Why are you here today? I asked the children earlier, but now it's your turn. Why are you here? What are your expectations? Jesus asked the crowds the very same question about John - why had they seen him? Why had they gone out into the desert? We're not in the desert, but I'm sure some of you had to make a fair trek to get here, and it's pretty cold. So why are you here? (Demand reaction.)
I hope you're all here to meet God. I hope you're all here to hear the Word of God, both directly from the scriptures and interpreted in a message for today. This morning I'd like to talk particularly about expectations, doubt, and looking to the light of Christ in today's world.
What we come to church for - what we expect when we worship - is intimately linked with the Advent theme. Advent is a time when we look back to the first Christmas, and look forward to Christ's Second Coming. It's a time when we can reconsider our expectations of the Second Coming and our expectations of the impact of Christ on our lives today.
Our expectations are shaped by the world we live in and our upbringing. There's no getting away from that, and things were much the same in John's time. John would no doubt have read all the same scriptures and been taught in the same kind of way as those who missed Jesus for what he was. Despite the prophecies of Isaiah, the Jews were still expecting something different from their Messiah. Something altogether more worldly - something more like a normal king, with enough of an army to kick out the Romans.
So, when John - a man more accustomed to the outdoor life than confinement - was languishing in prison and heard strange things about Jesus, it's no wonder he began to doubt a little. John's life had been frugal and harsh; Jesus was living it up, relatively speaking - and with all kinds of unsavoury people. Admittedly he'd baptised the man, and a voice had come from heaven - but could all of that be wrong? Had he been wrong about his main purpose in life? Had he announced the wrong person? Was he not supposed to be the forerunner of anyone? However much we may sometimes doubt, I hope we never have to weigh up quite such difficult faith choices as John faced.
And yet, the fact that he did have enough of a crisis of confidence to send some followers to Jesus to check what was going on should be of enormous comfort to us. Different people have different types of doubts, of course. For some, God's existence is never in doubt, only their part in his plan, or their own salvation. Personally, when I doubt, I go for it all the way - am I completely deluding myself about the whole affair? Am I compounding the folly of believing with the crime of encouraging others to do the same? Is this "call to preach" I feel just my own arrogance and love of the sound of my own voice? Is the feeling of the Spirit actually just adrenaline? These are questions which go to the very core of who I am, and so I'm rather glad I don't have such doubts terribly often. However, I'm very glad I'm clearly not the only one. If even someone like John can suffer doubts, I don't need to feel too bad about the company I'm keeping on that score.
So if John's faith was being harmed by his expectations, what expectations do we hold which might damage our relationship with God, and call us to question his purpose or even existence?
In terms of the church, I think the problem may almost be trying to work out whether we're expecting too much or too little, or just the wrong kind of thing entirely.
Perhaps we expect too little of God, underestimating his power for change. Should we be reaching out to literally everyone we can, preaching the Good News and genuinely expecting to totally transform the world that way? Should we be expecting that all mankind can be brought into its right relationship with God through our efforts directed by and given power by the Holy Spirit? If God is indeed omnipotent, that should be possible, right?
Or perhaps we're expecting too much of God instead. Maybe we're relying on God to carry out prayers rather than acting on them ourselves - that when we pray for someone in hospital to feel God's presence and calm, we're expecting that to happen "as if by magic" when in fact we should be getting out and seeing that person ourselves, and telling them that God is with them, and helping to calm their anxieties. History suggests that those who fully expect that a physical Second Coming, with attendant horsemen of the apocalypse, rivers of blood, the dead rising from the grave, etc, will not only happen, but happen within their lifetime, will be disappointed. It could still happen within our lifetimes, of course - but there have been those who have expected it years ago. Are our expectations too literal, too earthly, rather than relying on the mystery of God, accepting that we can never understand him?
Or perhaps we're expecting God to conform to society's ideas of right and wrong, justice and injustice. What do we do when we read a Bible passage that makes us uncomfortable, or hear a sermon which suggests that God disagrees with us? Do we discard the passage, saying it's not relevant today? Do we believe that in this instance the preacher is mistaken? In short, are we open to changing our expectations, or are we expecting God to be a mirror image of our morals?
I suspect at some point or other each of us is guilty of a few of these warped expectations. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be expectant, however. At Advent in particular, we are asked to expect the Second Coming. While it may be a mistake to expect it at a particular time, we should certainly be ready - as ready as we can be, anyway - for it, whenever and however it comes. We can expect "it" to happen sometime, even if we don't know exactly what "it" is, or when "it" will happen. That's a terrible kind of expectation to have in scientific terms - as a hypothesis it can't be measured, tested, even adequately described. It's a wonderful kind of expectation to have in Christian terms, however. The little we can be sure of when it comes to the Second Coming is positive, thanks to Christ's sacrifice - we have been promised entry into the Kingdom.
Like John, however, we need to not only look at what may be to come, but what has already happened and what is happening right now in our world. It is easy to listen to the news, read the papers, even look around us, and conclude that the world is a pretty dire place. Just as John missed the prophetic fulfilment in Jesus' ministry, so it's unfortunately easy for us to miss seeing Jesus working in today's world.
Watching the news, it's tempting to think that nothing good ever happens, and that mankind is getting more and more evil by the day. As the world seems to grow smaller, so individuals and single events can affect more and more of us. A single company having a bad day can mean ten of thousands of pensioners having to worry about their financial future. Wars embarked on at the will of a few can cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The greed of wealthy nations can cost millions of people their lives in developing countries.
And yet, the same technologies and social constructs which allow this kind of suffering are also responsible for great good. Many families can keep in touch across the world more easily than ever, with cheap international phone calls and the power of the internet. The welfare state, always under criticism, is still providing support, health care, education - in short, civilisation, for the many rather than just the few.
Now, the cynic in me would say that all of that is just man's doing - we don't need to look to Christ for any of it. To some extent, I'd go along with that - but only to some extent. I firmly believe that all good works are in some way works of God. It is God's image within us - well-disguised, but present in everyone, from the best to the worst of us - it is that image which leads us to care for one another, and act on each other's needs.
You don't need to look very far to find more direct links, of course. Christian Aid. The Jubilee 2000 campaign to end third world debt. NCH. Countless charities have been set up by those who have felt called to it, not just as humans but as Christians.
We must look at the world as Christians and see both the darkness and the light. We have been assured that the darkness will never quench the light, and part of our Christian duty is to help to ensure that ourselves. We must be part of the light, going out into the darkness wherever we find it, and bringing Christ's love-light to shine there.
The Light of the world has already come. It's natural to feel doubt sometimes, and no-one's faith is rock solid all the time. It's easy to become disheartened in the face of the bad news we see all around us. However, we have Good News to both rely on and spread. While we expect for the final fulfilment of all that has been promised, we must neither ignore nor neglect the light which is already here.