Matthew 3 "Advent Disappointment?"
While preparing some food in the kitchen the day before Thanksgiving recently, I had the radio on and caught most of an interview with the New Testament theologian John Dominic Crossan. As some of you may know, Crossan is one of the leading scholars in the Jesus Seminar and is renowned for both his scholarship and his very liberal viewpoints. At one point in this interview, however, Crossan said something quite intriguing--in fact, I found it sufficiently intriguing as to conclude that this may be one point on which I agree with this man whom I otherwise find to be rather disagreeable.
The interviewer mentioned the current fascination with apocalyptic topics as fueled especially by the "Left Behind" novels to which I referred also last Sunday morning. Crossan asserted that what explains this fundamentalist and evangelical fervor for Jesus' second coming is disappointment over his first advent. Despite all the enthusiasm with which Christians have always celebrated Easter and the like, when Jesus left this earth, the people who had crucified Jesus were still in power. Jesus' victory was, in the end, a hidden victory, something you hold on faith because the world you can see with your eyes seems to have continued on its merry, but evil, way. But there have always been some who have thought that Jesus' victory should have been easier to spy, something more dramatic.
Indeed, just before Jesus ascended to heaven, even the disciples with him that day asked, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" In other words, they were still hankering for Jesus to kick in Caesar's teeth, squash Pontius Pilate, and give old King Herod a good thrashing, too, thus restoring the political fortunes of Israel as a nation. Crossan thinks that some Christians are still asking that question and are eager to see their Jesus return not as the meek and mild parable-teller and gracious sin-forgiver portrayed in the gospels but as someone who looks a little more like Braveheart with a dash of Schwarzenegger thrown in. It's no secret that the recently released concluding installment of the "Left Behind" series shows Jesus coming back with fire in his eyes, melting, imploding, squashing to jelly, and so wiping out those who opposed his Church.
On the first Sunday in Advent last week, we thought about Jesus' second coming on clouds of glory. We said then that the only reason to celebrate his first advent in Bethlehem was if he really was God's Son in the flesh. But if he really was God's Son in the flesh, then that means he will come again, and so the Season of Advent is about both Jesus' birth in a stable and the other advent yet to come. I think we made it clear last week that our Christian anticipation of Jesus' return need not be fueled by what Dr. Crossan claims nor need it be tied to some bloodlust we secretly harbor as we hope to see our opponents annihilated.
Still, and as I alluded to a moment ago, that is not to say that Crossan isn't on to something. It seems likely that even as the original disciples were hoping for a little more brawn and bravado from their Lord, so some today are still hoping for the same thing. But as Matthew 3 shows, longing for a stronger Jesus goes back even farther than that. Disappointment in Jesus began with no less than John the Baptist. Of course, there is little disappointment in Matthew 3 itself, but the seeds for John's famous let-down in Matthew 11 are sown here. So on this second Sunday in Advent and as we prepare for a celebration of the Lord's Supper, let's look at John's rhetoric in this chapter. Let's see what John says about how he thought Jesus would act so that we can see also what this kind of talk eventually did to John. In the end, John learned a hard lesson. As we approach our Lord's table in a few moments, we would do well to review that lesson for ourselves.
As we've noted before, John the Baptist was the most famous preacher of his generation. People walked for miles just to hear this man and to watch his somewhat theatrical way of preaching. He was a sight to see, all right, but it was his message that arrested people's hearts. Even people who deemed themselves quite devout before they showed up at the Jordan River ended up going home soaking wet having been baptized by John. Even people who had no intention of confessing their sins suddenly found themselves welling up with tears, telling God how sorry they were, and getting dunked into those muddy waters only to emerge spiritually clean and refreshed.
Of course, like all preachers, John didn't get through to everybody. Some who came to the Jordan with no intention of getting taken in by this man stuck to that determination pretty fiercely. The religious leaders provided John the opportunity to cut loose with his strongest language. "Sneaky snakes!" John fairly howled! "Somebody set the field on fire and out slithered you all! Well, I'm here to tell you that the days of resting on your laurels are over. Don't whip out your Members Only temple gold card--your theological credentials cut no ice with me! Don't tell me about your spiritual lineage or that you are Abraham's children because if God wanted more children of Abraham, he'd turn the stones into a whole bunch of them. But that's just the problem, isn't it? Your hearts are as dead as stone already. God wants living trees producing juicy spiritual fruit. If I were you, I'd get serious about that because I'm here to lay the groundwork and clear a path for Somebody big and strong who is coming any minute now. He's coming with a very sharp axe in his hand and he will chop down and burn to ashes dead trees like you all!"
