Expect the Unexpected
A sermon on Romans 1:1-7 & Matthew 1:18-25 by Nathan Nettleton, 19 December 2004


Message:
The coming Christ will continually confound our expectations, no matter how well informed or righteous they may be.

Sermon

Whatever you are expecting from the coming Christ, there is a good chance you’ll be wrong. People have always been wrong about him. Even those who had spent the three years of his ministry in Galilee as his closest followers kept getting him wrong, and surely they had a better handle on him than any of us. Even they were quite unable to predict what he would do next. What they expected kept on not happening, and what did happen kept catching them by surprise. Last week I spoke about how many of the early Christians expected to see Christ return in spectacular glory within their own lifetimes, but that already in some of the last books of the Bible to be written, we can see them beginning to adjust their thinking as these expectations proved to be mistaken. Today, our readings give us some insight into what people were expecting of his coming in the years before his birth, and in so doing, they give us some pointers into what we need to be aware of as we think about our expectations now.

These questions of expectations are important, because our expectations are part of what shapes the way we act in the here and now. Did you see the stuff in the news in the last couple of days about the court case where a couple of Pentecostal preachers were charged under the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act with vilifying the Islamic faith. One of the things I noticed in the newspaper coverage was that the case had brought different responses from different sectors of the Christian Church. And it is interesting to reflect on why. The two major denominations named as siding with the Islamic Council on this were the Uniting Church and the Roman Catholic Church, and they are probably the two churches which are least associated with expectations of an immanent glorious return of Christ. And the churches listed as siding with the two Pentecostal pastors were the Pentecostal and evangelical churches; churches more strongly associated with strong teaching on the expectation of Christ’s victorious return. Now you might be tempted to draw simple conclusions from that and say that the churches which have a lower expectation of Christ’s return are therefore more heavily invested in being good cooperative citizens and avoiding conflict with other sectors of society, while those who have a stronger sense of a cosmic conflict between right and wrong which Christ will return to settle, once and for all, have more invested in speaking out uncompromisingly against anything that falls short of the truth of God in Christ.

I suspect though that such a reading of the story would be an over simplification. You see, what underpins the actions of the two Pentecostal preachers is not just an expectation that Christ will soon return in glory and vindicate those who have stood up for him. There is also an implied expectation about what sort of behaviour Christ expects of his followers and what sort of stance Christ takes towards those who do not recognise him as the Messiah. And it is here that I suspect that the two Pentecostal preachers may actually find their expectations startlingly upended by the coming Christ. Of course, there is every likelihood that I’ll have mine upended, so I might have it wrong about them! But whether they’ve got it wrong or I’ve got it wrong, the point remains the same: our expectations of what the coming Christ will value and vindicate shape our behaviour in the here and now.

Something along these lines was going on behind the words we heard from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. What we heard was the opening lines from the letter, and as with most of Paul’s letters, the content of his introductory greeting flags the issues he will be exploring in detail in the letter. The issue he is tackling here has to do with what, at the time, was a perceived conflict between a couple of the statements he makes here. First he speaks of the good news which God had promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures. Then he goes ahead and names Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ.

Now these two statements are directly linked because, of course, the Messiah is the promised one, the one who embodies the good news of God and who brings to fulfilment all that God has promised and intended for God’s people. But in the minds of most people of the day, suggesting that Jesus was, in fact, the messiah, was ludicrous. As Paul has said, the promises of the coming one had been made clear through the prophets in the scriptures. People had pretty clear expectations of what the messiah would be all about and what he would accomplish. The messiah would defeat the enemies of God’s people and usher in the reign of justice and peace. Clearly if the Roman occupation forces still had their boot on the throat of the Israelite people, then the messiah had not yet come. Anyone who claimed to be the messiah — and there were plenty of them — but who failed to overthrow the occupation forces and set Israel free, and set Israel up as the supreme light to the nations, was clearly a failed messiah. Their messianic claims were clearly invalidated by the outcome. And if someone claimed to be the messiah but ended up being publicly and humiliatingly executed by the Romans, then clearly such a person was not the messiah. You do not die a proven failure and still get hailed as the messiah. So when Paul and the other early Christians keep calling Jesus the Messiah after his execution, they are inviting ridicule and derision. Even their claim that he had been raised from the dead didn’t help much, although that is what Paul appeals to in these verses, because Jerusalem was still under Roman occupation.

