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For Those Who Are Disappointed

Our expectations are fully realized in the complete work of Jesus.

Will you agree with me that the Christmas season is the most , time of the year? Would you also agree with me that the Christmas season can be the saddest and most disappointing time of the year? Every year it catches me by surprise. There I am either listening to or singing one of the beautiful Christmas carols when from deep within me there comes this wave of sadness so intense that I feel like crying. Why? Why this mixture of joy and sadness, hope and disappointment in the Christmas season?

Well part of the answer lies in the insane schedule we try to keep during this time of the year. Sometimes I can hardly wait until the season ends so that I can experience the joy of which I have been so hurriedly singing.

Part of the reason for this mixture of feelings is due to missing loved ones. I still miss baking cookies with my mother and brother. And even though we do not need a fireplace in the Philippines, I still miss going out into the woods to chop wood with my dad. Certain carols trigger fond memories that touch sensitive nerves during Christmas.

But this morning I want to suggest a deeper reason for this mixture of joy and sadness, hope and disappointment at this time of the year. The reason is illustrated in the text we just read. There is joy because the carols and the anthems we sing awaken in us tremendous expectations.

Listen for instance to the words of the hymn written by Johann Schop, harmonized by J.S. Bach.

Break forth O beauteous heavenly light and usher in the morning.

These shepherds shrink not with a fright, but hear the angels' warning.

This child now weak in infancy, our confidence and joy shall be, the power of Satan breaking, our peace eternal making.

Break forth O beauteous heavenly light, to herald our salvation.

He stoops to earth, the God of might, our hope and expectation.

He comes in human flesh to dwell our God with us, Emmanuel.

The night of darkness ending, our fallen race befriending.

There is great joy because of those tremendous expectations. Then why the sadness? Because whether consciously or unconsciously we realize that the very expectations which give rise to the joy have not been fully realized. Yes they have been realized to some extent, but not yet fully realized.

We sing, as we did at the beginning of worship today, "Joy to the world, the Lord is come." But what is the next line? "Let earth receive her king and every heart prepare him room." The sad fact is, every heart has not yet prepared him room. The sad fact is, the whole earth has not yet received her king. One of the saddest verses in the Bible is found in John's prologue to his Gospel. "He, the incarnate God, came unto his own and his own received him not." I believe that much of the sadness and disappointment we feel at Christmas is the sadness and disappointment Jesus himself is feeling. The grief which wells up inside and takes us by surprise, while singing "Silent Night" for instance, just may be Jesus' own grief because of the world's rejection of him.

The hymn continues. "No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found." Tremendous words, and therefore joy. But where I live, sins and sorrows still grow. And the curse, it still seems to abound. Just read the paper.

Christmas awakens both joy and sadness because we know our expectations have not yet been fully realized

I'm suggesting then that Christmas awakens both joy and sadness because we know that the expectations that awaken the joy have not yet been fully realized.

A man who experienced this mixture of joy and sadness, hope and disappointment more intensely than anyone else has is John the Baptist. In many ways John was a strange man. He wore that weird wardrobe of camel's hair and ate that crazy diet of wild honey and locust wings. But in spite of his strange ways, John has been admired for his impeccable integrity and his faithful obedience. He loved God with a passion, which gave birth to a fearless disregard for comfort or fame. Jesus paid John the highest of all compliments, "I say to you, among those born of women, there is no greater than John."

John enjoyed two unique privileges. First, he was one of Jesus' cousins. They likely spent a lot of time together as they grew up. Clearly their families would have celebrated holidays together until John went to live in the desert.

But secondly John the Baptist enjoyed the unique privilege of preparing the way for and announcing the arrival of the Coming One, the Messiah, the Savior and the Lord of the world. John lived his entire adult life pointing people to this Coming One. "He who is mightier than I is coming," he proclaimed, "and I am not fit to untie the thong of his sandals." When the Coming One finally arrived, John boldly and enthusiastically pointed people to Jesus, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world."

