SERMON FOR ST. PETER’S
Reverend Dr. Linda Brown, Deacon
Third Sunday in Advent
Matthew 11: 2-11
“In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” Amen.
Have you ever felt really let down by something? Maybe you planned a nice meal at a restaurant you heard was outstanding. Afterwards, you admitted it was just ordinary. Maybe you had been looking forward to a good time with friends or someone special, and something interrupts it and you have to cancel. And so, you feel let down, disappointed, deflated.
Sometimes, afterwards, it’s difficult to admit that everything wasn’t good; it fell apart. Your waiting and anticipation had been in vain.
So, it was with John the Baptist. He had “talked Jesus up” and was a kind of divine warm-up act for the star attraction of the salvation show.
Now he asks, “Are you the one?” “Or should we wait for another?”
The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called “Gaudete” or “Rejoice” Sunday in the Christian calendar. Our churches put aside the blue for the season and use a lighter, happier rose or pink color, as in the pink candle in the Advent wreath. If Greg and I had pink vestments, we might wear them today. In today’s readings, we hear greetings of joy; from Isaiah, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.”. “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,” declares the Psalmist.
Yet on this third Sunday of Advent, as we still emphasize John the Baptizer, John is imprisoned; a stark reminder of how his prophetic witness has been received. There is no joy for John the Baptist behind the bars of his prison. Imprisoned for speaking the hard truth to Herod, John is in chains and in crisis, wondering if he has staked his life on the wrong promise and the wrong person.
In the first century, prison was a way station but not a final destination. People were kept in prison pending trial until they were exonerated, exiled, or executed. During their incarceration, prisoners could have contact with supporters and so picked up the news of the day. It is even possible that John was imprisoned with people he knew. So, John could have heard of Jesus’ activities from his disciples who conveyed his question to Jesus and eventually Jesus’ response back to John.
However, for John, The Messiah, as far as he can tell, has changed nothing. He was supposed to make the world new. He was supposed to bring justice, fairness, and order to human institutions, and eliminate tyrants like Herod, and a righteous man like John would no longer suffer in a rat-infested prison. Jesus was supposed to finish the costly work John started so boldly in the wilderness — to wield the axe, bring the fire, renew the world.
But nothing — nothing at all — has worked out as this disillusioned prisoner thought it would, and all he has left as he paces his cell is an anguished question for the would-be Messiah: Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
Have you noticed that when you are in a group discussion, it is sometimes a relief when someone else asks the question you wanted to ask? We are especially happy when the one who does the asking is the brightest kid in class. If the one with all the answers does not know the answer, then we do not feel so bad about not knowing it ourselves.
Here someone else asks Jesus our question. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” How many of us and other Christians have wondered: Is Jesus the real thing? Is there anything to our religion? The question, we fear, implies weakness, dullness, and doubt at the core. To ask it, we suppose, is to appear faithless. Strong help comes when we notice through the text whose hand is in the air. It is the hand of the smartest kid in class. John is the one who said wonderful things about Jesus. Earlier in Matthew he said, “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals” (Matt. 3:11). Pointing to Jesus in John’s Gospel, he said, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Perhaps his shining moment came when, a little later in John, he said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). John the Baptist had the answers. He had the conviction. He had the clarity that told him Jesus was the real thing and second to none.
Well, what has happened to John? For one thing, a prison has happened. He has been arrested and jailed as a political enemy of King Herod. Prison can put doubt into anybody’s heart. It is easy to believe in God in the bright sunlight when all is joyful and free but let the iron doors in difficult times slam shut, and doubt is there in the darkness.
“Are you for real, Jesus?” It was not a prison alone that made John ask his question and ours. It was something about Jesus himself. Something did not add up. Matthew puts it this way: “When John heard … what the Messiah was doing, he sent word … and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” (Matt. 11:2–3). Something that Jesus was doing did not seem quite right to John. Jesus did not fit his idea of a Messiah. He was not acting the way John thought a Savior would act. The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world was not taking Herod’s sin away. Jesus was not fitting John’s theology. So, John wondered.
“Who am I?” asked Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a poem from prison only a few months before the Nazis hanged him. Despite all his efforts to live faithfully, he wondered whether he was just a hypocrite or a weakling. “Who am I?” every Christian sometimes asks.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling? Or is something within me still like a beaten army Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved? Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
The movement from last week’s reading to this one is both unexpected and a little confusing – in just seven days we’ve jumped several chapters ahead in Matthew’s Gospel, months forward in the narrative he shares, and from a sure and certain confident John to a skeptical one. Yet, we recognize it. Fire and brimstone confidence turned to disappointment. Hope to desperation. Don’t we regularly charge ahead with our dreams and plans? We march forward with optimism about the future, only to be caught up short, whether by cancer, or loss of employment, or the death of a loved one, or the loss of a relationship, or any of a thousand other things that cause us suddenly to stumble and lose our confidence and question our faith.
