What did you expect?
Very few experiences or people live up to our expectations. I remember when the new Star Wars movie was released last year. There was so much excitement and anticipation that it would almost be impossible for any movie to be good enough to satisfy such a burden. When I finally saw the new chapter, I enjoyed the movie, but it was hardly the epic movie that some in the series had been. I felt some mild letdown. It is not very often that anything, or anyone, can really surpass the hype or expectations that are laid upon them, especially when there is such a big buildup.
It seems that Jesus ran into that problem as well. When people imagined a Messiah, or Son of David, they put all sorts of expectations on what that person may look like. There were groups that expected a mighty king to come and overthrow the enemies of Israel and usher in a time of conquest. Other groups expected a great priest to come and restore the Temple. They saw a leader that would bring great spiritual renewal to Jewish faith. There were some who expected an Old Testament prophet to return, and others that expected the Messiah to be the great diplomatic king of all nations. When Jesus, a poor carpenter from Galilee, began to attract some attention, most people thought that he could not possibly be the promised King who would come to rule the world.
Even John the Baptist needed some reassurance that Jesus was in fact “the one who is to come” while he heard stories of Jesus in prison. People did not expect a gentle healer. People did not expect an itinerant preacher. No one expected a victim of violence and forgiver of sinners. When Jesus turned out to be so different from the people’s expectations, it took miracles and signs to convince many of them that the Messiah could be such a different type of leader. He relates to John’s followers, “Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” These miracles could be a way for John to set aside all of his preconceived notions and see Jesus for who he really is. Maybe the same can happen for us.
I have heard many people speak about Jesus and their experience of Him. Each person seems to be able to accept some aspect or testimony of Jesus, but it is difficult for us to try to bring together the whole picture. I have heard Jesus described like a mighty warrior, hurling devastation upon the devil. I have heard of Jesus the hippie, who preaches peace and love and really never asks anything of us. I have been told of Jesus the avenger, Jesus the therapist, Jesus the broken man, and Jesus the King enthroned in Heaven. For each of us, certain images of Jesus are very attractive and some are challenging. In truth, Jesus probably contains some aspect of all these images, and even more that we cannot imagine. Like John, sometimes we have to let go of our preconceived notions of who Jesus has to be, to experience him in different parts of our lives. I may not like the Jesus who tells me to love my enemies, but that may be just the experience of Jesus that I need. I may reject the notion of Jesus who calls me to change, but it just may be that change that will open up my relationship with him to new heights. I have to find ways to walk with Jesus the scapegoat, Jesus the holy one, Jesus who is just like me, and Jesus who is not like me at all. John the Baptist had trouble seeing the Promised One in Jesus, and I believe that we all have trouble seeing Jesus in ways that we don’t want or expect.
It takes humility for us to admit that we don’t have the whole picture. Even if I have had a relationship with Jesus for many years, I can still be surprised at His mercy, His correction or His intimate vulnerability. As much as I believe that I know who Jesus is, there is always more for me to learn and experience. Jesus sent word to John to believe because of the works that followed Jesus. He then mentions that one is blessed if we take no offense at him. I find some of Jesus’ words and actions very comforting, but I must admit at times I take offense at the ways in which He does not meet my expectations. Jesus is so much more than us, and so much like us. Oh the scandal of it all!
I feel I need to mention one other part of our Gospel today: the fact that John the Baptist was also an unexpected surprise for people. Jesus asked the people what they expected when they went out to see John – a king, a prophet? Jesus also reminds us in this Gospel that not only did the Messiah surprise us, but that we are often surprised by who God is using around us. John helps us to remember that God often uses unexpected people and situations to accomplish His will. I may not be surprised if the Pope says something profound, or if the archbishop does some powerful work of God. After all, we sort of expect some people to get it right, but don’t we also spend way too much time expecting others to get it wrong? If I am never expecting God to act or speak in surprising ways, then I could be missing much of the Holy Spirit’s work around me.
Once again I come to the topic of detachment. Many of us are so attached to our ideas about Jesus or other people that we can miss out on prophets in our midst, or even the blessings of Jesus. If we can allow God to surprise us, without neglecting to do good discernment, then we may find that Jesus is more present to us and able to help us than we ever realized.