I`ve been in several conversations recently where I`ve had to listen as someone has made all manner of disparaging remarks about their husband or wife…. Attempting to diffuse the unpleasantness I couldn`t help saying “Well, you wouldn`t have said that on your wedding day, would you?” … and we all know that the answer is “Of course not” …Again, you try to be light-hearted about it all but from the tone of their comments you begin to wonder what they ever saw in one another!
Now, perhaps it`s just a matter of the years taking the shine off things… but deep down I wonder if it boils down to a matter of miss-placed expectations. And this is why I`m often suggesting to young couples that reflecting together on what they expect of one another and their future life is a good thing to do… It`s not just so as to avoid disappointment! This, it seems to me is a very good exercise in mutual self-awareness …
And paradoxically, this why tensions can often be good…. Because they`re moments when many misplaced expectations can come to light and be dealt with. After all the world tells us that “Love is blind” but we know this is a lie. It`s `infatuation` that is blind… because love is only really possible when the truth is present and when all the illusions are dispensed with. So, maturing in love means being open to discovering much more about yourself and the other.
And what I`m saying is that basically it`s the `much more` (the richness and the uniqueness of the other) that gets obscured by the assumptions and expectations that we bring to the party. Those assumptions and expectations about our wife, husband or friend which again, frequently prove to be unwarranted or unreasonable…. I`m not really talking about those huge matters like the bride who rang me a few weeks after the wedding to tell me that her new husband hadn`t told her about the twenty thousand pounds` worth of debt that he was in…No, it`s often the smaller things that get in the way. The things like …. “Of course, he`ll do all the DIY in the house… I mean, My Dad did!” … or “Of course she`ll be great at housekeeping… just like my Mum was” …
In other words, it`s the failure to check out this mundane kind of baggage, the unwarranted assumptions which (if they don`t lead a couple to the divorce courts) most often breed what we might call a sort of `undercurrent` of dissatisfaction or disappointment… And we see a steady slide from… “I was so sure he was Mr. Right… I was convinced she was the one for me… “to “But I never bargained for this…. I`d better trade them in for a better model…” Or “After all these years, I suppose I`ll just have to `make do`….” And all the while the invitation is there to drop our assumptions and get to know something of the one you have REALLY married….
Now, I don`t want to make light of any of this I just want to use this as a way of illustrating something else that I observe in quite a few people: An undercurrent of dissatisfaction or disappointment ……with God.
It`s John the Baptist who acts as our Biblical example of this. In this morning`s Gospel reading he is languishing in prison because he had the temerity to question King Herod`s morals. Herod had married his brother`s wife… and John didn`t mince his words…. But there from his prison cell John sends messengers to Jesus with a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11.3)
And to some extent this is surprising. We`re left thinking…. “What happened to that high point of Jesus`s Baptism where nobody could be in any doubt about who Jesus is and what would be his vocation…?”. Because there in prison; (now the wedding celebrations are over!) John was beginning to re-examine his assumptions about Jesus. It looks very much as though John had heard something. We`re not told precisely what this was but it was clearly a bit of gossip about Jesus that worried John…. and whatever it was it didn`t fit in with what John expected of Jesus.
It might have had something to do with the contrast people themselves drew between the `hair shirt` ministry of John and the Jesus they all accused of being a bit of a `party-animal`. Perhaps Jesus`s different approach left John feeling betrayed? I mean, when we have assumptions and expectations about others their unpredicted behaviour seems a bit like that doesn`t it? (“After all I`ve done for you!” we say).
Well, in those kind of situations, what`s needed is some personal contact rather than gossip. We need a chance to clear the air and put the record straight. And this, within limits is what John tries to do. “Are you the one…?” he asks through his disciples. And the honesty of the question gives Jesus the opportunity to put John straight. Jesus has a word for John…. A word in which he invites him to see things differently.
And here`s the thing. In the same way, Jesus has a word for us but often we don`t get it because we`re effectively imprisoned by our undercurrent of dissatisfaction or disappointment with God. Part of the problem is that we haven`t realised how far (like John) we`re operating on `hearsay` notions of God rather than a first-hand encounter with him. Many of us, I would suggest, have never realised that there`s a conversation to be had. Perhaps we`ve never picked up the habit of engaging with the Lord in the Scriptures and through the Psalms…. where people are constantly wrestling with God… and having their illusions and expectations addressed and re-shaped?
We simply don`t draw enough on our Jewish heritage, where for example, in the Book of Genesis, we`re told that Jacob was given the new name `Israel` because he was one who had `strived with God …. ` (Genesis 32.28) Basically, it was a relationship that took effort; and if truth be told, it was an encounter which left him with his hip put out of joint….!
But doesn`t this give us a sense of what engaging with the Lord is like….? Like the couples who give up because they`ve had their first argument, far too many of us think we`re failing in faith because we`re cross with the Lord……! Because we`re perplexed or whatever. But on the contrary, THIS is where it gets interesting!
I mean doesn`t this picture point to the same kind of effort being required of us? Doesn`t this picture invite us to engage with faith with the same kind of passion and rigour and willingness to be stretched? Even if it means allowing the Christ whom we meet in the scriptures to disabuse us of our hearsay assumptions and expectations of him.…. And instead learning to listen with the prospect of being surprised. And this of course is what Jesus offered John.
He asked John`s disciples to report on what they saw. “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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ (Matthew 11.4-6) Each of these things Jesus spoke of as evidence of his mission amounted to a description of God`s promise of Jubilee. The point is that they were signs that went beyond the personal repentance John was preaching and embraced national renewal. It was a much bigger vision than John had preached.
You see, whereas John envisaged Jesus pursuing a similar agenda to himself, based on the fiery prophet Elijah… Jesus took up the mantle of Isaiah; the one who spoke of the restoration that would follow the judgement. In other words, there was more to Jesus`s ministry than John had envisaged… And maybe this is our Advent message this morning. Just as our relationships with those nearest to us need shaking up every so often… So too with our faith.
We might like to ask… “How far do we live out of second-hand notions of God… things we`ve heard from others as opposed to first-hand encounter?” What assumptions and expectations do we have of Christ? Does he disappoint us? Do we feel let down by him in any way? What unwarranted assumptions have we been living with….? Let`s take a moment to tell him…. Then imagine what he says to you….