The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
The God We Need
His story began in the smoky confines of the Temple, or so the legend goes. His father struck mute by an angel of the Lord. His name was divinely appointed, long hidden in the mind of God; his purpose written into God's salvation story ages before he drew his first breath. His conception too was miraculous: a seed planted in impossible soil takes root by the grace of God. At his birth, the Holy Spirit possessed his father causing him to spew forth a jarring prophecy, his first words in months: “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.”
If that is how your life begins, the odds of that life being what we might think of as “normal” are slim. And so, of course, John, this man of miraculous birth and mystical origins, spends his adult life living in the desert and eating insects. Until one day he walks into the water and announces his mission: he was the one – the Elijah, the prophet who would prepare the way for the coming Messiah – foretold by sages, awaited by learned scribes. He was the one sent into the world to pronounce the great and terrible Day of the Lord. The salvation for which an entire nation longed was almost here. But...also he was weird. And like too serious. And he never, ever had any fun. So...I don't know: next.
His story begins with the voice of an angel – a voice that broke the silence in a young girl's bedroom, yes, but also in the world. The very Word that made the world was once again speaking new creation into existence. His mother a simple virgin, overshadowed by the ancient Spirit of God; she was a willing vessel through which salvation would be poured out and he was that salvation. In her womb would dwell the fullness of a God whom even the Universe could not contain – that was who he was: God in human flesh. The very heavens announced his birth; adults worshiped at his manger; kings paid him homage. This man of miraculous birth and divine lineage was the one – the Messiah – foretold by prophets and sages, awaited by learned scribes. He was the one for whom an entire nation, no an entire world, longed. He was God's salvation. But...also they kinda hated him. He was always pushing it, always out of line, never really knew his place. He partied way too much and with losers, like tax collectors and sinners. He was actually an embarrassment to an entire people, which is pretty hard to do. So 0 for 2, I guess.
The people had been thinking about salvation for a long, long time and so the expectations were pretty sky high. And the truth is: the reality simply did not live up the fantasy. I don't know: they just had something else in mind. God sends John the Baptist and, it sounds a little picky, but he doesn't eat or drink enough. God sends Jesus and he eats and drinks way too much – if you know what I mean. God sends John and he's too much of a loner – anti-social even, I mean, that's what some people were saying. God sends Jesus and he spends all kinds of time with people – shady people, questionable people, certainly not holy or godly people. God sends John and he is too weird. God sends Jesus and he is too wild.
And so no one is happy. I know this because John has his head removed and Jesus dies on a cross. Whatever God was up to, it wasn't exactly what the crowds were expecting and definitely not what they wanted.
It is actually one of the most frustrating things about God: God is not very cooperative. Those first century folks they had a pretty good idea of what the prophet was supposed to look like – and John was not it. They had a pretty good idea of what the Messiah would be and say and do – and Jesus was not that. They had been thinking about salvation for a long, long time. They had expectations. Needless to say, the John and Jesus plan did not meet those expectations; surely God could do better.
They were human; we are human. And humans prefer a God who is a bit more manageable and predictable. Not a big deal but we want a God created in our image, as opposed to the other way around. And so we all kinda want a God who loves who we love and hates who we hate. A God who will judge who we judge and reward those we deem worthy. We just want a God who shares our values, affirms our attitudes, and takes our stances. That's not much to ask, is it?
The God who sent John the Baptist, the God who came to us in the person of Jesus, is both too demanding and too accepting. That God is both too challenging and too loving. According to our Gospel passage, God doesn't even dance when we say dance.
It is as if God is intentionally difficult. It is as if our God means to shake us up, challenge our narrow theologies, push us beyond our prejudices. It is as if our God wants us to expect the unexpected. But that's not what we want. Because that kind of God – that unpredictable, challenging, dodging our all expectations God – leaves us way too vulnerable in a dangerous world.
We come into the world like Dairy Queen ice cream cones – all soft-serve – but as we journey to adulthood we become increasingly aware that this world is a scary place and so we cover all of that softness with a nice, hard shell – made out of that weird, waxy red stuff. David Lose says, “No wonder Jesus gives thanks that God has revealed all this – and God’s own self... – not to the wise but to infants, because that alone surprises us, makes us think twice, challenges our preconceptions.”1 God is looking to crack our shells, to open us to the unpredictability of the Spirit, to soften our stance and blow us away on a fresh breeze.
The more firmly entrenched we are are, the more frustrating our God will be. The more sure we are, the more surely God will delight in proving us wrong. God has always worked through the wrong people, in the wrong ways – introducing an element of surprise into the salvation story. In fact, God's most profound act in this world happened in broad daylight, in full view of the public. And folks missed it, especially the religious folks, because they were already sure that nothing good comes out of Nazareth, nothing good eats and drinks too much, nothing good hangs out with bad people, nothing good is found guilty, nothing good hangs naked on a shameful cross. The truth is: we do not get the God we want, we get the God we need. So it's important that we open our eyes and minds and hearts wide enough to catch a glimpse of the God who tends to show up in the places we least expect.
We do not get the God we want, we get the God we need: a crucified God who embraced the entirety of the human experience – even the absolute most painful parts.
And no one saw it coming. Folks were looking toward the palace and Jesus was born in the muck. Folks were looking in the Temple but Jesus was out touching lepers and eating with tax collectors and socializing with prostitutes and loving against the Law. Folks were waiting for the kingdom to come at the tip of a spear but instead Jesus was building a kingdom of outcasts on a foundation of peace. Folks were expecting God's Messiah to ascend to a royal throne and wear a crown of gold instead Jesus was lifted up on a bloody cross and wore a crown of thorns. God failed to meet every single expectation.
Because that is exactly what we needed. We do not get the God we want, we get the God we need. We get a God who understands the pain and suffering of this world through personal experience. We get a God whose vulnerable heart is broken open wide enough to hold the weary and carry the burdened. We get a God who loves well beyond the borders of who is considered acceptable because God knows those who live in the margins need love. We get the God we need: a God who sends us into the broken places of the world to share the love of Jesus. And then wipes away our tears when those places break our hearts.
I know it can be scary, but keep those eyes and minds and hearts open. God's up to something and you don't want to miss it. So that's the lesson of this Gospel. That our unexpected God is showing up in the most unlikely of places, filling all of those strange, broken, painful, neglected places in our lives and in our world with a mess of love: that is the Good News.