When God’s Plans Aren’t Ours
James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11
One of my favorite movies is Mr. Holland’s Opus. It tells the story of a musician who planned a great career. He expected to be renowned as a performer and a composer. In the meantime, to make ends meet, he took a job teaching music in high school. And there he stayed – for decades – feeling that he had wasted his life. None of his dreams had come true.
This morning’s gospel lesson gives us a disappointed John the Baptist. He was in prison. This outspoken man had promised that the Messiah was about to appear. And that promise had been heard with joy by those who were waiting eagerly for God’s realm to come – in earthly power. They, like John, wanted a new King David who would roust their enemies and set things right once again. John had been the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.’” He spoke of repentance. He called for justice, for living in ways that would bear the good fruit of God’s promised realm. He baptized with water, but spoke of the one who would come and baptize with Holy Spirit – and purifying fire! His was a campaign speech that excited his hearers – that promised a better day.
Of course, his talk about a new realm did not sit well with Herod. So, John found himself in prison. Maybe he thought that Jesus would pick up the refrain and launch the revolt. But, Jesus’ ministry was not like John’s ministry. Yes, he drew crowds – but he didn’t fire them up in the same way that John had. There didn’t seem to be a new realm about to break forth, a realm that would dismantle the powers that oppressed. So John was questioning – questioning his own message, his own role in proclaiming God’s presence. Jesus’ ministry did not seem to be the fulfillment of his message. So, he wondered, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
I heard one of the early feminist theologians, Rosemary Radford Ruether, speak, years ago. She said that we have been accustomed to thinking of history as a straight line. If that’s the way we look at history, maybe it’s the way we understand life, as well. We expect things to move forward in an orderly fashion. So we make plans. We have expectations and dreams.
But, we know, things don’t always work out as we might have expected. Dreams and expectations are challenged – and sometimes shattered. It is a sobering experience that might, at times, leave us questioning whether or not God is present. Where is God when the path toward increasing justice is suddenly blocked? Where is God when the vulnerable are threatened? Where is God when our personal dreams and hopes falter?
Where is God when our personal hopes and dreams falter?
John the Baptist had hope – hope that he was part of ushering in God’s promised realm. And he didn’t see it appearing. Jesus wasn’t leading the revolution that would re-establish Israel as a free nation.
Ruether said that we need to get away from seeing history (and the human story) as a straight line. She drew the straight line on the blackboard. Then she drew, what she said, was the more realistic way that the human story unfolds. It was a spiral. (A Slinky!)
Perhaps, in that spiral there is grace. Jesus said no one had been born who was greater than John the Baptist. Yet, even the least in the God's realm were greater. John had proclaimed God's realm. Yet, even this great proclaimer could not understand it fully! So, he heard what Jesus was doing – but couldn’t see that Jesus’ ministry was the very fulfillment of what he had proclaimed. John hoped, as did most of Israel, for a mighty warrior. The one who came was the Prince of Peace. Jesus recognized that the goal of God’s realm present on earth was not to be achieved with a straight line game plan, conquering those who disagreed, but by sowing the seeds that would take root and bring the multitudes into alignment with the ways of God.
Whenever our straight line scenarios get disrupted, maybe we’re invited to look again – and see God at work. It has been true, throughout history, that human beings seek power people who will make things right. We still look for messiahs who promise us everything so that we will follow and find the world living up to our dreams and expectations. Every once in a while, someone emerges, someone who embodies the ways and values of God – speaks to them and works for them. But ore often than not, the way is hard. The world is not comfortable with the message. And, we are still disappointed.
If only they had the power! But the way of power always falls short. We can’t force God’s ways on the world, on others. We can’t legislate it. We can’t demand it.
But, we can live God's ways. We can live as an invitation to others to participate in God’s realm—always, ever within reach. We can choose love when others choose hate. “Love your enemies.”
“Tell John what you hear and see; 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.” God’s realm was at hand – just not in the way John had expected it. The good news was emerging in lives changed and in community restored.
It still emerges that way. It is around us when people stand up to bullies and racists. It’s around us when the hungry are fed, when those who struggle are given a fair chance and the help that they need. It is around us when those who are different or fearful are welcomed and given safe shelter. It’s around us when we recognize that our own visions of God’s realm are always partial – and that a fuller vision emerges as more and more voices are heard.
It struck me, as I was looking back at the story of Mr. Holland’s Opus, that the movie was really another telling of “It’s a Wonderful Life” – without Christmas or an angel trying to earn his wings. Mr. Holland struggled with his failed dreams, with a life that didn’t meet his expectations. When the school eliminated his position, many of his former students gathered to surprise him – playing in a band and performing his “opus.” He found, as did George Bailey, that he had lived his dream – just not in the way he had expected. With and through his students, he made music – he was a performer. His dream of being a composer came true in the impact he had on students’ lives – giving them confidence to go out into the world and make a difference.
In the spiral there is grace. Straight lines tend to leave people on the margins. A few take the power and others are silenced. In the spiral, we look again – and seek a way forward that bends toward that God promised realm that is marked by justice and mercy for an ever widening circle of people. The Messiah came. He showed John, the crowds, his disciples and us that God comes not as a conquering warrior, but as a presence born among us and within us, to transform our lives and the world.
Jesus said that John the Baptist was great – yet the least in God’s realm was greater than he. It is a reminder that all of us are invited to bear witness to God’s realm in our words and in our deeds. If the world disappoints us, if it seems that it has fallen short of what we expect, we could examine our expectations. Have we left room for God’s agenda? Where is God at work? Through whom is God at work? Is there a role we can play in preparing God’s way?