What Joy? Where is Hope? Matthew 11:2-12

A Week for Joy?

This is the third week of advent which is to be marked with Joy. But when we hear the reading this morning from Matthew 11, what joy is given to John who finds himself imprisoned as an enemy of the state?

Oh and did I mention that this is the third week of advent? Which is another way of saying there is only one more week until Christmas! What joy do we find in the fact that there is only one week until Christmas? I mean, how many of you are sitting back, drinking a hot cocoa and totally chill because you got it all under control?

When I look down my list I still have to get ready for Lily’s 6th birthday party, finish picking out gifts, prepare for our family’s Christmas eve, the church’s Christmas eve, oh and theirs wrapping left to do, getting ready for company on Christmas day. Oh and I need to find an UGLY Christmas sweater.

Okay – how many days do we have left? 9 days?

Where’s the joy in all this?

And I haven’t even added in any of the real difficult things that happen to us or that we’re reminded of during this season. Yesterday was the one year anniversary of the deadliest mass shootings this country has ever faced and it happened at an elementary school.

And what about for you? What losses, failures or conflicts do you face this Christmas season?

In the midst of advent: what joy? where is there hope?

John’s Failure

We got to hear a little about John the baptist last week from Shelly, who had a good word for us. She asked,

“What must die in order for something else to live?” “What needs winnowed in us, what needs cleared out so that there is space for the Christ child to be born?”

We were reminded, based on last week’s reading about John the Baptist, that God doesn’t just show up in the pretty and in the nice, but often we find God appearing in the disturbance.

Failure and disappointment are as much a part of the Christmas story as a cute, cuddly, chubby baby.

God knows that we are afraid.
God knows we are often lost.
God knows that there is darkness in this world.
And God comes and appears in the disturbances and moves towards us.

It has to be this way if Christmas is going to have any grit for us today. The story of Christ’s birth needs to be able to help us remain awake in the midst of suffering because that’s what we’re living with on a daily basis.

And fortunately it’s exactly what this text is all about this morning. John is living with failure and disappointment.

Typically, being in prison isn’t exactly a sign of things going the way you planned. And because of the turn of events John has faced, he begins to question what is really going on.

It was only back in a few chapters when John was proclaiming Jesus as the One he’d come to prepare the way for. Now he’s asking are you the one?

Just like us, John seems a little fickle. Everything was going along just fine for John, he was a successful preacher, his following was growing, he was agitating those in power, Jesus gave him a raving endorsement. But then everything turns sour and he begins to wonder where God is in all this.

I don’t mean to make this sound critical of John. It’s easy to be resilient when the threshold for pain is low. Things are going well, we’ve got things under control. Typically, this is when we have more certainty about life. Things make more sense.

Then comes failure, tragedy, loss, a relationship gets stuck in an unhealthy pattern, kids begin acting up, finances are drained, there is pain of some kind. And everything changes. When the threshold of pain rises? How do we respond when things move outside our control?

I was confronted with this feeling last week when our 6 year old had to be put to sleep for dental work. I had that sense of fear and feeling of things being out of my control. What if the dr messes up? What is something goes wrong?

When chaos looms. When pain and suffering gets raised. It is easy to find ourselves moving with John from certainty to skepticism:

“He’s the one!”
“Are you the one?”

a cul-de-sac

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Imprisoned, in the third week of Advent, John finds himself at a dead end. He is stuck in a cul-de-sac, where there appears to be now way out. Life continues on in the same old way. His dreams have not been fulfilled.

He learns the hard way that:

“This is often the way God loves us: with gifts we thought we didn’t need, which transform us into people we don’t necessarily want to be” William Willimon

Just like John, disappointment is often a part of our Christmas experience.

  • On Christmas we open a gift we thought was going to be that iPad we’d asked for only to find it’s more socks and underwear.
  • Or we show up a family dinner to learn there are certain members of the group who refuse to participate.
  • Or there are people there we wish would refuse to participate.
  • Or we notice a face missing around the dinner table who was there just last year.
  • Or we find ourselves yet again, struggling to make ends meet and this Christmas has stretched us even further.

We all know the feeling of disappointment and failure. And If I was John sitting in that jail cell I know how I would feel too.

One of my own greatest fears is not of heights, or spiders, or of flying or dying, I fear failure. I am afraid to fail my family, God, you all.

I’m the type of person to play monopoly all the way to the end of the game – I will play until I absolutely no chance left of winning. I hate to give up, even when all hope is lost.

And John must have felt like all hope was lost. Like he was a complete failure. Completely disappointed with himself. What could he have done differently? What did he miss that would make the difference?

I think we can all identify with John’s cul-de-sac.

The power of Christmas is that in midst of these dead-ends, disappointments, failures and darkness, there came to be a great light that darkness could not overcome.

This is why we sing:

“A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

This is why we sing:

“the hopes and fears of all the years are met in him tonight.”

A Door Opens

The Christmas story is about light breaking into darkness. Hope in the midst of faille. And Joy alongside the presence of suffering. God finds a way where there is no way.

In the midst, then, of every system of ours, hope appears not as the escape route from a cul-de-sac, nor as the fulfillment and embellishment of what we already live, but as an unexpected rupture in the system. It is a door open where all appeared to be closed, but not the door open where we would like it to be, as the consoling confirmation of our little hopes; rather it is exactly where we have a tendency not to look, the gate of the victim. -James Alison (Raising Able)

As John sat in prison struggling with disappointment and failure, he was looking for the wrong thing. It’s not that he failed at all. But that his expectations of the coming Messiah were misdirected.

It’s as if:

If you already know what to look for, you’re likely to miss it.

The door is opening and the messiah is coming in where we tend not to look. Jesus was the victim who was innocent, and Jesus ministered to and organized and healed victims. Jesus gathered people who were hurt, disregarded, disappointed, failures, losers, people who were strange and outsiders, but people who were ready for change, were ready to take a risk and follow him. People who were willing to see God even in the midst of all their pain and disappointments.

So what is Joy? And Where is hope?

Hope is the very possibility of change. Joy is the willingness to see hope all the way through.

It is hope that John asks “are you the one to come.” Even in the midst of doubt and failure, he wonders, could this be God at work?

It is in hope that people whose eyes are closed are opened up.

It is in hope that the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised.

It is in hope that the poor are given fed and welcomed to be a key part of God’s movement.

It is in hope that Mary becomes a willing participant against all odds. And Joseph takes her as his bride in the face of scandal. They both hold onto Joy as they leave their homes by the camelback hoping to escape the bloodthirsty of Herod.

It is in hope that we walk through a new day even in the face of great disappointment and failure.

It is in hope that we believe in the face of disbelief, and we act in the face of complacency and apathy.

It is hope that comes from the least expected places,
from the tired faces,
and the worn out people in all the gathered spaces.

This is the Christmas hope from a jail cell. What feels like a dead end may in fact be exactly that, until a door opens in a place where there is no door.

Are we able to hold out for hope, in the presence of the challenges of real life?

Might it be that God is opening an unexpected door in what looked like the dead end of a cul-de-sac?

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.