluctantly agrees to train him. Needless to say, Luke was surprised that this little green creature was actually the great Jedi master Yoda. He was completely different from what Luke expected, and yet Yoda was every bit the Jedi master he had hoped for.
In the Gospel reading today it is John the Baptist who is surprised. He confronts the unexpected. He knew he was called by God to proclaim the coming Messiah. He knew what his life was about. And he thought he had a pretty good understanding of what the Messiah’s life would be about. And he knew the moment he baptized Jesus that he was the Messiah, God’s anointed one. But now Jesus was not acting the way John felt the Messiah should be. John of all people should have had a good idea what the Messiah would be up to! You’d think the one sent to prepare the Messiah’s way would know better than anyone what to look for in the Messiah. But after a while John was arrested and Jesus wasn’t yet fulfilling what John expected out of the Messiah.
The people of John’s day didn’t expect the Messiah to be a healer or a teacher. They expected a great king and military leader like the heroes of the Old Testament. Others thought the Messiah would initiate the end times described in the Book of Daniel. Or even if the Messiah wouldn’t be a military leader, maybe he’d be a liberator like Moses who would rescue the people from Rome like Moses did from Egypt. They expected the Messiah to be somebody who would shake things up on the world stage. Somebody who would destroy their enemies and establish Israel as the great world power. Somebody who would save God’s people in worldly ways.
But Jesus wasn’t doing what anybody expected. They expected the Messiah to be a king or a military man or a liberator. A peaceful teacher and healer is NOT what John or anybody else expected. So in this text John sends his disciples to ask Jesus about himself. To see whether he is the Messiah or if they should wait for another.
Jesus’ response makes it clear that yes he is the Messiah, but in typical Jesus-style he doesn’t give a straightforward answer. Instead Jesus calls John to attentiveness, to awareness of what Jesus is doing. He invites John to see what’s happening and to gauge who the Messiah is in a different way. What do you perceive? What do you see happening? The blind receive sight, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead are raised, and the poor are brought good news. Telling John to see what’s happening is another call to mindfulness and observation. Not to think and analyze his expectations but to simply observe the truth of who Jesus is. By doing this, Jesus corrects John’s misunderstanding. And upon hearing Jesus’ answer, John can rest assured and die in peace knowing he did in fact prepare the way for the Christ.
And after this, Jesus goes on to say that John the Baptist is the greatest of the prophets. The greatest man born of woman. Whatever that means, Jesus is clearly giving him high praise. He’s making it clear that John’s doubts or misunderstandings about who the Messiah should be shouldn’t make us think any less of John. In fact, Jesus may be saying that if the greatest mere mortal ever born misunderstood who the Messiah was meant to be—then the rest of us better be humble if we ever think we’ve got God’s plans all figured out. If we ever think we understand the Messiah’s mission completely, if we ever think we understand the way things truly are, if we ever think we can wrap our minds around it and put God in a box—we better think again! Because if John the Baptist had some misunderstandings, then we should certainly carry our theories and opinions humbly!
Any Christian who feels they know all the answers needs to think twice and carry our opinions humbly. Real faith is about trust in the midst of mystery. Not certainty or getting it right. Pretending we have all the answers is more about control than trust. Convincing yourself of your certainty stunts real spiritual growth. Real faith is resting in the mystery, trusting in the midst of uncertainty.
In this past week’s email meditations from Richard Rohr, he said: “Western churches… have largely turned the very meaning of faith into its exact opposite. True faith involves not knowing and even not needing to know, but we made faith [into]…insisting that we know.” He adds, “Some think the whole meaning of Christianity [is] to be able to decide who’s going to heaven and who isn’t…This is much more a search for control than it is a search for truth, love, or God. It has to do with ego, which needs to pigeonhole everything to give itself that sense of ‘I know’ and ‘I am in control.’”
What Rohr says is precisely what Jesus is talking about here. What Jesus is teaching John and us. Teaching us to not be so sure of our own understanding. To not demand God fall in line with our expectations. Christian author Anne Lamont once joked, “We can be sure we have created God in our own image when He hates all the same people we do.”
The goal of life is not to understand God’s plan. Life is a school where we learn to manifest love and surrender to the divine flow. And so instead of a quest for certainty, the Christian journey is a life of trust in God’s guidance and discerning God’s will for us. Is what you’re doing God’s will? Is what you’re praying for God’s will? Is your understanding of God’s will actually God’s will? It requires a great deal of humility and honest self-criticism. And a willingness to re-enter that wilderness of uncertainty again and again. It can get rather confusing. And we humans prefer certainty to doubt and confusion. But it is in that wilderness, in the cloud of unknowing, where true growth happens.
By the same token, if you’re prone to experiencing doubt or being confused by the mystery or feel like you don’t understand reality all that well—then you probably “get it” more than those who are overly certain about things! That’s good news for the humble among us.
And we rest assured that Jesus didn’t require John or any of us to know exactly what the Messiah’s mission would be in order to benefit from it, in order to be loved by God. No, it is not our ability to understand that saves us. It is not right theology that saves us. Or having the right creed or doctrine. It is God’s love and grace alone that saves the world.
Because Jesus was not what anyone expected. A Messiah, born not in a palace, but in a manger. A Messiah who was not rich and powerful, but the son of a peasant carpenter. A Messiah, who would not recruit an army, but would call a group of poor fishermen and ragtag women to follow him. A Messiah who would not dine with political and military elites, but would eat with outcasts and sinners. A Messiah who would not conquer the world and defeat the Roman Empire, but who would die on the cross without even defending himself.
Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection show us that God does not do what we would expect. And as we await Christ’s birth among us in this broken world, remember that God is always full of surprises and not what we expect—and that is incredibly good news.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Brian Rajcok, 12/11/2022