Before Jesus arrived on the scene, John was very popular with the common folk. Crowds would throng to hear him preach at his meetings down by the Jordan River banks. But when the Coming One finally arrived, the crowds left John and started to go to the meetings that Jesus was holing. John's disciples felt badly for him. And they came to him and shared this concern with him. But he caught them by surprise by saying, "Now this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase and I must decrease." John gave his whole life to prepare people for the arrival of the Messiah, the Coming One. And when Messiah came and people followed after him, John's heart overflowed with joy.

Then just a little under a year from that time, the joy was gone. The circumstances of John's life had changed radically. In his zeal for God's holiness, John had challenged the personal morality of one of history's most powerful leaders, Herod Antipas. Herod had taken to himself his brother's wife Herodias. And the Baptist had dared to confront this mighty politician with his personal sin of adultery.

Now when confronted with our sin, we have two options. We can either own up to it and repent. Or we will want to get rid of that which pricked the conscience. Herod chose the latter. He threw John into prison. And from that prison John sent a message to Jesus.

It is a very surprising message, in light of all that John had preached and in light of all that God had given him by way of testimony about Jesus. John's message was short, painfully short. "Are you the One who is coming, or should we look for someone else?" Something had gone wrong, and that great preacher, that great man of God asked his cousin, "Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for someone else?"

Feel John's pain and disappointment at that point. He'd given his entire life for this Jesus and now he wondered if he were wrong. And he must have felt for the thousands of people he led astray if he were wrong. Why this surprising question?

Well Luke tells us in verse 18 of chapter seven, "The disciples of John reported to him about all these things." What "all these things"? All that Jesus was doing throughout Galilee and Judea. What John heard about Jesus' deeds generated doubt and subsequently this surprising question. What John heard about Jesus disappointed him.

Not that the report contained bad news. Quite the contrary. It contained very, very good news. Healing the sick, raising the dead, freeing the captives. Then what about the report bothered John?

Not what Jesus was doing, though some of the things Jesus did did bother him and I'll point that out later. What bothered John was what Jesus was not doing. Jesus was not fulfilling John's expectations of what the Messiah was to do. And so overflowing joy gave way to profound disappointment.

Now what specifically disappointed John? And the answer is found on two levels: the theological and the personal. Let's look at both of these levels, one at a time, and then see how Jesus responds to them.

Disappointment comes when Jesus doesn't fill our theological expectations

Consider first then the theological level of John's disappointment. John's preaching revealed his expectations. And his expectations are summarized in Luke 3:16. "As for me, I baptize you with water. But he who is mightier than I is coming. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."

Notice that John has two great expectations for his cousin. The Coming One, the Messiah, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and he will baptize with fire. The Holy Spirit and fire.

According to the Old Testament prophets, the Holy Spirit is the greatest gift of the age to come. The prophet Joel records God's promise for the messianic age. "It will come about after this that I will pour out my Spirit on all humankind." Isaiah records the same promised blessing. "For I will pour out water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground. I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring." And God promised that along with the outpouring of the Spirit would come all of the other gifts and blessings of the Spirit: joy, healing, forgiveness, wholeness, renewal, the new birth.

Fire was also the mark of the Messiah's coming, according to the Old Testament prophets. Before Joel records the promise of the outpouring of the Spirit, he records the promise of coming fire. "Blow a trumpet in Zion. Sound an alarm on my holy mountain, for the day of the Lord is coming. Surely it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness. A fire consumes before them and behind them a flame burns."

In the minds of the Old Testament prophets, fire symbolized judgement and purifying. The Messiah would come to judge the world. The Messiah would come to destroy all evil and wickedness, to purge the world of sin and unrighteousness. So John expected these two works: that the Messiah would come and baptize the righteous with the Holy Spirit and baptize the wicked with fire.

