What do you truly want?

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Luke 3.15-17, 21-22

We all know those songs that, if you hear them on the radio or TV by chance, then keep going round and round in your head driving you crazy!

For me – one of the worst, because I know if I hear it, it will then be repeating in my mind for days despite the fact that I really do not like it, is the debut single from the Spice Girls. Released in 1996 – and I apologise in advance to those of you who will now be singing this in your head for the rest of the day – it’s called Wannabe.

Not placed it yet? This should help – here are the words:

Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want.
So tell me what you want, what you really, really want.
I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want.
So tell me what you want, what you really, really want

Over and over!

And for those of you who would like to know what it was they really, really wanted – and I had to look this up:

I wanna, I wanna, 
I wanna, I wanna,
 (who writes this stuff?)
I wanna really, really
really wanna zigazig 

No – I don’t have a clue what that means either!

A far, far better and more profound view about getting what you want came from the Rolling Stones with their song “You can’t always get what you want”, which Rolling Stones fans among you will know only too well – though I wonder how many actually know the last line of the chorus:

No, you can’t always get what you want
No, you can’t always get what you want
No, you can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need

For all of us there are things that we want. Things we’d prefer to have rather than things we might actually need. And that’s what Christmas is all about – at least it was when I was a child. You want Scalextric – your mother decides what you need is socks! You want Lego – your mother decides what you need is pyjamas. You want an electric train set – your mother decides what you need is a winter coat.

We all of course have dreams, desires, yearnings, cravings – and hope that one day those dreams will come true, that we’ll get what we want, and as soon as possible. We’re not always very good at deferred gratification.

Sometimes, of course, it’s not a good thing at all if all your dreams come true. There’s the famous old Chinese curse: May you get what you wish for. Sometimes the things that we want are not necessarily good for us. And sometimes, we don’t get what we want or what we need but what we deserve – and that can be even worse!

The people of God wanted a Messiah. They had been wanting a Messiah for many centuries, particularly since their land began to be attacked and overrun by the armies of more powerful nations. They told the stories of the glory days of the great King David, and longed for a new David, even more gifted and powerful, to rule them wisely, to fight off their enemies, and to bring in God’s own reign of justice, righteousness and peace. Their king would once again rule from Jerusalem, their wicked oppressors would be punished, and they would live in prosperity.

They had been warned. Their prophets had consistently told them what the Messiah, their Saviour, would actually be like when he finally came. They had been told that what they wanted, and what God thought they needed, weren’t necessarily the same thing. But the people still thought that what they wanted was what they needed, And through long centuries of foreign oppression the people had kept their hopes alive by looking always for the coming of God’s anointed king who would sort out their enemies and make everything all right for God’s own people. 

But God knew better. And in due time along comes John the Baptist, God’s messenger. He preached repentance, and talked about judgement. He spoke of God’s coming to his people. Amid all the fervour and unrest of Judaea under Roman occupation, the rumours began to spread. Perhaps he was the one they had wanted to come for so long. 

John’s message, though, was uncompromising and even more severe than the prophets before him. And he was quite clear that he was the forerunner rather than the Messiah. He talks about someone else, someone who is coming, someone more powerful, who will baptise with the Holy Spirit. Is this person, then, the longed-for king, who will rescue his people and punish their enemies? They were so desperate for the Messiah to come and sort things out! Ah, but be careful what you wish for. Luke tells us how John describes him: “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 

This is not the kind of Messiah that many wanted, even though it is the kind of Messiah that the prophets had been promising for centuries. Neither is it the kind of Messiah that so many people today think that Jesus should be – people who think of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” – a Jesus who is nice to everyone. This Messiah promised by John the Baptist is a Messiah who will rouse people from their complacency and judge those who have been found wanting – whoever they may be, however religious they may be. 

Like the prophets before him, John reminded people that the coming of the kingdom of God is not an easy experience. The Messiah, when he comes, will challenge injustice wherever he finds it. He will judge everyone, God’s people included. 

And then Luke tells us how Jesus steps forward to be baptised. And from the river the Messiah finally appears, baptised by John and ready to begin his public ministry. And from these quiet beginnings will come a revolution, a coming of God’s kingdom in ways no one had expected, and in ways which would continue to reverberate down the centuries. And Luke spends the rest of his gospel showing us a Messiah who, yes, brings judgement and justice for all – but also a Saviour who fulfils the needs of the poor and the homeless and the underprivileged and of those who know their need of God.

The people had wanted a Messiah – but the Messiah they got wasn’t what they expected. And it’s one of the reasons why in the end the religious leaders wanted Jesus out of the way. He wasn’t on their side judging the Romans, but judged them along with everyone else. The people got what they thought they wanted, but it certainly wasn’t what most of them actually wanted. It most definitely was what they – and we – needed.

It is always easy for religious people to assume that God is on their side. That he will somehow look after us and give us what we want if we live a ‘good’ life. That’s not how it is – rather, we must be on God’s side. Today we hear how the forerunner promises and then makes way for the Messiah, the one sent from God to usher in God’s reign. The one sent from God not to be the kind of Messiah that the people wanted, but to show the people the kind of Messiah that they need then and the world needs now.

What kind of Messiah, what kind of Jesus, do you want?

Today, as we remember how Jesus comes to be baptized by John, we give thanks that we have a Messiah, a Saviour, who doesn’t give us what we want but who fulfils the needs of the world. As we look forward into this New Year, uncertain perhaps of what it may bring, may we always recognise our need of Jesus and the life he gives us.