Matthew 11: 2-11
How are you doing with your presents? Bought them all yet?
Surprisingly we’ve bought nearly all of ours already – and don’t ask me how much we’ve spent! It is hard work though, isn’t it, trying to pick something that you think someone will appreciate. And then comes that exciting job of wrapping them up – trying to hold three different bits of paper together at the same time as cutting the sellotape; sticking the sellotape onto one finger and trying to fold everything back up, only to discover that a bit of the tape has stuck to the paper and ripped it! Then there’s the present which turns out to be just too big for the largest sheet or roll of wrapping paper you could find. Wrapping presents is a bind!
And then you sit back a look at your endeavours and it’s still pretty obvious what most things are – it isn’t easy to disguise the shirt with the collar which sticks up above the rest of the pack, a tennis racket is a tennis racket even inside Christmas wrapping, a bottle of wine is a bottle of wine however you try to wrap it – and a mountain bike – well what else could it be?
It is a wonder that anyone is surprised by the presents that they get. And yet we are, aren’t we. There is always something that comes as a complete surprise – even if we’ve given everyone a list of what we want, we still get that present or presents which are impossible to guess from their wrapping. We look at them and wonder what they might be.
Sometimes the surprise is positive. I’ve had some wonderful unexpected presents. But the surprise can also be negative. … As a teenager in the 1970s, I set my sights on a lovely pair of cowboy boots that had good 3 inch high heels, and 1.5 inch platforms. I think that they were bright orange in colour. I told my parents about them and they assured me that my boots would be waiting for me on Christmas morning.
As teenagers are wont to do, I slithered downstairs on Christmas morning, trying not to betray my excitement. Mum and Dad had always said refused my choice in clothe before and they still held the purse strings!
When we started opening the presents, I was immediately aware that I was going to be disappointed. There were no presents large enough. Still I maintained a slim hope that perhaps the boot calves had been folded over to get them into a smaller box. But no, when I opened the present from Mum and Dad, there were a pair of boots, ankle height, elasticised slip-on boots with half inch heels. My request had been reinterpreted! I don’t think I wore boots more than once. I was really disappointed!
John the Baptist believed that he was preparing the way for a Jewish Messiah. He had in mind what he wanted. The trouble was that when that Messiah arrived he did not fit John’s idea of a Messiah. God’s gift to Israel was not what it wanted. Not even John the Baptist, who did so much to prepare the way for Jesus had any confidence in what Jesus was doing now His ministry had started. I guess John the Baptist was sitting in prison wondering whether his life had been wasted!
In our reading, Jesus has to remind John of passages from Isaiah about the suffering servant.
Israel, and John the Baptist had ignored these prophecies about the Messiah and clung onto the one’s they preferred – those that foretold a military messiah, a powerful leader who would free them from the yoke of oppression.
‘No,’ says Jesus, ‘I am here to inaugurate a different kingdom, a kingdom built on justice for all, and peace and healing for the oppressed.’
The thing with God is … that we can never pin God down. We think we have listened. We form our ideas of what God wants, or what God is doing. And then, hey presto, God does something different. We’ve tried to understand what he wants and yet again we’ve been trapped by our own ideas and our limited understanding of God.
It is wonderful when God surprises us with something new, something different. The incarnation of Jesus, was one of those occasions: the most important of them. In Jesus’ life and death he turned convention on its head, he disturbed the status quo, and out of a shameful death brought new life and hope to the world.
Jesus is God’s present to us this Christmas. But don’t think you’ll get the present you’ve asked for! Jesus at work in our lives is more disturbing, more exciting, more wonderful than we can anticipate. I was disappointed with my boots back in the 1970s, but I have never been disappointed with Jesus. Occasionally confused, sometimes disturbed, sometimes bewildered, but following his lead has taken me all over the place, and he continues to change and challenge me.
Ultimately, John the Baptist died before he could see Jesus come in his glory.
In Jesus’ death, shame became glory. We can look back with gratitude to those days. However, for those who lived through them, they were full of shocks and surprises.
Our God is a God of surprises. He wants to surprise each of us with his presence this Christmas time.