Now here's the point to grasp in order to understand John the Baptist's expectations. These two aspects of Messiah's work baptism with the Spirit and baptism with fire were in John's mind to occur at the same time and all at once. At the same time and all at once. That is why John warned people to be ready. With great compassion and a sense of urgency, he called people to repent, to turn around and be ready for the Lord's coming.

A separation would take place. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees he proclaimed. The winnowing fork is in his hand, to clean out the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his barn. But he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. You could summarize John the Baptist's preaching as "turn or burn." John was convinced that when the Messiah came he would immediately affect a radical purging of the world. What an expectation!

"No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground." The King would come and destroy all oppressors and evil and sin. And once the judgement and the purging took place, then, then the Messiah would pour out the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now we can appreciate why John was disappointed by the reports of Jesus' deeds.

The gift of the Holy Spirit was being poured out before the fire. And and this is what bothered John the most he heard nothing about fire. As William Barclay put it, John expected to hear the wrath of God is on the march. And what does he hear? The mercy of God has come.

What made things worse was that John heard that the very people who he expected to get the axe were the people with whom Jesus was eating and drinking. Jesus was keeping company with the chaff. He was pouring out his Spirit upon the unrighteous. Thank God. So John simply had to send messengers to Jesus asking, "Are you the Coming One, or should we look for someone else?"

Disappointment comes when Jesus doesn't fill our personal expectations

But John's question was not merely theological. It arises out of his own personal crisis, which is the second level of his disappointment. John was lying in a cold dungeon cell, captive to an evil, adulterous man. There he was, the herald of the arrival of God's King, imprisoned by an unrighteous king the Messiah was supposed to destroy. He could hear the singing and the dancing in the castle above him as Herod and his unrighteous friends got drunker and drunker. And the news he heard about Jesus added insult to injury. Jesus was holding feasts with drunkards and prostitutes and tax collectors and sinners. Jesus was reaching out to the very chaff on whom John had called down the fire of God.

And John saw no indication that Jesus was moving to free him from jail. Jesus did not even seem to try to cleanse the threshing floor of refuse like Antipas and Herodias. So John's question, "Are you the Coming One?" was very existential, intensely personal. If you are the king I have given my life to announce then what am I doing in prison?

Anyone identify with John? John is profoundly disappointed: theologically because Jesus did not fit into his presuppositions and personally because Jesus was liberating others, but not him. You know such disappointments theological and personal usually go together. Behind nearly allnot allbut behind nearly all theological struggle and controversy is personal hurt. Beneath many of the intense theological controversies of our day lay deep emotional wounds, which have been pricked by the theological controversy.

We wrestle with the affirmation "our God reigns," not because there is no evidence of it, but because our personal histories are not going the way we think they should go if God is reigning. We argue about whether or not God still heals in miraculous ways, not because there is no evidence of such miraculous healing, but because we, or our loved ones, have not been healed in such a way.

We get uptight with enthusiastic Christians who say, "Jesus can give you abundant joy," not because there is no evidence of abundant joy but because we don't have that abundant joy. John the Baptist's Christmas expectations were profoundly disappointed both theologically and personally. And so he asks, "Are you the Coming One, or shall we look for another?"

Ever felt like asking that question? A loved one dies. You get cancer. You lose your job. Depression lingers for weeks and months. Natural catastrophes occur. I admire John's honesty. "Are you the Promised One, or should we look for another?"

We must set aside our preconceptions of how God is supposed to work

Now let's consider Jesus' response to this surprising question. Jesus respected the question and then answers it on both levels, theological and personal. He touches the theological first. Notice that Jesus began by doing more of the same things John had heard about him doing. Luke tells us in verse 21 that in the presence of John's two messengers, at that very time, Jesus cured many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits, and granted sight to many who were blind. Then Jesus gave a short, succinct summary of his work. "Go and report to John what you have seen and heard. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the Gospel preached to them.

Now notice, in his summary of what he was doing, Jesus wasn't telling John anything he hadn't already heard. But Jesus was putting it in language that would communicate a clear message to John. Jesus tied together words and phrases from the prophet Isaiah, the very prophet that prophesied the coming of John. Listen for instance to these following lines from Isaiah.

