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The Christmas We Are Waiting For

12/23/2010 02:11 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The waiting time for Christmas is almost over. But so what? After all, there is nothing special about waiting. It's what we're waiting for that matters.

One of my favorite Christmas scripture readings takes place when John is in prison. It is a gospel that confronts us with the need to make a choice about what we are waiting for.

John is no small figure in scripture. He bellows to peasant and king alike across the land that the world cannot continue as it has been, that we have to learn to think differently, to live differently, to see life differently. And for those actions John paid the price. He is in prison in this scripture, for confronting King Herod.

John has unmasked the evil of the system, he has called both synagogue and empire to repent their abandonment of the Torah, their substitution of Roman law for Jewish law. John, in other words, is a strong and thunderous voice. He calls in no uncertain terms for repentance. He announces the coming of the Messiah who would -- like Moses -- free the Hebrew people again.

But in prison, John, weary from trying, disheartened by failure, surely depressed, maybe even struggling with his own faith, sends a messenger to ask Jesus what surely must be more than a rhetorical question: Are you the one who is to come or shall we wait for another?

Are you the one for whom I have spent my life preparing? Are you the one I gave up everything to announce? Are you the one who shall free Israel -- or have I wasted my time? Has it all been for nothing? "Are you the one?" John pleads.

But if John's question is bad, Jesus' answer is even worse. Tell John, who has lived to banish the empire, that the blind see, the lame walk and the poor have the gospel preached to them....

Not a single mention of an army to rout the garrisons, no talk of thunderbolts and falling thrones, no designation of the leader who would overthrow the emperor. No great religious crusade, even. No new outburst of religious enthusiasm, no embellishment of the temple, or the sacrifices, or the processions. No great blinding political or religious action at all. What John was waiting for, what John expected -- the rise of Judaism to new glory -- did not come.

The answer was searingly, astoundingly, clear. John had spent his life doing church, but Jesus did not come to do church; Jesus came to do justice. The Messiah was not about either destroying or renewing the old order. The Messiah was about building a new one where, as Isaiah said, the desert would bloom, the wilderness would rejoice, sorrow and sighing would flee away and the good news of creation would be for everyone.

On Christmas the question becomes ours to answer.

For what have we waited? For what have we given our lives? For religious symbolism or for gospel enlightenment? For the restoration of the old order or for the creation of the new?

Think carefully about the answer because on it may well depend the authenticity of our own lives and the happiness of many who are even now crippled by unjust systems, blinded by their untruths and fooled into believing that, for them, God wants it that way.

Merry Christmas to you all. And may, where you are, the desert be brought to bloom.