Matthew | Like, are you serious?

Christ’s incarnation is often underwhelming. It is up to us to look at the evidence, and decide if it’s the real deal. (Listen.)

We’re nearing the end of a long and somewhat disheartening year. After two years of lockdowns and all the ramifications, many of us kicked off this year with not much in the tank. Then we had sickness aplenty, and too many funerals, and relentless pivoting and change; many of us are fatigued, burned out, or just plain exhausted. Meanwhile, here at Sanctuary, some households have moved away, and church participation has dwindled. We still have a strong, solid core: but there are weeks when those of us who turn up might look around and wonder, Is this all there is?

We began just over six years ago. Our initial vision was to gather together people who had left church and were looking for a healing way. It was to develop patterns of worshipping and eating together; and to create spaces for people to wrestle with faith, ask big questions and build new relationships. I reckon we’ve achieved most of this; but six years and a pandemic later, momentum has largely fizzled.

We’re still small, smaller even than when we first began. Some of us were wounded by the storming phase of our beginnings; some of us still grieve those who are no longer here. Some of our families have moved on or their kids have grown up; and some of those who remain are attending much less often. Some of us are disappointed, perhaps, with what the church could and could not offer during the lockdown years, as well as at other times; and we’re sad that we’re no longer a congregation bursting with young children.

If we’re honest, we’re probably also disappointed at all the ways we don’t seem to embody full and flourishing life. As a church, we don’t look particularly successful; and if we’re talking about numbers, we’re not exactly thriving. We’re still largely captive to capitalism and white middle class culture, including relentless questioning about our size and numerical growth. Many of us pour our lives into work which is vocational, and which has only become more demanding since the pandemic. Good work is not a bad thing; yet it means many of us come to church exhausted, if we turn up at all. When we do come, many of us are aiming to have our own needs met rather than offering ourselves for the life of the congregation and, through this, the wider community.

And so as a group we can feel a bit diminished, a bit thin, and perhaps we sometimes wonder: Is Sanctuary really the body of Christ, or should we wait for another? A bigger church with better programs and a vibrant youth ministry, perhaps? Or a church with a more blandly attractional worship style? Should we wait for a pastor who is more dynamically engaged in local outreach? Or a church with a thriving social enterprise which independently funds the minister? Or do we give up on church altogether? Because, you know, is this really it?

The prophet John had similar questions of Jesus. Last week, we heard how John had galvanized the crowds. They came pouring out of the cities and towns, away from established institutions and domineering religious gatekeepers. Down by the river, in a wild, unregulated space, they turned to God, confessed their sins, and changed their lives: and they gratefully accepted the water bath which washed their sins away. As John baptized them, he thundered against toxic religious leaders who abuse their power and harm people’s faith; and he pointed to the coming one who would burn all sin away. Of course, as we know, his critique of the powerful eventually landed John in prison.

There, rumours reached him. Jesus was on the move, and so were his disciples; and people were talking of Messiah. Yet there were no lightning bolts, no flamethrowers, no incineration of towns, no winnowing of individuals out of the crowd. The Messiah was supposed to lead the revolution and restore Israel to the Jewish people. Instead, they got love.

Love, and mercy, and hospitality, and healing, and countless conversations and stories. It was strange and countercultural and thoroughly unimpressive, not what was expected from the Messiah at all.

Meanwhile, Jesus’ disciples looked very ordinary, indeed. They got things wrong and messed things up and argued about status and denied ever knowing him and were ambivalent about children and blocked others from him and failed to understand what he was on about again and again and again.

And so John sent a message: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?’ Like, are you serious? Because how could someone this local, this humble, surrounded by people so flawed, be the saviour the world is waiting for? And if Messiah has come, why I am still in prison?

When asked, Jesus didn’t answer directly. Instead, he pointed to what was happening. He said, ‘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. And blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me.’ In other words, ‘These are the fruits of my ministry: people are healed and thus restored to communal life. Am I the coming one? You decide.’

For those of us who are wondering if what we have here at Sanctuary is the real deal, that is, a sign of the coming one, I suggest that this, then, is our task: to look at the fruit of our life together, and then decide.

Since Sanctuary began, have we seen growth in faith, hope and love? Have people’s eyes been opened to the gospel and its powerful relevance to the world, and has this been good news to financially and spiritually impoverished people?

Since Sanctuary began, have people learned different ways to attend to scripture, to engage in prayer, and to listen for what God is saying to them? Have their ears been opened to God’s Word anew?

Since Sanctuary began, have oftentimes marginalized people felt accepted, loved, healed and served? Have they remembered how much their lives matter? Have they found a place and a people to belong to?

Since Sanctuary began, have diverse folk had opportunities to contribute, to witness, and to serve? Is everyone welcome to participate fully in our common life?

And do Sanctuary’s words and actions, its membership even, scandalize and offend some onlookers?

If the answer to these and similar questions is mostly ‘yes’, and I think it is, then we’re probably on the right track. But we work within limits: the limits of the pastor, the limits placed around us by the pandemic, the limits of our time and energy, the limits of our capacity and willingness to show up and contribute. And as John’s life, and indeed Jesus’ life, show, even the greatest faithfulness does not necessarily lead to popularity or success; at least, not in this world. So our progress may be slow; our work may be small and humble; our future may be uncertain: but this is all okay.

For we are in Advent: a time of waiting, and a time of unsettled and unsettling expectations, poised as we are between our present reality and our future hope. We can trust that God is already working within us and among us and through us—we are already a sign of the one to come—even as we look to the full arrival of God-with-us, Immanuel.

While we are watching and waiting and preparing, let’s keep opening people’s eyes, unblocking people’s ears, caring for one another and sharing the good news of God’s love and healing and embrace; and let’s keep making space for all people to participate fully in our common life. And let us never forget: Christ is not born in locations of privilege and power, wealth and success. Instead, he turns up among ordinary people in unimpressive locations and domestic spaces; and when he arrives, he will be small, young and vulnerable, and needing tenderness and care.

He will be, perhaps, a little bit like us.

In the name of Jesus, Immanuel, God-with-us, I pray: Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen. Ω

Blessing, drawing in Isaiah 35:1-10: Go now, preparing to birth love into the world. Tell everyone who is anxious: be strong and don’t be afraid! And as you participate in God’s work of healing, restoration and wholeness, may the Holy Spirit open your eyes to God’s splendour and greatness and power. My friends, the service of worship never ends: it must be lived. We go in peace to love and serve the world, that God’s promise will be fulfilled. In the name of Christ: Amen.

A reflection by Alison Sampson on Matthew 11:2-11 (Year A Advent 3) given to Sanctuary on 11 December 2022 © Sanctuary 2022. 

Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here. It’s been a wild, glary, windy week, with surprising pockets of hot and cold air. The Tree Everlasting is in pale cream flower, and, when they’re not being blown around, iridescent blue dragonflies flit round the garden and roost on swaying reeds, bodies aligned to absorb the sun. I pay my respects to elders past and present. The peace of the land be with us all. Amen.


If this post stimulated your thinking or restored your equilibrium, why not share it on social media? And why not flick a double shot coffee our way, to support our ongoing thinking, writing and praying. We are a small young faith community seeking to revitalize tired faith. Your contribution helps keep us awake.


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