As Christmas draws near, hope abounds. Stores offer discounts raising hopes of giving and getting what we want. Family makes plans to get together, plane tickets are purchased, menus are planned, trees are raised, lights ablaze and our hearts are warmed at the thoughts of a joyful Christmas. Working in a homeless shelter gives me a bitter sweet look at Christmas. Generosity abounds. We have enough cookies, mittens, scarves and coats to create a regiment. We almost have more volunteers than shelter guests. Wednesday night we had a busload of people from a church come in and decorate our halls and raise Christmas trees. We gave the group a tour of the shelter and some people cried when they saw the bunk beds and thought of people being homeless. One group gave out socks to everyone and even some of our grumpiest guests gushed with gratitude. To top it all off the Dutchess County legislature had a moment of conscience and restored our funding cuts. It is heartwarming to have good news, to see both generosity and gratitude.
And at the same time, the shelter is filling up again as the days get colder. Hopefully we will still have room at the inn come Christmas Day. Our residents are more prone to relapse as this is also a season of anxiety. Being together with family is not good news for everyone. Some have no one to be with or have lost loved ones this year. There is nothing worse than feeling alone and hopeless and penniless, when the rest of the world seems to be gushing joy, togetherness and cash. The flip side of hope is disappointment. Often as we prepare for a season of joy, we are plagued by fears of disappointing others. Did you get gifts that will be meaningful? Did you spend enough? Did you spend way too much, trading temporary pleasure for later pain, so that you wouldn’t disappoint anyone?
Disappointment is a powerful force, sometimes ruining a seemingly good situation. I had to turn away a group of volunteers who wanted to come in a serve dinner to our residents, because we already had enough people on hand and I didn’t want more volunteers than residents. They were disappointed and angry that they couldn’t give right on Christmas Day, and were not consoled much by my assurance that we needed volunteers all year round. I wonder what hopes they had for the event and why they were so disappointed.
Our Gospel lesson shows that people could even be disappointed with Jesus. John the Baptist hears what Jesus has been doing and he sends a messenger to ask, “Are you the messiah or should we wait for another?” It seems strange since John is the one who baptized Jesus and announced him as the messiah to everyone. Did John fear that he had made a mistake? What had he heard about Jesus that disappointed him? And looked back at the previous chapters of Matthew’s Gospel to see what Jesus was doing, and he was busy teaching and preaching, and training his disciples to go out and preach and draw others in. It looks good to me, but John is viewing all this in jail. Perhaps he was expecting more of a military and political messiah who would lead a revolution, or who would more vigorously condemn and resist those in power. Maybe he thought the messiah should get his mentor out of jail. After all, what is a messiah for?
Its not like Jesus signed on to a tax cut deal with Republicans. I couldn’t help but think of this Gospel lesson while watching Democrats attack President Obama this week. Newsflash, Obama is not the messiah. Democrats are dismayed that he is not Harry Truman, but Obama is being who he always said he was going to be. His fame began at the 2004 Democratic Convention when his speech was about overcoming political division, working together and trying to be one America again. Obama has always been a centrist, consensus builder, not a fiery prophet of progressive politics like Bernie Sanders, who took the Senate floor for 8 hours on Friday to filibuster against the President’s plan. My feeling is that if the tax plan is so important to the liberal Democrats, then they should have voted on a suitable plan before the November elections. Don’t blame Obama when you share the failure and lack courage yourselves. Where was their resolve two months ago when it might have counted? This scenario happens to nearly every President. To get things done, sometimes even your supporters will be disappointed. If Sarah Palin becomes President, she too will hit a moment when she has to disappoint her base in order to govern, just ask the people of Alaska.
Obama responded to his critics by bringing in Bill Clinton to reassure people, while Jesus responds to the messenger by getting some support from the prophet Isaiah, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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.” Jesus sees his mission as continuity with Isaiah 35 and the call to strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. That sounds good to me, but remember John’s message last week was that one is coming who would baptize with fire and the chaff would be burned. Maybe Jesus did not conform to John’s apocalyptic vision of a messiah. Jesus follows up his message with a sermon that makes it clear he sees himself very much in continuity with John the Baptist’s prophecy and ministry. But of course we know the rest of the story. John never left prison and was beheaded. Even messiahs have their limits. If we read a few versus more in the gospel lesson, Jesus says that many people are not satisfied with either of them, noting that John came as an ascetic in the wilderness, fasting and wearing camel hair and people called him a demon. Then Jesus comes eating and drinking and they call him a glutton. People are never quite satisfied with their prophets.
I think the message this morning is that you cannot be disillusioned unless you had illusions to begin with. Disappointment is often the result of false hopes and unrealistic attitudes. The Gospel points to an important caution to our season of hope. Beware of the trap that even John the Baptist falls into. Make sure you are hoping for the right reasons. When I read Jesus’ hopeful words quoted from Isaiah, it strikes me that they are words about empowerment. Jesus wants to open our ears and eyes, to see and do the truth, he wants to strengthen us feeble knees and give us words to speak. These great gifts are like water flowing through the wilderness, blossoms in the desert. Jesus makes a way known to us where there seemed to be no way before; and at that point, we have to get involved in our own hope. Jesus’ gifts of grace do not always make our lives easy, but it does make our lives possible. Some of you here this morning have had surgery this year, a knee replacement so you can walk, a shoulder surgery that makes an arm useful again, some may have had cataract surgery so you can keep your sight, I’ve had my intestines reconnected so I can live. The gifts of grace do the same thing for our souls. Jesus is the Great physician, our true messiah, who knows what our soul needs to heal and move forward. The next step is up to us. The fulfillment of our hopes depends upon what we do once we can see and hear and walk and live the Good News.