(a sermon for December 11, 2016, the 3rd Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11)
Languishing in a dark and dank prison cell, John the Baptist – that fiery wilderness preacher of proclamation and repentance – sends his disciples with a message for Jesus; or should I say, a question: “‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’”
It actually seems an odd question for John, of all people, to be asking; not to mention kind of defeatist! After all, just a few months earlier it’d been John who had baptized Jesus in the River Jordan; John himself who had boldly and loudly proclaimed him as the anointed one of God: the Messiah, this long-expected mighty warrior who would avenge Israel by wiping out their Roman oppressors and establishing a new kingdom like that of King David so many generations before! But that was then; and now, stuck in Herod’s jail with nothing else to do except pace the floor and ponder some of the things he’d been hearing about Jesus, there was plenty of room for second thoughts. So he sends his messengers to ask Jesus, quite plainly, are you the chosen one or not?
Strange to hear such doubt coming from the same one who’d been so adamant that the world “prepare the way” for this Messiah’s coming; even stranger that here we are, on the third Sunday of Advent — just two weeks out from our celebration of Jesus’ birth – and suddenly we’re hearing one of Jesus’ first and most ardent followers – and his cousin, in fact (!) – casting such aspersions as to the legitimacy of his lordship! But, writes David Lose of Lutheran Seminary, John’s “failure of confidence shouldn’t really surprise us.” After all, all that he’d predicted and longed for in Jesus – that is, the “summation and climax of all God’s promises to Israel” – had just not come to pass. When he’d made that proclamation, when he’d been so full of hope and anticipation, when he’d been truly “fired up” for the kingdom to come, John had literally “expected the world to change; but instead]… things seem[ed] all too dreadfully the same.” So sitting alone in this prison cell and awaiting the carrying out of Herod’s death sentence, John is, to say the least, concerned, doubtful and well… disappointed.
And that, I suspect, is something that many of us can understand; especially two weeks from Christmas Day!
To quote David Lose again: “Aren’t we also still waiting for the consummation of the Christmas promise… isn’t it precisely what is so wonderful about Christmas – the promises of peace on earth and goodwill among all – that [ends up] is also so difficult about Christmas,” in that so often one quick look at the headlines on any given day is enough to convince us that peace and goodwill are scarce commodities in this day and age! Moreover, there’s no denying that you and I each have our own struggles to face as well: bad news from a doctor; the loss of a job; the dissolution of a relationship or the festering of an on-going conflict (or for that matter, a sore hip!); the kind of things that can truly have a way making one feel disappointed, if not downright concerned about the state of the world and one’s own place within it!
I mean, come on, it’s Christmas! It’s bad enough we have to deal with the harsher realities of life all the rest of the year… how come is it that it’s right there before us at the very same time when everything else, even here at church, is focused on joy and cheer? It just doesn’t seem to jibe that every Sunday we’re here singing songs and lighting candles that remind us of God’s sure and certain promise of hope, peace and joy; and then, after church, to go out into the Monday morning world only to find out it’s still the same old conflicted place it was before! Where’s the hope in that; when is the peace that we so long for coming to fruition? We sing it every year; in fact, we’re singing it again today: “Joy to the world!” But in a world that seems rife with suffering, it’s disappointing that the question arises, but still you have to ask: where’s the joy?
What’s interesting, of course, is that when John’s disciples finally do bring Jesus this question about whether he’s truly “the one” they’ve been waiting for, Jesus is really too busy to answer. After all, there are those who were born blind who need to receive their sight; there are people who had never before walked who are now ready to run; children who’ve never been able distinguish the sound of speech, but who now have this incredible, miraculous opportunity to hear the loving tone in their mother’s voice. “Go back and tell John,” Jesus says to these messengers, “The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, [and] the wretched of the earth [are learning] that God is on their side.” [The Message] In other words, Jesus says, if what you were expecting was your hope made manifest and your joy made real, then here it is… “count yourselves most blessed!”
In other words – and Jesus actually goes on to say this to the crowd gathered around him – what were you expecting, anyway? What kind of Messiah were you looking for; some rich, powerful ruler with beautiful robes and a golden throne? Look at what you hear and see; remember what you’ve experienced: this is your hope put into action; this is the peace that the world for which the world is yearning; THIS is the joy you’ve come to find!
It’s not unlike Isaiah’s wonderful vision of a barren desert wasteland that’s become a flowering pasture with cool, clear water flowing in abundant supply; that highway through the desert, a “Holy Way” on which “the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing,” and “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.” Friends, that’s who Jesus is! Our “holy way” is the life, death and resurrection of Christ, who restores our wholeness and sets before us a clear pathway even in the midst of our world’s harsh and relentless desert wilderness. It is, however, an easy thing to miss: even John, for all his vision, failed to see the true pathway before him; and I dare say that you and I so often make the same mistake.
