Scripture reading for today:

Isaiah 35:3-7, Psalms 126, Luke 7:18-30

Can He Still Surprise Us?

When I was in my twenties I was part of a team that launched a new church plant. I remember that before the plant was started a group of us had to appear before denominational leaders to explain the vision we had for a church that could embrace those on the edge of faith. Our proposal was definitely a stretch for many of the more conservative pastors in the room. We knew that what we were doing would not look like the other churches in our denomination; it would not look like the churches that had gone before us.

I know I was nervous about what the pastors would say, wondering if they would be able to accept the vision we felt God calling us to. But then, I distinctly remember one of the pastors – my old Bible School Professor, Dr. Feller – saying to us “I don’t understand what you’re doing, but God bless you as you do it.” The church we would soon plant did look very different from the ones Dr. Feller was used to, and yet it was wonderful to have him bless our work. He was willing to accept the strangeness of it as part of what God was doing in and through His church.

I am reminded of this time in my life as I read about John the Baptist’s struggle here in the middle of Luke’s gospel. We know from all the Gospel accounts that John the Baptist was the key figure in inaugurating the public ministry of Jesus; John explicitly prepared the way for everything that Jesus would go on to do. It’s a little surprising then to hear John the Baptist – the one who said he wasn’t worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals – questioning Jesus and asking “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

John’s ministry had been “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He was calling people not simply to be ceremonially clean on the outside, but to be cleansed within, obeying God’s law and living out the fruit of a changed life. John the Baptist had walked out his calling with ascetic discipline, characterized by fasting and simplicity, by purity and holy living. Perhaps this is why, after receiving reports of Jesus ministry, John began to question Jesus.

John lived on locusts and was a teetotaler when it came to alcohol, but he likely heard that Jesus was seen as “a glutton and a drunkard.” John had called people to a renewed obedience to God’s law, but Jesus was constantly challenging and violating the common understanding of God’s law, even allowing his disciples to violate sabbath. We cannot know for sure, but perhaps as John rotted in prison these were the thoughts that disturbed his mind; perhaps Jesus was not the messiah he had expected.

Jesus’ response to John’s messengers was simple – he showed them the fruit of his ministry. The outward trappings of Jesus’ ministry were strikingly different from his cousin John’s, but both disrupted the status quo, and both pointed to the same truth about the need for people to be healed and transformed. The ministry of Jesus may have seemed strange to John, but it ultimately was part of the same work of redemption God continues to do in His world.

This Advent season, as we wait in anticipation to celebrate the birth of the Messiah, may we open ourselves once again to the strangeness of the Christmas story. Make no mistake, the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus would have been very strange, even scandalous to the first who heard the story. Yet, it is easy for us to grow overly familiar with the shepherds and magi, allowing virgin births and choirs of angels to become saccharine and commonplace. In a similar way, it can be easy to assume that God’s work will always look like what we have grown used to. We have a tendency to get hung up on the ways we have seen God work in our lives, assuming that is what God will also do in the future. But Jesus is always doing something new. It is vital that we are reminded of this from time to time, recognizing that Jesus is a messiah who perpetually challenges our assumptions and expectations of him.

If Jesus can no longer surprise us with who he is, and what he is doing, it is quite likely we are no longer worshipping Jesus; we may instead have settled for an idol of our own making. But if like John the Baptist, we find ourselves challenged by Jesus, questioning what we see him doing, in His church and in the world, then we’re probably closer to the truth than it may feel.

If Jesus can no longer surprise us with who he is, and what he is doing, it is quite likely we are no longer worshipping Jesus; we may instead have settled for an idol of our own making Click To Tweet

Jesus is not the Messiah any of us expect, his ways are inscrutable. But if we pay attention, then we may realize it is only in our openness to the strange, to the otherness of Jesus, where we find that dead are still raised, and the good news continues to be proclaimed to the poor.

Thank you for reading the New Leaf Advent Reader, a collection of reflections from writers across Canada. If you are enjoying the reader, sign up to receive the readings in your inbox each day here: SIGN UP And please share this reflection with your friends and family who might also enjoy it.

photo credit: Fabrizio Verrecchia