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Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Failure of Messianic Expectations

Expectations are tricky things. They can keep the fires of hope burning within us when all seems lost, or they can come crashing down around us in splinters and shards of disappointment when they’re not met.

Is a dream a lie if it don't come true,
or is it something worse? (Springsteen)

The people of Israel in the first century lived with a deep expectation, or rather, deep expectations, plural. They waited for a hero, a savior, a messiah but there was no one understanding of what this Messiah would be like. Some expected a warrior and a king, noble and powerful to lead them into battle and victory, a mighty man who would throw off the shackles of their foreign oppressors. Others expected a priestly messiah, who would lead the people to righteousness obedience before God and his torah. They lived with expectations drawn from their own deep longings and from the words of the Holy Scriptures. But there wasn’t a single unified expectation about the Messiah; there were many competing, multivalent interpretations. There was a deep sense of anticipation in the people, a longing, a dream of rescue and salvation, of restoration, redemption and succor, even if this longing was expressed in many different expectations.

So we find them at the beginning of this week’s text-the people of Israel filled with expectations and questions. They’ve come out to the wild place to hear the preaching of John and to be baptized by him in the waters of the Jordan.  Is he, could he be the Messiah, the Christ, the one that we’ve been waiting for?

What I find interesting here is that John the Baptizer had very little in common with the generally held expectations of the coming messiah: he was not a mighty warrior, not a prince or a king, and though he came from a priestly family, he’d (seemingly) renounced the priestly call to live the life of a prophetic hermit in the wildness, wearing camel hair and eating locusts and honey. John the Baptizer did not look like the generally conceived picture of the Christ.

Neither did he perform any (recorded) miracles. He did not provide miracle food for crowds of thousands, he did not walk on water (only shoved people under it), he calmed no storms, exorcised no demons, healed no lepers, restored no sight to the blind or voice to the mute. He did not cleanse the lepers or raise the dead. His reputation was based solely on his fiery preaching and his baptismal ministry. “Yet he moved people so mightily they began to suspect he was the messiah” (Robertson 42).

His words, his fire, his energy, his authenticity, his passion drew the people from across the land to the wild lands. They left the comfort of their homes to hear him preach repentance at the edge of the Jordan. And hearing him, their expectations and dreams were fired up again. After desperate years, after others had failed, after hurts and disappointments, the ministry of John at the water’s edge stirred up dying fire of their hopes.  And they questioned in their hearts whether perhaps he were the Christ. Could he be? Should we dare to hope again?

But if the people thought John might be the longed for Messiah, he would disappoint them. He told them directly, without ambiguity or hedging: he was not the one they desired. “I baptize you with water,” he said, “but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”  Even as his reputation grew, John was diminishing himself, pushing away the expectations the crowds foisted upon him. “I baptize you with water…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3: 16 – 17 RSV).

John, too, had a set of beliefs about the long expected savior-expectations that he was never quite able to reconcile with the one he believed to be the Messiah. At the end of his life, as he was locked up in Herod’s prison, he sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Luke 7:20 RSV). 

Expectations are tricky things. 

And Jesus confounds our expectations here as well; he comes into the story and is baptized in the Jordan by John.  Why? Why would he do this?  Baptism, while not a part of the regular practice of mainstream Judaism of that time and place, was not unheard of or uncommon. The Jewish historian Josephus, in his autobiography, wrote, “…but when I was informed that one, whose name was Banus, lived in the desert and used no other clothing than what grew upon the trees, and had no other food than what grew of its own accord, and bathed himself in cold water frequently, both night and day, in order to preserve his chastity… I imitated him in those things and continued with him three years” (Josephus “Life” 2).

And Banus and John were not alone in practicing a form of baptism; other baptismal movements also appeared in the area (Hartman 583). Banus, Josephus’ mentor, used baptism as method to preserve his chastity and self-control; also common during that time was a form of baptism given to gentiles who converted to Judaism (Hartman 583). But John’s message and preaching was of a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3: 3 RSV).

But why would Jesus, sinless Jesus, the Son of God, need to be baptized in a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins? Mark and Luke do not describe Jesus’ motives. He comes to John and is baptized by him without any word of explanation. Matthew, sensing something of our discomfort, pauses to have John question Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” and for Jesus to respond, “Let it be so now; for thus  it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:14 – 15) – but this doesn’t really give much of an explanation.

Our question lingers there in the water with Jesus. Our expectations come up against the person of Jesus and are stymied. They don’t fit. Our expectations don’t fit the fulfillment. Expectations rarely do.

Our expectations are too small or too large; they don’t fit.

When I was younger I expected that I would eventually begin to ‘understand’ things. I’m getting older now and that expectation is starting to feel ill-fitting. Young people often expect that they’ll be famous or that they’ll do something extraordinary, that they’ll change the world. “We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off” (Palahniuk).

People get married expecting that a spouse will make everything better. People start families, have babies because they expect that children will bring happiness and sense of completeness and fulfillment to their lives. There is often bitter disappointment when those expectations are shattered.

Expectations are tricky; they keep the embers of hope glowing within us, keep us longing for a better future. But when our expectations come up against reality they rarely fit. And what will we do?

Like the people of Israel in early years of the first century, going out into the wilderness to hear the preaching of John the Baptizer, our expectations for the messiah are frequently ill-fitted. Jesus confounds us at nearly every turn. He loves those we would despise. He forgives those we’d condemn. He relaxes codes that we would tighten. He tightens rules that we’d relax. He moves when we’d stay and refuses to leave when we’d get up and go.

He is variously described by his followers as a military general, a prince of peaceful non-violence, a capitalist CEO, a socialist liberator, a radical, a conservative, a hippy, a teacher, a hero, a king, a brother, a father, a lover. But when the person of Jesus is approached and considered without the baggage of our anticipations, each of those expectations is found wanting in some way. And the fault is not in Jesus, but in our expectations. 

If John the Baptist was unsure if Jesus was the one he was waiting for, if the people of the first century failed to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, was the failure in Jesus, or in their expectations? And if Jesus doesn’t meet our expectations, where does the fault lie?

Have we been disappointed with Jesus? Is the disappointment in Jesus or in the failure of our expectations?

Hartman, Lars. “Baptism.” Anchor Bible Dictionary-Volume I. New York, NY: Doubleday. 1992.

Josephus, Flavius. The Life of Flavius Josephus. Translated by William Whiston. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregal Publication. 1960.

Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. W.W. Norton. 1996.

Robertson, Archibald Thomas. Word Pictures in the New Testament: Volume II Luke. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press. 1930.

Springsteen, Bruce. “The River” The River. Columbia. 1980.

Revised Standard Version: New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1973.

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