The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Third Sunday in Advent
December 11, 2016
He played before my time, but I have watched plenty of YouTube videos of Wilt Chamberlain. He dominated on the basketball court. He holds the record for scoring 100 points, by himself, in a single game. Wilt the Stilt knew how to ball.
But there was a problem. For all his basketball skills, Wilt Chamberlain could not make free throws. He’s actually the third worst free throw shooter in NBA history. So the opposing teams came up with a strategy to stop Wilt Chamberlain. Whenever Wilt got the ball, instead of letting him shoot the opposing team would foul him. He would have to shoot from the free throw line and he would probably miss, meaning that Wilt wouldn’t score nearly as much as he could.
Of course, the obvious solution to this problem is for Wilt to become a better free throw shooter. So, one of Wilt’s playing partners came up with a solution – Wilt should try shooting free throws underhand. Statistically speaking, some of the best free throw shooters in the history of basketball have shot free throws underhand. As a kid, we called that, “granny style.” So for one brief time during Wilt’s career, including the game in which he scored 100 points, he shot free throws underhand.
Problem solved, right? Well, after just a few games shooting it that way, Wilt stopped, because he felt “like a sissy.” Fans would heckle him, and he would get self-conscience. He felt like less of a basketball player, even though he was scoring more points than ever before. The expectation was that Wilt Chamberlain should shoot free throws overhand, like everybody else.
We have expectations. Our heroes defy those expectations. And then we start to get anxious. That’s how it works. The disciples of John the Baptist want to know if Jesus is the Messiah, the one who is to come, or if they are to wait for another. Jesus gives them a cryptic answer, he doesn’t tell them straightaway. Jesus says, look at what I’m doing. Look at my stats. They speak for themselves. “the 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.” “Does that sound to you like I’m the Messiah?”
But I think that John’s disciples are anxious because Jesus is not doing what everybody expected the Messiah to do. Many of the ancient Jews wanted the Messiah to be a military leader, to be someone who would deliver the Jews from the Roman Empire. The Messiah would be this great general who would raise an army, kill the Romans, and let the Jewish people be free again. That is what the Jews expected from God. Just one hundred and fifty years before Jesus, it was the Maccabees, a Jewish group of revolutionaries who rose up to fight the empire that was ruling them. They raised an army, they started to fight, and to kill for their freedom. For many of Jesus’ contemporaries, this was what they expected God to do again. The Messiah was supposed to come along and finish what the Maccabees had done 150 years before. The Messiah was supposed to shoot free throws like everybody else. But here comes Jesus, shooting free throws underhand and it makes everybody wonder if he really is the Messiah.
And thanks be to God that Jesus didn’t cave in to the pressure. Wilt the Stilt wanted to be like everybody else and fit in. So he gave up on what was best and sacrificed so many points just because he wanted to meet expectations.. Jesus had a vision, he had a mission, he had gifts to give and no one, no expectation, no preconceived notion was going to stop him. Giving sight to the blind was far more important than killing Romans. Making the deaf hear was a sign of God’s kingdom, not a political revolution. Bringing good news to the poor is far better, far better than raising an army. John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus about his identity, and Jesus evades all of their expectations and gives them something even better.
Herein lies a lesson for the church. We are in the Jesus business, we are part of the Jesus movement. Our job, our vocation as the Church is to continue the work of Jesus – give sight to the blind, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, bring good news to the poor. This is not what the world expects from us. Sadly, we’ve come to a point at which the world expects Christians and the Church to be places of judgment, of anger, of deciding who is in and who is out, of casting the first stone. The world has come to expect churches to be places of petty squabbling, of grumbling about the color of the flowers, of saying snide things to people who are sitting “in my pew,” of getting griped at for not wearing the right clothes. When I talk to people during Drive-Thru Ashes, these are the reasons they give for not coming to church. It’s not that the people out there don’t believe in God, it’s that they have enough experience in churches to expect them to be a place of pettiness.
Let me be clear: that is not the Church that Jesus founded. Our vocation is to be a place of mercy and love and peace and welcome and hospitality and grace. This is not what the world expects. The world expects the church to shoot free throws overhand like everybody else: to be judgmental, to be crude, to be divided, to be angry.
We are not going to live up to somebody else’s expectations. We are going to shoot free throws underhand, because we know that is what is best. We are going to do what is right and holy, even if we look silly doing it. We don’t care if people on the outside think we are weirdos, or softies, or sissies. We only care if we are doing the work of Jesus. We will do the work of mercy, of grace, and of life. Cleanse the lepers. Give sight to the blind. Raise the dead. Bring good news to the poor.
See, we are lured, we are seduced into an ungodly nostalgia for a fictional past because those are our expectations for church. Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian from Texas says, “What’s killing the Church today is not atheism. What’s killing the Church today is sentimentality.” We are hampered by our longing for a world that no longer exists.
When in fact, what lies before us is ripe for preaching the gospel. Our world, our desperate, broken, dark, and hurting world is desperate to hear the gospel. I’m not sentimental about the past because I’m excited about the future. A future in which you and I have the opportunity to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to ears that have never heard it before.
The great gift of Advent, of this season of waiting for Jesus, is that we stand on the tipping point between the past and the future. We look back, not in sentimentality but in gratitude. We give thanks to God for the gift of Jesus, for giving sight to the blind, for cleansing the lepers, for raising the dead.
But we also know that the best is yet to come. We know that Jesus will come again, and in unexpected ways Jesus will fulfill his mission of mercy and grace. The woman who has lost children in miscarriage will have good news brought to her. The man who is addicted to work will hear a message of peace. Those who have been blinded by money will receive their sight. And I pray that the Church is there to welcome them home. And they will find their home in this church, even if the world doesn’t expect that of us.
This Advent, this year, I have been grateful for you all. It’s been quite a year at Holy Comforter. Think back. We had an unscheduled walk-on baptism, we had a confirmation class that was larger than many Episcopal churches, we’ve had an incredible financial gift. It’s been quite the year, quite the unexpected year.
But I’m not going to be sentimental. The best is yet to come. Jesus has something more in store for us next year. And when it comes, it probably won’t be what we expected it to be. Next year, I pray that we have the courage, the compassion, the grace to allow God to do the unexpected thing in our life together. Because it’s in the unexpected that Jesus gives sight to the blind, cleanses the leper, and brings the dead to life. He takes us, who are dead in our sentimentality, and gives us a life filled with hope for the future.