But here’s what Isaiah is quick to remind us: that the thing about a desert is that oftentimes its look can be deceiving. At first glance it may well seem barren and lifeless, but keep looking – perhaps after a rainstorm, or maybe in the cool of the evening – and everything which before was hidden begins to bloom; that which before seemed dead and lifeless flourishes, and where once there was no hope at all is now filled with joy and gladness. That’s how God’s love still works in our lives; and that’s how doubt dissipates and true Christmas comes into our lives: it’s like the “abundant blossoming” of the desert in our own lives.
Where’s the joy? You simply have to look what God is doing, and you’ll find it there in the blooming!
For a couple of years while I was in high school, I was part of an unusually close Sunday school class. There were seven or eight of us, all juniors and seniors, guided by a wonderful older lady who loved us even as she was perplexed by us. Looking back, I realize now that we weren’t very good about following the curriculum; we spent most of our time talking about God, life and most everything else under the sun. But a lot of our awareness of faith came out of that class, and it did so in unique and powerful ways.
One of the people in that class was my friend Joe. I’ve told you before about Joe; and he was, well… the best way I can describe him to you is that he was a big guy, in every sense of the word. Not only was he as wide as he was tall, he was also loud, outspoken, a bit of a braggart, and had the tendency to run off at the mouth at times. But you also couldn’t help but like the guy, even though he could easily drive you crazy!
Well, it was about Christmastime and in this Sunday School class we were all talking about our plans for the holidays. And Joe was going on and on in Joe fashion about what he was going to get for Christmas, about how big his family’s celebration was, and how his Christmas tree was going to be better than anybody else’s in town; like I say, this is how every conversation went with Joe! But at some point there was a pause in the discussion, and one of the girls in the class, a girl we’ll call Mary, finally spoke in a shaken voice barely above a whisper. “Well,” she said, “I guess we’re not going to have a Christmas tree in our house this year.”
And in the safety and love of that room, Mary then went on to tell us about a step mother who was spending most of her days in a drunken stupor, and about a father, powerless over his wife’s alcoholism, who didn’t dare put up a Christmas tree for fear she’d knock it over or accidentally set it on fire. Basically it was easier for him to avoid the whole Christmas thing than to deal with the real problem. And Mary told us all about it; in fact, it might have been the very first time she’d ever told anybody about what was going on in her house, and you could have heard a pin drop in that room. Nobody else in the class – not even Joe – could speak.
Well, needless to say, we all went home that day feeling a little less Christmassy than we’d come in; but the next day after school there was a knock on my door. It was Joe – and by his big red, puffy eyes, I could tell that he’d been crying. Without even saying hello, he thrust at me this thick wad of folded-up paper, saying only, “Can you sign this?” I realized immediately that this was in fact, a Christmas card, one that not only opened but unfolded into this huge, two by six foot picture of a beautiful, fully decorated, evergreen Christmas tree!
Though I already knew the answer, I looked up at this big hulk of a guy to ask him why; and with tears again brimming in his eyes, he just shook his head and said simply, “Everybody should have a nice Christmas.”
And, together with the others in the class, we took that card to Mary’s house and gave it to her. Thinking back on it, we were kids and we really didn’t know what to say or do; so we simply gave her a hug and wished her a Merry Christmas. What I remember the most about it now is that when she hugged us back – and she really hugged us – she cried harder than almost anyone I’d ever seen before.
Now, I don’t know what’s happened to Mary over the years, but wherever she is, friends, I know she’s carrying around a bit of “the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God.” It was the experience of a blooming desert; the love of God working small miracles through the big heart of a blustering teenager. And there’s a great deal of joy to be found in that.
In a work entitled Jerusalem Daybook, the poet James Baxter once wrote that if you want to find joy, then “feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty; give clothes to those who lack them; give hospitality to strangers; look after the sick.
Moreover, “Bail people out of jail, visit them in jail, and look after them when they get out of jail… help the doubtful to clarify their own minds and make their own decisions. Console the sad… forgive what seems to be harm done to yourself; put up with difficult people [and] pray for whatever has life… where these things happen,” says Baxter, “God is present.”
Beloved, I know that sometimes at Christmas – and for that matter the rest of the year – we’re tempted to give in to doubting that true joy can ever be found in this world. But before any of us become too disappointed, we need to remember that even amidst the challenges of this world, we are the recipients of God’s promise of a Savior in Christ Jesus, a joyful promise that continues to be fulfilled in our hearing wherever the blind see and the lame leap for joy.
Let us be diligent in finding that joy in this Christmas and always; and may God bless us, everyone, as we do.
Amen and AMEN.
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry