What do you want for Christmas this year? In England like in some other countries, children make a list of all the things that they want Santa to bring them for Christmas. As a child my brother and I would make long lists, we would then burn them in the fireplace so that the letter was wafted up the chimney and through the sky to Santa’s secret lair. Later on my younger sister would post the letters to Santa at the North Pole. I guess at some point during my childhood his hideout was discovered, probably by Disney.
These days I suspect a lot of children write emails to Santa. Perhaps he even has a Kakaotalk account.
On Christmas Day we woke up really early to see if our requests had been met.
Some of them were never met. Santa never gave me a horse or a real Jedi lightsaber.
One Christmas Santa gave me a trumpet. It was a fantastic trumpet. It was brass and it shone like gold. It had a big case with a velvet lining. It was however a severe disappointment. I couldn’t make any noise with it, certainly nothing musical. But worse than that from my point of view, it wasn’t I had been expecting. It wasn’t what I had asked Santa for.
Two thousand years ago, John the Baptist had a similar problem. We can see it in our reading today. John was called the Baptiser because he baptised so many people. Obvious really!
Some of the people he had baptised in Judea were from the rural farming and fishing community up north called Galilee. Galilee was not Judea, in the same way that Korea is not America and a Krispy Kreme doughnut is not a steak.
Politically speaking, Galilee was never under direct Roman rule. Herod ruled here. The fertile and flat southern part of Galilee was an area of busy trade between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee. It was cosmopolitan and busy, with lots of travellers. Many of the people spoke at least a few words of Greek because they had to do business with the many Gentiles in the area. And because of this there was a breakdown in traditional family values.
In the south, in Judea, there was a much stronger feeling of being oppressed that drove people to identify more strongly as Jewish. There as they chafed under Roman rule, there was a much deeper desire for the Messiah to come and rescue the people.
John must surely have been surprised at what happened when he baptised his poor cousin from the liberal area of Galilee in the north.
John was expecting the Messiah and his work was to prepare the way for him.
John was probably looking carefully at the activists around him in Judea. He probably scrutinised them carefully when they came to him for baptism. I can imagine him looking at each person to see if they displayed the potential to be the Messiah.
What was he looking for in those people? What do you think he was expecting to find?
He was first looking for a most Jewish person. A Jewish person like King David. He was watching for a faithful Jew who would lead the nation back to glory. It was only natural to expect this person to come from Judea, and probably from Jerusalem. Scripture said he would be born in Bethlehem, the city that King David came from. Bethlehem is just 8km (5 miles) from the center of Jerusalem.
There was a prophet of the time called ‘The Egyptian’ who said that on his command the walls of Jerusalem would fall. The Roman governor sent soldiers into the wilderness after him and 4,000 revolutionaries were killed. Soon after there were reports of another prophet in the wilderness. This wild man was proclaiming that the messiah was about to appear.
Hopes were inflamed. Prayers seemed to be about to be answered. Isaiah (64:1) had said, “Burst from the heavens and come down! How the mountains would quake in your presence!”
John the Baptist, the wild man in the desert, was preaching and preparing for the heavens to burst open and the mountains to quake.
Then his cousin came from Galilee, and asked to be baptised. John did it just as he had thousands of others.
Matthew (3:16) tells us what happened next.
‘After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”’
Descending like a dove isn’t quite the same as the heavens bursting open, and no mountains quaked. It wasn’t what John was expecting. It was so different from what he expected that he almost missed it. John was like me when I didn’t get what I expected for Christmas.
He preferred what he wanted to what God actually gave. Look at verse 20 again.
John’s two disciples found Jesus and said to him, “John the Baptist sent us to ask, ‘Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting?’”
At that point Jesus turns around to the crowds and asks them what they had expected when they went into the wilderness to see John. My question is, what do you expect?
We have reached the third Sunday of Advent. We have talked about waiting and preparing for the Messiah. Getting ourselves ready for his return just as John was getting people ready for the first coming.
What kind of Messiah are we preparing to meet.
What kind of Messiah are we smoothing the way for? What kind of Messiah are we telling the world about?
Have we got false expectations for this Christmas?
Are you waiting for a Messiah who will return riding on the rain clouds, blaring loud music while the mountains quake. And he destroys all the evil people with the glare of his eyes? This is the kind of radical revolutionary activist bursting from heaven that John expected.
Jesus was not what they expected. He was not how they expected the Messiah to be.
Jesus’ idea of what the Messiah should be and do was completely different to the expectations of his contemporaries. He did not encourage conflict or warfare; instead he said, “God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth. … God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. … God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers.”
Jesus came with salvation for the whole world. The problem was that people were looking at Jesus from the wrong point of view with their notion of what the Messiah ‘should’ do. What about us? Do we follow a Jesus we made up out of our imagination, or do we follow the real Jesus? If we allow our minds and way of thinking to be formed and influenced by the thinking of the world, we may end up preparing for the wrong Messiah.
As we approach Christmas, let’s spend some time finding out who Jesus really is and why he is coming back. Without understanding God’s point of view we are going to have false expectations. Wrong thinking will lead to wrong actions.
This same Jesus is coming back. He didn’t start a war the first time, he won’t start one the second time. He started spreading love and peace, how well are we continuing his work?
Jesus told us to be disciples and make disciples. He told us to pray and love each other. Are we in danger of doing what he didn’t say and forgetting to do what he did say? This Christmas time let’s turn back to Jesus the Jew from Galilee and away from all the false Messiahs we have created for ourselves.
Stop for a moment and think. The Jesus you believe in, is he the real Jesus?