Richard Maxwell

Advent 3 A
15 December 2013
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

When you picture Jesus, what does he look like?

I will confess that the first thing I see is that pernicious, schlocky image of Jesus that we all know so well . . . that . . . PICTURE . . . you know which one Iím talking about . . . I see him from the shoulders up, three quarters profile, shiny light brown hair (kind of like a shampoo ad . . . if youíre old enough, a Breck shampoo ad), well-groomed beard, calm blue eyes, a suggestion of a smile . . . it drives me CRAZY!  I hate it!  I FIGHT this image . . . but itís always with me.

What do YOU see?

Now . . . try reversing it.  If heís tall, make him short.  Is he thin?  Make him fat.  How are his teeth?  Does it make you a little uneasy to do this?  Does it feel just a teeny bit sacrilegious?  If it does . . . trust me, I understand . . . but, if playing with our images of Jesus makes us uncomfortable, do you know what weíve done?  Weíve invested our images of Jesus with holiness . . . even though we have no way of knowing what he really looked like.  Itís almost like idol worship. And this is dangerous for a number of reasons; perhaps most importantly because we run the risk that, if our images are broken, weíll lose our sense of Jesusí divinity.

Now Iím not saying that you shouldnít try to picture Jesus . . . I think itís a good and useful practice to try to imagine him.  In Jesus, God came to us in human form . . . and itís spiritually helpful to picture a Jesus that we can talk to and touch.  In fact, an interesting prayer practice Iíve mentioned to you before is to sit down, placing an empty chair in front of you, and invite Jesus to take a seat . . . in the silence see what Jesus has to tell you.  But be careful . . . be careful about becoming too certain that what you imagine is the absolute truth . . . be careful about loving the IMAGE you manufacture too much.  Because then you might not be able to recognize Jesus when he actually shows up.  Or worse, if we come to love our images too much, we might actually reject the real Jesus when he arrives.

You know, the people alive when Jesus was around had a similar problem.  Of course, they could see him . . . they knew what he LOOKED like . . . but when Jesus arrived on the scene there were a variety of ideas about what the MESSIAH would be like.  One of the particularly popular images of the Messiah was that he would be a military and political leader, defeating the Romans, throwing them out of Israel and restoring the fortunes of the country.  Many people at the time of Jesus were certain that THIS image of the Messiah was the right one.  Itís an important part of the reason why so many people had difficulty really SEEING Jesus, the true Messiah.  Why do you think Jesus so frequently talked about people having eyes to SEE and ears to HEAR?

This is whatís going on in todayís Gospel reading, at least in part.  From prison, John the Baptist asks of Jesus, ďAre you the one?Ē  From our perspective, Jesusí answer seems like a pretty clear ďyes:Ē  ďTell John . . . the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised.Ē  HELLO!?! . . . of COURSE this is the Messiah . . . isnít it OBVIOUS?  Well . . . no . . . not to John . . . or else he wouldnít have had to ask the question.  Poor John . . . this scary prophet, who has been storming around demanding that people repent and change their ways, has had a come-uppance or sorts.  Heís been thrown into prison and told, in a fashion, to repent of HIS ways.  Did he expect this to happen?  Was this part of Johnís vision of what is to come?  Of course we donít know.

But I have a suspicion that this turn of events was a shock to John.  He was a smart fellow . . . smart enough to realize that there were potential consequences for his actions, for publicly pointing out the faults of powerful people . . . but nevertheless, I wonder if he really expected events to unfold as they did.  Johnís vision of the Messiah is fierce . . . he sees someone baptizing with fire . . . judging the Hebrew people . . . gathering the good into the Kingdom, but burning the rest like chaff.  John KNOWS that this special . . . someone . . . is living among the people now.  He THINKS it is Jesus.  But . . . here is John in prison . . . and this Jesus . . . heís nothing like what John imagined . . . nothing like what he pictured.  And so he HAS to ask . . . he needs reassurance.  ďAre you the one?Ē

And if John, a prophet sent to prepare the way for the Messiah, has such trouble seeing the reality of Jesus . . . imagine the difficulty the rest of Jesusí contemporaries had.  If we really consider it, is it any surprise that even the disciples donít really understand the reality of Jesus, the reality of who he is, until after the resurrection?  The truth of this Messiah is too enormous, too overwhelming, too extraordinary really to be grasped.  This Messiah is infinitely more than even the greatest of human military and political leaders . . . this Messiah is DIVINE.  Do even WE really grasp this?

Part of Jesusí ministry was to explain what the Messiah is really like.  In the Gospel today, when he answers Johnís question, Jesus is citing the text from Isaiah we heard earlier:  ď. . . the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.Ē  Jesusí answer to Johnís question is practically a quotation.  But at the time, this text in Isaiah was NOT necessarily thought of as a description of the coming Messiah.  WE hear it as such, but the people in Jesusí time did not.

As I said earlier, there were different pictures of the Messiah when Jesus was around; one of the most common of them was of someone who would be first and foremost a military leader . . . a leader who would purge and renew the earthly kingdom of Israel, and restore it to the glories of Davidís time.  Very clearly, Jesus was not this kind of Messiah.  Through his teaching, through his actions, through his entire BEING, Jesus was teaching truth about the Messiah . . . teaching, showing, BEING the Messiah . . . and through all of this, teaching us how WE are to be.  But none of this is forced upon us . . . just as none of it was forced upon the disciples.  Jesusí contemporaries had to decide for themselves whether or not Jesus embodied the qualities that made him the ďreal thing.Ē

Jesusí followers had to throw out their old images of the Messiah to really SEE Jesus.  He really was something quite unique, after all.  But this challenge presented by the reality of Jesus, was greater than many of his followers could meet.  After all, the story of Jesusí last days in Jerusalem is a story of betrayal and desertion.  The people of the city turn on Jesus, demanding his crucifixion . . . even his most intimate friends, the disciples, melt away . . . only a very few people, mostly women, remain by him at his death.  Why was this so?  Well, at least in part, because this Jesus, this Messiah, was not the one people imagined he would be . . . he was not what they thought they wanted, or needed.

Now, here we are . . . 2,000 years later . . . preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus . . . and also preparing for the second coming of the Christ.  What do you imagine THAT will be like?  What do you expect?  When you picture Jesus, the Messiah, what do you see?  What do you WANT to see?  Treasure the Jesus you know . . . listen to the Jesus who sits with you in your room . . . but be careful.  God is also so much greater . . . so much more . . . so much beyond anything we can dream or imagine.  Imagine the BEST you can . . . and then be prepared to let it go.  For God is not only infinitely more, infinitely BETTER than anything we can imagine, God is also utterly surprising.  In Godís presence things tend to be turned upside down . . . our expectations upended.  In Godís presence, the things we most desire may prove to be meaningless . . . and our treasured solutions prove to be pointless.  Remember God came to us in Jesus NOT as an all powerful king, but as a helpless baby.

When Jesus arrives the blind will see and the deaf will hear. . . . the trees will clap their hands and the mountains skip like calves.  Who knows what miracles . . . what glories we will see?  And all for the fulfillment, the completion, the renewal of all creation.  Donít hold too tightly onto the creations of OUR imaginations .  .  trust in the goodness and righteousness of God!  Open the eyes of your hearts that you may SEE with your hearts!  Get ready!  The prince of peace, the king of love is coming!  He will undoubtedly be unexpected . . . surprising . . . utterly unique.  He may be NOTHING like what we expected . . . or what we think we want . . . but he WILL be GLORIOUS!

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