Wholeness: Piece by Piece
I grew up surrounded by a very large extended family. My earliest memories of Christmas include the annual family Christmas party to which every distant relative within a reasonable distance would come. The highlight of the party every year was the arrival of Santa Claus, which, while extraordinarily exciting the first few years of my memory, admittedly got a little bit, well, contrived, the older I got. As one of the oldest kids in the family, it was still fun to watch the routine every year and especially to see the little ones get so excited.
And every year it was the same thing: many years before—many—someone in the family had acquired a velvet Santa suit somewhere, including boots, a hat, and a beard. I recall that the velvet was rather worn in patches, and the beard was kind of scraggly. But the rule was that every year whoever was the newest in-law addition to the family would have to dress up in the suit, drag the bag of presents into the living room, and go through the routine of handing them all out. Some Santas were better than others, and even from my vantage point it did seem a little unfair to subject a new in law to the task of trying to get Auntie Mabel to come sit on his lap.
But even though the guy in the Santa suit changed every year, the routine we would go through to get him to appear was always the same. All the kids would eagerly gather in the living room. Several of us would be assigned to ring the jingle bells as loudly as we could. Then somebody would play the song “Jingle Bells” on the piano and we would have to sing a few verses. We all knew you had to sing really loudly and ring the jingle bells with great enthusiasm if you wanted Santa Claus to show up.
Every year we went through the same routine—we sang, but we weren’t singing loudly enough. So we sang louder. And eventually every year Santa appeared, with presents for everyone.
Here we are on the third Sunday of Advent, when we’ve been reading all of these passages in the Gospel of Matthew, passages in which John the Baptist has been singing Jingle Bells really loudly, you could say. Tasked with the job of announcing Messiah, John had taken it very seriously—out in the wilderness, living on the edge, preaching a message of urgency…Messiah is on his way! Better get ready!
Announcing the coming of Messiah was a serious job in the eyes of John the Baptist. Things had to change; the way the world was just wasn’t the way God intended; John was one of those people who was on a campaign to tell everyone: someone was coming, and when he came, everything would be turned on its head.
As we’re trying to prepare for Christmas, for the coming of Messiah, we hear the words of John just like the people of Judea did, and we can sense the import and urgency of his announcement. Remember last week’s passage from chapter 3? John the Baptist, out on the edge of the Jordan river, yelling at the top of his lungs about the one who is coming with vengeance and power and a strident standard to which he would hold everyone—no exceptions. Remember John’s images? “The ax is already at the root of the trees and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire . . . he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire! His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire!” Messiah is on his way, and John the Baptist was serious about doing his job of announcing him, this one who was coming to completely change the world.
But now that we’re in week three of Advent, our lectionary makes quite a jump, all the way to chapter 11 of Matthew’s Gospel, where we run into John the Baptist again and things are a little bit different. John knew his job was announcing Messiah, the one who would come and demand justice in God’s name. And John did that very thing. Because of his ardent campaign, John was thrown into jail. But in the meantime, Jesus himself—Messiah, or the one John the Baptist thought was Messiah—had actually appeared on the scene.
And he was, well, he was a little different than what John had expected. A little different than what pretty much everyone had expected, in fact. So by the time we get to chapter 11, here’s what was going on. Even though he was in jail, John the Baptist was getting reports of Jesus’ activities. No doubt he and his followers were watching Jesus with great interest, just waiting to see what kind of gauntlet Jesus would throw down for the Pharisees and the Roman rulers, ushering in the way of Yahweh to a world that had wandered far from what God had in mind. John had done his job, ringing the jingle bells and announcing Jesus’ arrival. But the reports he was receiving about Jesus were a little, well, different than John had predicted. They were different than John and his followers expected. They were not the fire and brimstone judgment that was the theme of pretty much all of John’s sermons from the banks of the Jordan.
Take a look!
In the 8 chapters between John the Baptist’s urgent announcement and today’s passage, Jesus had certainly made a splash on the scene in Judea. But he wasn’t really spending his time identifying and cursing those who were on the wrong track, as John had predicted he would. Instead, Jesus was healing people who were sick . . . and eating dinner with prostitutes . . . and preaching sermons about taking the last place instead of the first and loving your enemy and doing good to those who hurt you.
All the work that John the Baptist had done to announce Messiah, and now Jesus, the one he’d thought was the guy, didn’t seem to be behaving in exactly the way Messiahs should behave, in John’s mind anyway. The public figure Jesus was becoming was . . . different, unexpected, strange to John. Everything that John had thought about who God was, about what he expected to happen, about how things would turn out…well, it all was different.
So here, in chapter 11, John the Baptist sends some of his followers to Jesus just to clarify. “We thought you were the guy—that’s why I was preaching all that stuff from the banks of the Jordan, getting people to pay attention to you and what you had to say. So, are you the Messiah? Or should we be looking for somebody else? Because you are not exactly what I had been expecting.
Poor John the Baptist. There he sat in jail, serving time because he was so diligent about his job of announcing Messiah’s coming, of preaching the advent of God’s dream for the world. But in Jesus, the one he believed was the Messiah, all of John’s preconceived ideas about who God is, what God had come to do in the world…well, they were in effect broken. Shattered. Completely dismantled. Was Jesus the Messiah?
John thought so.
(STORY ABOUT MAKING A MOSAIC with Saint Charles Avenue Baptist Church—walk around and pass out broken pieces of pottery…)
This is what Jesus was up to: not fire and brimstone but wholeness…and life. This sense of God bringing something beautiful and whole to be out of little pieces of brokenness, of God’s work in the world being unexpected, strange, unusual…this was not new to Jesus. After all, he was Messiah, born to an unwed teenager in a stable for heaven’s sake!
He must have known that John the Baptist and those who followed John were well-meaning but a little confused, because Jesus had not, in fact, shown up on the scene with fiery judgment and divine wrath to rain down on people who weren’t living right. He had a different kind of work to do.
The reign of God Jesus came to usher in was completely different than what everyone expected…that the welcoming of God’s dream for the world was going to require a dismantling of expectations, even a breaking down of dreams and ideas that had seemed so concrete for so very long. And then a reassembling of the pieces of our expectations and dreams and hopes and beliefs…into something beyond what we ever…even…imagined.
What is this new dream, this wholeness that Jesus seemed to be ushering in? Well it was different, that’s for sure. It was different, and, curiously, it seemed even more powerful than a swipe of God’s hand of vengeance and judgment. Listen to Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples when they came to ask Jesus just what he was up to: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor!”
When Messiah comes, the world will be turned on its head, that’s for sure. But the radical nature of that turning is found in God himself taking the broken pieces of our lives, one by one, and piecing them together. Messiah is coming, in fact, to pick up the pieces of our lives, pieces that we’d watched smash onto the hard, cold floor of disappointment and pain and betrayal, and splinter into little pieces. Broken parts that we thought for sure were meant to be thrown away.
But Messiah arrives on the scene and gathers them up, gathers us up, and begins, one piece at a time, reassembling our lives into a mosaic of such brilliance and beauty beyond what we could have imagined.
In fact, this work of God begins shaping us into something so much more beautiful, even, than we were before, before…when we thought for sure were whole and perfect and not in need of any kind of change at all. Now our lives become, well, totally new. With the gift of God’s grace we are reassembled…little pieces of different colors, shapes, and sizes, some of them with smooth finished corners, some with sharp, ragged edges—none of them uniform colors or shapes or styles, and cracks…cracks in between each piece, cracks that seem to convey brokenness but instead allow us to see and feel and know in ways we never did before, the presence and gift of others…cracks through which the very light God streams right through.
Wholeness, piece by piece. For this we wait.