Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11

What Do We Expect From God?

Have you caught the "holiday spirit" yet? How do you get into the holiday mood? Do you rely on others or events to spark your "Christmas feeling?"

Christmas is coming soon. The lights, the sounds, the smells of the holidays are in the air. No matter where we go, we are reminded of holiday cheer. In fact, many of us rely on this atmosphere to bring us out of our doldrums. We expect people, places, or events to create the mood that Christmas brings.

Human nature tempts us to lean on others to bolster our condition. We expect others to "fix" us when we are down, sustain us when we are "up." We are tempted to treat God the same way. God, the Mr. Fix-it for our souls.

What happens when God doesn't "fix" us? How many times have we been disappointed when our expectations of God are unfulfilled? How many times have we confused faith with expectation? How many times have we forgotten that God defines himself?

John the Baptist had expectations about the One to come. Did Jesus fulfill his expectations? Or, did Jesus define his mission on his own terms?

Popular Translation

John the Baptist preached against King Herod because he married his brother's wife. So, the king had his soldiers arrest John. 2 When he was in jail, John heard the kinds of things Jesus was doing. 3 John sent some of his followers to Jesus with a question. "Are you the one John said would come? Or, is there someone else we should expect?" they asked.

4 "Go tell John what you see and hear," Jesus answered. 5 "Blind people can now see. Deaf people can now hear clearly. Crippled people can now walk. People with diseases are now healthy. Dead people live again. And the poor have the Good News preached to them. 6 The person who doesn't doubt me is really happy!"

7 As John's people left, Jesus began to talk to the crowd about the Baptist. "What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swaying in the wind? 8 What did you go out to see? Someone dressed in expensive clothes? People who wear expensive clothes live in a king's palace. 9 So, what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, a prophet and much, much more! 10 God talked about John in the Bible:

'I am sending my messenger ahead of you.
He will prepare the way for you.'

11 Listen! No one who has ever lived is more important than John the Baptist. But the humblest person in God's Kingdom is greater than John!"

Matthew's gospel faces us with the difference between what we expect of others and what they can deliver. John expected someone greater than he. Jesus gave an answer that may have been different from what John expected. In that exchange we discover how Jesus saw his own ministry and the ministry of John the Baptist.

Literal Translation

2 John, hearing in jail (about) the works of Christ, sending (word) through his disciples, 3 said to HIM, "Are you the one coming (from God)? Or, do we wait for another?" 4 Having answered, JESUS said to them, "Going (back), tell John what you hear and see. 5 The blind see again. The lame walk around. Lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised to life. And the poor are being told the Good News. 6 Happy is (the person) who is not scandalized by me." 7 When these (disciples) left, JESUS began to speak to the crowd concerning John,"What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swaying in the wind? 8 What did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft (fabrics)? Look! Those wearing soft (fabrics) are in the houses of kings! 9 But, what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you! More than a prophet! 10 This is the (man) concerning whom it is written:

'Look! I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.'

11 Amen, I say to you, (there) has not emerged (anyone) among (those) born of women greater than John the Baptist. But the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."

11:5 "the poor are being told the Good News." is literally "the poor are evangelized." Notice the activities in 11:5 are listed in the reverse order of importance. The wonders performed only add to the legitimacy of Jesus' primary function: to preach the Good News.

11:6 This verse is a beatitude. The Greek word "makarios" can mean "happy, blessed or fortunate." Jesus assumed the only people not scandalized were believers. He did not refer to the apathetic or disinterested.

11:8 "in the houses of kings" The "houses" could either refer to the royal court (building) or the king's clan (family). The former is preferred.

11:10 This verse which combined Malachi 3:1 and Exodus 23:20 compared the prophet to the traveling crier. A royal crier would precede the king in areas to be visited. The local people would prepare for the king's arrival with public work projects (fresh paint, cleaned roads, etc.). Of course, Jesus referred the spiritual preparations John made.