Now that tells us straight up, that as people who claim that Jesus is the Messiah, we are a people who believe that the Messiah will defy our expectations at least as much as he fulfils them. It is certainly not that the expectations of the messiah had been ignorant. These were people who knew the scriptures well; people who had carefully studied what the prophets had promised about the coming messiah. So clearly one of the things Paul believed, and one of the things we believe as followers of Jesus, is that no matter how well you know the scriptures, you can’t know all about what the coming messiah will do, or how and when he will do it. If your faith is in Christ, trusting that whatever he does it will be for truth and justice and freedom, then you are on track; but if your faith is in a particular set of outcomes and prescription for how they are to be brought about, then the Christ will almost certainly shock and dismay you.

Going back to the court case, if you held a definite view that the Christ will always stand in opposition to Muslims and in solidarity with all who name the name of Jesus, then you would have to conclude that the verdict the other day is a disaster and the court has sold out to evil. But the Christ so frequently defies our expectations that it is just as likely that he is speaking to us in the findings of the court. Now I’m certainly not one who ever argues that the institutions of the state are the reliable instruments of God’s truth, but the Christ can do as he likes and use what he likes. And if we have already made up our minds what he’s going to do, then we may miss his voice completely if he starts giving us a talking to through the court.

This whole issue was a big one for the church which Matthew’s gospel was first written to. All the way through the gospel we find Matthew slanting the stories to address the question of a community which held very set views of how Jesus operates and how his people are expected to operate. In particular there were strong expectations in the community about continued adherence to the laws and traditions of righteousness. It was pretty easy to get yourself written off in Matthew’s church. Slip up and you were on the outer. Once you’ve proved yourself morally suspect, or of dubious strength of character, there was little chance of ever being accepted back into the inner circle.

So Matthew’s gospel has constantly got these harsh attitudes in its sights, trying to prick holes in the self righteousness and legalism present in the church. If you think you’ve worked out who God will use and how God will operate, Matthew says, get ready for your expectations to be turned upside down by the Christ. And he’s straight into this theme in the opening chapter. The only thing that comes before the story we heard tonight is the genealogy — the long list of Jesus’ ancestors. And even in the genealogy Matthew draws our attention to all the dubious characters in the list, those who were ethnically, religiously or morally suspect. And then we come to the well known story of Joseph and the events surrounding the conception of Jesus.

Joseph, we are told, is a righteous man. This description had a very specific meaning in his day. A righteous man is one who does what is right in strict accordance with the teachings of the law. So Joseph is just the kind of person who is well regarded in the church Matthew is writing to. And perhaps just the sort of man who Matthew’s church would expect God to choose to entrust his son to. But immediately the story is scrambled for Matthew’s hearers. Instead of God rewarding the righteous man, he turns his life and his righteousness on its head. Joseph is put in the horrible position of having to choose between cooperating with the call of God, and maintaining his reputation for righteousness. You see it is all very well for us, from our post resurrection perspective, to believe what Matthew tells us about Mary’s pregnancy coming about by the action of God and not the action of Joseph, but you can bet your life that no one was going to believe it in Joseph’s day. In fact you can bet your life that Joseph would not have been trying to convince anyone, because losing his reputation as a righteous man was bad enough, but if he’d started blaming the illegitimate pregnancy on God, he’d have more likely than not been stoned to death for blasphemy.

So Matthew is being pretty blunt here. If you think you’ve got God worked out, and you know that God is always going to be with the righteous people and honouring their reputations and diligence; if you think that God is going to make sure that the messiah is born from an impeccable pedigree of righteousness and in a situation above reproach, think again. The messiah will turn your expectations upside down. God’s chosen one is no respecter of our carefully constructed boundaries of right and wrong, of appropriate and inappropriate, of biblical and unbiblical. You can have it all worked out in your head, and like Joseph have worked out what is the right thing to do, the honourable thing, the biblical thing, and then God speaks to you and suddenly it is all upside down. God asks you to cross the boundaries and follow the messiah into the places where no bible-believing good righteous person would dare to go.

The Christmas season starts in a few days, and it is probably the time of year that we are most prone to thinking we know what it is all about. The stories are so familiar that we are sure we know the message. Nothing could surprise us. But let me assure you, that if nothing surprises you this Christmas, then you can bet that you have successfully celebrated Christmas without the Christ. If the Christ shows up — breaks through our frantic preparations and sugary sentiments — and sounds the call of the gospel into the midst of our Christmas stories, then all our expectations will be turned upside down and blown away and the approaching kingdom of God will be defining a whole new reality and challenging us to let go and come with it.