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Expectation and Expectations

A Reflection on Matthew 11 verses 2-11

Advent is both a time of expectation when we experience a type of longing that makes us cry from the depths of our being for the fulfilment of God’s kingdom on earth, and also a time of expectations whether that’s getting presents right, managing difficult relatives or managing without a loved one.

John the Baptist, one of Jesus’ earliest supporters, gave a very strong endorsement of Jesus’ future ministry and identity as the Messiah at the time of Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3: 11-14). In today’s Gospel reading, however, John appears to have changed his opinion and we are left wondering slightly why John (from prison) sends his disciples to Jesus seeking confirmation of his messianic identity. Perhaps Jesus’ ministry was not leading up to his expectations. Alternatively, perhaps now that John is in prison, he just wanted assurance of a continuation of the ministry he had begun.

We learn that people have indeed given John reports of Jesus’ ministry, but we don’t know how accurate the content is. Note that Jesus is quite clear when he says in verse 4 “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” He particularly highlights some of his miracles including “the blind receive their sight and the deaf hear.” Interesting isn’t it, in the context of seeing and hearing accurately?

Jesus then turns the whole discussion into more questioning of the crowd from verse 7 onwards. He challenges the crowd about their ability, or lack of it, to properly hear and see him and respond to the acts they have witnessed. He also reminds the people of the nature of John’s ministry on the one hand and people’s expectations of John. They didn’t go to the wilderness to look for “a reed shaken by the wind” or someone who “wears soft robes in royal palaces.” (Interestingly, by talking about a reed swayed by the wind, Jesus is probably talking about Herod Antipas, who had imprinted the symbol of the reed on certain Roman coins). The people weren’t looking for the elite of the time; they were looking for a prophet, someone who sees the world as God does and can point to a different way of life. Joining John’s movement embraced a totally different lifestyle and Jesus seems to be highlighting the strength and courage of John in the face of persecution.

John has started a subversive movement and has prepared the way for Jesus. The final sentence in verse 11 where Jesus states that “yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he [John]” seems like a wonderful rallying call to the crowds to have the confidence to follow John’s and Jesus’ ministry.

Both John and Jesus were called to an extraordinary ministry, calling attention to unjust political and social structures. Seen in that light, this text seems to be about having the willingness to look around us in new ways. The question for us today is not so much whether John’s disciples were reliable messengers but whether we are willing to be such courageous messengers in our societies, even when doing so might entail a heavy cost. The expectation for us is to live up to Jesus’ expectations and to be reliable messengers, passing on the truth of His word from one location to another and from one generation to the next.

Reference: Green et al (2019) Connections- A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship. WJK Press, Louisville, Kentucky.

I recently uploaded a video of this reading to my Facebook page.

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Posted on December 13th 2022

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