Isaiah 35:46, "Say to those with anxious heart, 'Take courage, fear not! Behold your God will come with vengeance. Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. The lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb will shout for joy.'"

Isaiah 61:1, "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the , to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners."

Jesus deliberately summarized his work in the words of Isaiah so that John would get the point. Yes, John, I am the Coming One foretold by Isaiah. I am fulfilling the role of the Messiah. People are being made whole and being renewed. But John I'm not going to play the script the way you wrote it.

The question then is where did John go wrong? Where were his expectations in error? And I think this is where it starts to get with most of us. I'll summarize it this way. Jesus coming in the days of John the Baptist was not the end. It was the beginning of the end. John thought it would be the end. Jesus comes at the beginning of the end. What do I mean?

Well the Last Day, the Judgement Day, the great and terrible Day of the Lord, is still in the future. Thus no fire, no axes, no winnowing forks yet. Although judgement is conspicuously absent in Jesus' work, the giving of the Spirit and the blessings of the age to come are very prominent. What Jesus has done then, which confused John and which confuses a lot of people, is that Jesus has stretched out the end times. It is not one point, but a long period. And he has separated out the works of the Messiah.

First he comes ahead of the Day of the Lord, baptizing with the Holy Spirit, giving the gifts of peace and joy and deliverance and forgiveness and reconciliation. Then one day, on that Day of the Lord, he comes baptizing with fire, destroying all evil, purging human existence of all sin. John expected both baptisms to occur at the same time, and very quickly, all at once. Jesus does them one at a time and a whole lot slower than John ever expected.

Now an analogy, I think, can help us at this point understand why John went wrong in his expectations. Imagine that you were going to now climb a mountain. You stand at the base of this mountain, looking up at this peak that you are going to climb. From down in the canyon, down in the valley there, it appears that you have only one peak to climb and that reaching the top of the peak is simply a matter of a steady uphill climb. What you can not see is what you will soon discover. That in order to reach that peak you are going to have to go up and down, up and down a whole series of intermediate peaks.

Jesus is the Messiah, the Promised One; it's just that he accomplishes his work in stages, which John could not see from the floor. First he comes and baptizes with the Holy Spirit and then one day baptizes with fire.

First we have DDay, when God's grace and mercy invade the world. God puts his claim upon the world. God comes and dies for the world on a cross. DDay, and then VDay, when God invades with his justice and destroys all evil.

Now if John had set aside his own preconceived ideas of how God was supposed to work, he would have heard in Jesus' words a very clear response to his theological disappointment. Jesus was saying through the language of Isaiah, "John I am the Messiah. It's just that I'm not going to play it the way you anticipated."

We must lay aside our expectations and trust God

Then Jesus responds to the personal disappointment. Verse 23 of chapter seven, "And blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over me." Let me paraphrase Jesus' words this way: John I'm aware that you are disappointed in me but I'm asking you to trust me. Yes, my methods and my timing are not as you hoped. I know what you've been preaching. I agree. I too desire to see all of life rid of sin and pain and death and evil. Hang in there, my cousin. Trust me. I know what I am doing. Let me be me. Let me be the Messiah my way. Trust me John.

It is not a fully satisfactory answer, is it? But at times it is the only response Jesus Christ gives us. Jesus often responds to our cries in unexpected ways. But that does not mean he is not the Savior and Lord and King. He often asks us to lay aside our expectations and trust him to be the Messiah in his way and in his time. That is very hard to do, I know. But that is why Jesus pronounces his blessing on those who will let him do it his way.

