Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent: Expectations – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 11 December 2022 by The Reverend Robert Green.  (Isaiah Ch 35: v 1 – 10; Matthew Ch 11: v 2 – 11)

“It’s not nearly as tall as I expected” remarked a tourist seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time.

A great fan of Jane Austen’s novels was very disappointed by the portrayal of Mr Knightley in a dramatization of Emma.

We all have expectations, hopes and fears about all sorts of things.

Sometimes we are disappointed, while at other times we’re surprised and delighted.

Sometimes our beliefs and expectations about ourselves may be seriously challenged – a demanding exam, or a tough job interview, a health screening, or even a marriage proposal. The outcome can have long term consequences for us, and we are deeply and profoundly affected by a disappointing or distressing outcome. It may change our outlook on life, and call into question our own judgement and beliefs about our own  identity, and beliefs about other people.

With all this in mind it is not surprising that when John the Baptist found himself in prison, that he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” He didn’t expect the Messiah to do what Jesus was doing. The Messiah was supposed to claim kingship over the people of Israel and overthrow the occupying Romans, and establish a kingdom of peace, justice and joy.

John the Baptist’s message was full of warnings of judgement, sorting out the wheat from the chaff, and condemning sinners to destruction. John still believed Jesus was the expected one, but far from claiming kingship, exercising authority and freeing Israel, Jesus was healing the sick, showing mercy and forgiveness to sinners, loving the untouchables and the restoring the lost.

Meanwhile John was in prison, locked away and lonely in a dungeon. We can understand why he might begin to doubt if Jesus is the Messiah and to question his own identity and calling. He feels as though the very foundation of his faith and preaching is being called into question, and he needs to find out from Jesus himself what is going on. Has John been following a vocation that is after all, a lie?

Jesus’ response to John’s question is to offer him a different set of expectations “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news is preached to the poor”. Words which echo what we heard in the Reading from Isaiah 35, proclaiming further signs of the messianic kingdom. The good news is that Jesus is doing all these things, and he is ushering in a new kingdom for those whose eyes are open to see the truth, and refocus their own expectations.

It is at this point that Jesus affirms John’s identity as the great prophet who was expected to prepare the way of the Lord, and perhaps some of John’s disciples are able to take back that reassurance to free him from the captivity of his own fears and doubts.

As we journey through this season of Advent what are our expectations? Are we simply going to celebrate Christ’s birth with the familiar stories and carols built up over centuries of tradition? Or have we any expectation of being touched anew by the poignancy of God coming to dwell among us as a vulnerable baby? If Jesus were among us now, would he not be spending time with the homeless, the isolated, the marginalised and the prisoners no matter what crimes they may have committed? Might he also be speaking out about self-righteousness and hypocrisy of those who claim to be his followers?

Advent is also a timely reminder that one day Christ will return ‘in glory’. Is that too part of our expectation? Or is it tucked away in the back of our minds because we are not really sure that it will happen? It is after all at the heart of our liturgy, both in the Creed and the Eucharistic prayer.

So many questions. Perhaps listening once again to John the Baptist’s message calling us to prepare for the coming of one who will be more powerful, more holy and more gloriously loving than we can imagine, because if we are prepared for Christ’s Second Coming, we won’t need to ask, “Are you the one who is to come?” We shall know in our hearts that he is indeed the one, and will worship Jesus Christ, the everlasting Lord.