This is all the harder at this time of year, of course, when the manufactured cheeriness of the season can make us feel inadequate because of our struggles. Which is why this passage may be just the thing we need on the third Sunday in Advent, the day marked in some traditions with the “candle of joy.” Because it introduces a little reality in our progress toward Bethlehem, which is simply that even while we anticipate the birth of the Christ child, give thanks for that gift, and believe that his death and resurrection promises new and eternal life, yet still things can be quite difficult in the meantime. And so a picture of John the Baptist sharing his doubts can reassure and remind us that doubt is not the opposite of faith and that those who believe that the Christian life is one seamless march forward from success to success, or even from less faith to more, haven’t been paying attention.
Indeed, Christian faith knows better because it is patterned on the biblical. Which means that God in Jesus came not as the victorious conqueror that many then – and perhaps some now – wished he would. Rather, Jesus, Matthew confesses, came and comes as Emmanuel, God with us, the one who does not eliminate all our troubles but accompanies us through them; the one who holds onto us when the world feels like it’s falling apart; the one who enters into our suffering and struggle and so reminds us that we are not alone; and the one who promises to bring us through all things even and ultimately through death to new life.
And so on this Third Sunday of Advent we stand with Christians of all time and ages, waiting between the first advent of Jesus in the flesh of a human child and his second advent in glory to heal all hurts, right all wrongs, wipe every tear from the eye, and bring peace to the nations.
But waiting can be hard. And the collision of the festive, even joyful nature of the season and the experience of personal loss or fear some of us will be feeling can be very painful.
To address this, churches sponsor ‘Blue Christmas’ services like the one that some of us are attending at St. Nicholas in Maumelle on Thursday night. Anyone is welcome and we are hoping to provide carpooling from St. Peter’s. As we realize with this Gospel reading, even John the Baptist had his own ‘Blue Christmas’.
But John’s question to Jesus, we quickly realize, isn’t simply a question; it’s a plea for understanding and reassurance. In the same way, Jesus’ answer to look to his deeds of mercy isn’t only an answer to John’s question, but also a call to action, a call not just to John but to you and me. It is a call that both reminds us of God’s promises of healing and peace and empowers us to work for them in the meantime, in this time of Advent, waiting.
And so my plea to all of us today is to offer bold prayers for healing and comfort and peace and justice regardless of how helpless we feel in the face of a world that seems haywire and a nation that seems headed into unbelievable turmoil. We need to be not only confident that God will answer our prayers but also eager to have God answer them, in part, through us.
In John the Baptist, we find an answer: to be a disciple is no longer to look at oneself, but rather to look at Christ. In pointing to him alone, the disciple’s own identity finally becomes clear as it did to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”
There are places in the Gospels where I wish the writers had given us just one more paragraph, just one more extension of plot and characterization. This is one of those times. How did John respond to Jesus’s answer? Did it satisfy him? Did it quell his doubts? Did it renew his joy?
We don’t know. All we know is that the liberation Jesus spoke of did not come to John in this earthly life. Yes, the blind saw, and the deaf heard, and the poor received good news. But those joyful stories came to John second-hand; they never became his own. His own story ended in death — a meaningless, grisly death that made a mockery of the divine justice he preached and sought all his life.
John’s untimely death rattles me, it shakes my faith a little bit. Why wouldn’t it? Have you noticed that Christians, worshipping the Crucified One, have a hard time maintaining in the presence of extreme suffering? We seem to want to soften the edges, lessen the blows. We want to make God okay by making ourselves and each other ok
But John’s story is not “okay,” and many of our own stories aren’t okay either. The prison bars that hold us don’t always give way. Our doubts don’t always resolve themselves. Justice doesn’t always arrive in time. Questions don’t always receive the answers we hunger for.
Jesus calls us to see and hear all the stories of the kingdom — and that includes John’s story, too. In verse 6 of the Gospel, Jesus says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Some of our stories hurt because they are horrible. They break hearts and don’t always have happy endings. People die, and this too, is what the life of faith looks like. Don’t erect walls and hide because reality is harsher and more complicated that we expected. John’s life ended in darkness and unknowing, as far as we know.
Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe John understood something hard and cruel about joy. Joy in a prison cell isn’t about sentimentality. Or happiness. Or the suppression of our own most painful crises and questions.
Maybe he understood that joy is what happens when we dare to believe that our Messiah disappoints us for nothing less than our salvation, stripping away every lofty expectation we cling to, so that we can know God for who he truly is. Maybe he realized that God’s work is bigger than the difficult circumstances of his own life, calling him to a selfless joy for the liberation of others. Maybe John’s joy was otherworldly in the most literal sense, because he understood that our stories extend beyond death, and find completion only in the presence of God himself.
“Are you the one who is coming?” John asked in despair.
“You decide,” Jesus answered in love. Amen.
Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, posted December 14, 2016
David Lose, Dear Partner, December 2016