This was amazing stuff. It shook people up. It would shake us up. In this country we just came through a political season that some described as rancorous and harsh. But compared to John the Baptist, even our politics look downright polite. But what made John dare to do this was his ardent belief that the Messiah whose way he was preparing was going to be even more impressive, even more willing to mix it up with the powers that be. Jesus would come with a winnowing fork, a large and deadly axe, and a baptism of fire. John knew that any day now he would be eclipsed as the most famous fire-and-brimstone preacher of his generation, and that was just fine by him.
Verse 12 ends with John spitting out the words, "Unquenchable fire!" But despite the break you see in your Bibles, the text itself has no such break. Verse 12 slides right into verse 13. We go immediately from unquenchable fire to Jesus' arrival. He shows up even as John is saying those very words. But at first John didn't notice him, and that's where the trouble began. John finally spied Jesus standing in the baptism line, shuffling forward toward the river along with everyone else and, frankly, looking like everyone else, too. So John rushed over. "What are you doing," he whispered feverishly into Jesus' ear. "This is your moment. Go ahead! Take charge! You baptize me and then you can turn your fire loose on those Pharisees I was just yelling at."
But Jesus waved his hand in John's face and said, "No. Just go with this, John. If you baptize me, it will be the first step in making everything right again." So John consents. He baptizes the Son of God for no reason he could see. And when Jesus emerges from the water, what looked like a dove fluttered down upon his head. And John started to feel disappointed. A dove! Not a hawk, not an eagle, but a gentle and mild dove. After that, Jesus promptly disappears into the heat vapors rising up off the desert floor.
Maybe it was the dove that tipped John off. Before Thanksgiving last month, I heard again something many of you probably know: namely, Benjamin Franklin hated the idea that the bald eagle would become the national symbol of the newly formed United States. Franklin didn't much like eagles and anyway eagles are not native to North America. Franklin favored an indigenous bird that he considered far more noble: the turkey. Now maybe if Franklin had prevailed, we never would have started to use the word "turkey" as a way to call someone dumb or silly. Maybe we'd eat eagle on Thanksgiving Day and somehow see in the turkey the very embodiment of our nation. Maybe. But I don't know. It's hard to imagine any President of the United States speaking from lecterns emblazoned with the presidential seal with a tom turkey right in the center!
Something like that may have occurred to John when he saw the dove. It was a dove, not a hawk. To this day the terms "dove" and "hawk" are used to describe people of peace over against people with more war-like tendencies. To be "hawkish" on national defense is to be in favor of flexing military muscle as opposed to "doveish" people who are more pacifistic. It goes without saying that at least in spiritual terms, John had presented Jesus in a very hawkish light. But Jesus shows up every bit like the dove that settled upon him: a quiet, humble man, willing to undergo a baptism of repentance because he believes that somehow, that humble act will be step one in setting everything to rights once more.
Now fast forward to Matthew 11. John has been arrested and is rotting in prison, awaiting what would turn out to be his beheading. Jesus had been out and about doing his ministry for quite a while by then, but John had yet to see any fire in this man's belly. So he dispatches a few of his friends to go find Jesus and to ask him the ultimate question: "Jesus, are you the one who is coming or should we start looking for another candidate?" That question is shattering. Could it really have been the case that even God's hand-picked person to prepare the way for Jesus had such grave doubts as to whether Jesus was the right man after all? How tantalizing it is to see that for at least a time, John was disappointed in the Messiah that showed up.
But from first to last, Jesus was a quiet, almost obscure, figure who obviously believed that the world would change finally not through might but through love and grace. Sacrifice, not conquest; humility, not self-important pride; forgiveness, not punishment; weakness, not power: those were the tools Jesus wielded. He changed the world but not with winnowing forks, axes, and fire. Yet somehow the net effect of his work was more powerful than anything that has ever been achieved through mighty tools and weapons.
And so now we come back to this morning's celebration of the sacrament. It's always curious, isn't it, to take communion in Advent. Smack in the midst of a season that celebrates the birth of a baby, we spend some time celebrating the death of that same person. It's only right, though. Actually, what we ought to do is celebrate the holy supper on Christmas Day, placing the body and blood of Jesus right next to the Christmas tree in ways that would scandalize many in our society. But at Christmas, as much as at any time, we must recall that the Savior and Messiah whose birth we remember changed this world by dying for it. He couldn't do it any other way.
I don't know precisely what all will happen when Jesus comes again to judge the world. But the One whose symbols are the dove and the cross may very well show up once again bursting with and exuding compassion and grace. Make no mistake: the world will be transformed, evil will be put away, and all will be made new. But as people who remember and encounter our Lord the most poignantly when we take in our hands his own sacrificed body and blood, we would surely be working against our own faith if we took these holy elements to ourselves while at the same time harboring the secret wish that the next time this sacrificial lamb comes, he will take the world by force after all. We may not know precisely what all Jesus will do when his second advent rolls around, but if he returns on a tidal wave of grace, we won't be disappointed, will we? Amen.