As unsatisfactory as this response is, it is in fact the only response that finally fulfils us. For you see what it does: it draws John back to Jesus. It draws us to Jesus. Even if Jesus the Messiah did immediately purge the world of sin and evil, that does not mean then that we would be whole. For we are only whole when we come into relationship with Jesus Christ. Even if Jesus had freed John the Baptist from Herod's prison, that would not guarantee that John would be free. We are free only in relationship with Jesus Christ. Even if Jesus the Messiah did remove all pain and sorrow and sickness, even if he did give us everything we asked, we would not be fully alive until we belonged to him, hook, line and sinker. Jesus' answer, "Blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over me" draws us to him. And it is in belonging to him that those disappointments can give way to new hope and joy.

"Are you the Coming One, or shall we look for someone else?" John asked the question because he saw no fire and because Jesus was moving too slowly. Where is Jesus Christ not working according to your expectations? What is the parallel in your life to this "no fire"? What is the parallel in your life to this "Jesus is moving too slowly"? The temptation during those times is to walk away from Jesus Christ and to follow after false Messiahs.

Jesus still calls out to us. Trust me. I understand your confusion and disappointment. Trust me. I am the Promised One. Let me be who I am, in my way, in my time, and blessed is the one who does not stumble over me.

The theologians have a little phrase, which I think can give us the proper perspective of celebrating Christmas. It is the phrase "already, not yet." The promised Messiah has come already. And he has already accomplished much of his work. But his work is not yet complete. He came the first time as the suffering servant. He comes the next time as the conquering King. Already, not yet. Already he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. Go tell John what you have seen and heard. Not yet he will baptize with fire. The final defeat of evil, not yet. The final eradication of disease and death and oppression is not yet. But because of the already, the not yet is certain. The final victory is secure because of the baby born in Bethlehem. There God entered into our existence and took up our humanity forever. His destiny is our destiny.

So as we now move from the Advent Christmas season, let us keep before us the tremendous promises God has made concerning the birth of his Son. But let us remember what John the Baptist could not see. That Christmas is incomplete without Good Friday and Easter and Pentecost and the Apocalypse, the final advent. Let us remember that Christmas is but the first chapter of the story. There is no chapter to compare with the Christmas chapter. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." God became a human being. Nothing to compare with that.

But as as the Christmas chapter is, it is incomplete without the other chapters. The purpose of Jesus' birth is incomplete without his death. The purpose of his death is incomplete without his resurrection. The purpose of his resurrection is incomplete without his pouring out of his Holy Spirit upon his people. And the purpose of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon his people is incomplete without his coming again in glory to baptize the world with fire.

So after Christmas we pray, "Come Lord Jesus. I welcome you into my life. Come baptize me, immerse me, in your Holy Spirit. I give you full access to my heart and mind. Fill me and use me to further your redemptive purposes." But we also pray, "Come Lord Jesus come. Come again and finish what you began. Come bring your work to its final realization."

We can pray these two ways confidently and expectantly, for he has come and he is here, albeit in veiled and hidden form. The light has come to pierce the darkness. The darkness can not overcome it. The end has begun. It is the last hour and has been since that holy night. Jesus calls himself the bright morning star, my favorite title in the New Testament for him. The bright morning star is the star that appears in the night when the darkness has reached its darkest point, signalling the beginning of the dawn. We are, and we have been since the first Christmas, living in the twilight, shortly before the sunrise.

Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come. Amen.

Darrell Johnson is associate professor of pastoral theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. His most recent book is Experiencing the Trinity (Regent, 2002).

(c) Darrell Johnson

Preaching Today Tape #51


A resource of Christianity Today International

Darrell Johnson has been preaching Jesus Christ and his gospel for over 50 years. He has served a number of Presbyterian congregations in California, Union Church of Manila in the Philippines, and the historic First Baptist Church in the heart of Vancouver, Canada. He has taught preaching for Fuller Theological Seminary, Carey Theological College in Vancouver, and Regent College in Vancouver.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Christmas awakens both joy and sadness because we know our expectations have not yet been fully realized

II. Disappointment comes when Jesus doesn't fill our theological expectations

III. Disappointment comes when Jesus doesn't fill our personal expectations

IV. We must set aside our preconceptions of how God is supposed to work

V. We must lay aside our expectations and trust God