11:11 "greater" means "important." Here Jesus is again comparing people of "this generation" to those of the Kingdom. The difference is so great that even a looming figure like John the Baptist would be stand small in the Kingdom. Jesus wasn't belittling John. He was emphasizing the great and different nature of God's reign. What did John expect? From last week's study, we know that John foresaw someone who would carry on his ministry at a higher level. The One greater than John would fulfill John's prophecies; he would be the instrument of God's judgment and usher in God's Kingdom. In prison, however, John did not see continuity of his ministry; his prophecies were not fulfilled (to his satisfaction) and the end did not come. Was Jesus of Nazareth the answer to his prayers? [11:2-3]

Luke's gospel tells us John and Jesus were second cousins. (Luke 1 & 2) Matthew portraits John objecting to his baptism of Jesus; John saw Jesus as his better. (Matthew 3:13-17) But, neither gospel tells us of the relationship between the two. Many modern scripture scholars speculate that Jesus was a disciple of John's before he began his own ministry. Indeed, Jesus' early preaching echoed John's message: "Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand." (Mark 1:15) After John's arrest, Jesus began his following and developed a distinct organization and a style that was different from John's.

Jesus answered John's question with a reference to Isaiah (26:19, 29:18-19, 35:5-6, 61:1). The physical maladies of the poor would be healed so they could hear the Good News. [11:4-5] Notice Jesus performed "works" the common people associated with the Kingdom (healing). These maladies could have a social as well as physical reference. The blind, the lame, the leper, the deaf, and the dead were symbolic for sinners and excommunicated outcasts, people who were the core of Jesus ministry. So, Jesus could claim both the poor and the outcast as his. This was the message John's followers were to bring back; this was the challenge Jesus presented to everyone, as well as John. Blessed was the one who was not scandalized by his twofold Messiahship. [11:4-6]

Jesus turned to the crowd to ask them a set of rhetorical questions. Why did they go to the desert? To see the scenery? To see the rich and famous? Or to see a prophet? Yes, John was a prophet; his ministry was one of preparation. And his ministry was foretold by the prophets (Malachi 3:1, Exodus 23:20). [11:7-10]

With his comments about his own ministry and that of John's, Jesus implicitly compared the two. John prepared people for the Kingdom; Jesus involved people in the Kingdom. John stood as a Kingdom signpost. As Messiah, Jesus was the Kingdom. As the one preparing the populace, John was greater than anyone else up to that point. But, was John ready to partake in the kingdom? Was he willing to accept the witness of his two followers about Jesus' works? Everyone who still considered the faith question was the least in the Kingdom. [11:11]

Catechism Themes: The Public Ministry of Jesus and The Signs of the Kingdom

548 The signs worked by Jesus attest that the Father has sent him. They invite belief in him. To those who turn to him in faith, he grants what they ask. So miracles strengthen faith in the One who does his Father's works; they bear witness that he is the Son of God. But his miracles can also be occasions for "offense"; they are not intended to satisfy people's curiosity or desire for magic. Despite his evident miracles some people reject Jesus; he is even accused of acting by the power of demons.

549 By freeing some individuals from the earthly evils of hunger, injustice, illness, and death, Jesus performed messianic signs. Nevertheless he did not come to abolish all evils here below, but to free men from the gravest slavery, sin, which thwarts them in their vocation as God's sons and causes all forms of human bondage.

We expect much from the Lord who gives us much. His gifts challenge us to pass them along to others, especially those in need. As Jesus has freed us from need, so we, too, must free others from need.

Sometimes, however, all we can do is stand in awe. While these experiences help to strengthen our faith, we should not depend upon them in the future. An experience of God is a gift, not an expectation. Once we build our faith solely upon awe experiences, we focus upon them as if they were magic. We might think that these experiences should be an everyday event; if we have a "down" day, our prayer life dwells only upon a return to the "wow" experience. When we do not have a consistent spiritual high, we might be tempted to reject faith as an illusion. We might forget the passion of Christ; even pain and depression are paths to God. Even "down" days are God's gifts to us.

What do we expect from God? Miracles or magic. Miracles engage us in a faith dialogue with God; we become part of the miracle as it becomes a part of us. Magic, however, is meant for entertainment. It impresses us, but does not change us. Miracles demand a response; magic demands applause. Do we pray to be engaged or impressed?

As Christmas approaches, it's time to ask the question. What do we expect from God? Do we want to follow him? Or, do we want him to fix us? Do we seek to be with him? Or, do we expect him to be with us?

Have we confused faith with expectation? Faith puts God in charge. Expectation puts us in charge. Faith allows God to surprise us. Expectation does not.

What should we expect from God? Nothing. What should we believe God can do? Everything! Even the surprise of his Son born in a poor stable.

As a part of preparing for Christmas, reflect on your expectations of the holidays. Are they realistic? Can people or events fulfill your ideals? Or can you set aside your expectations so God can surprise you?