December 11, 2022

The Third Sunday of Advent
December 11, 2022
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Lessons: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

From the Gospel according to Matthew, “(John) sent word … and said to ‘Are you the one who is to
come, or are we to wait for another?’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, the Son, and the
Holy Spirit. Amen.

Typically on the Third Sunday of Advent with the lighting of the rose candle, our lectionary
readings shift our focus from anticipating our Lord’s Second Advent at the end of this age, to his
First Advent. But, this year, the lectionary offers a seemingly bizarre assortment of scripture
readings. Yes, our Old Testament lesson is appropriate for Advent as it proclaims the coming of the
Lord, the Christ, the Messiah and the transforming power of his presence in this world and the
world yet to come. Similarly, our Response – a portion of Psalm 146 proclaims the promises of God
who opens the eyes of the blind and sets us free. Again, both are appropriate for Advent and the
lead up to Christmas Day.
But our gospel reading bypasses Advent and Christmas altogether. In fact, this encounter between
John’s followers and Jesus happens about thirty years after the birth of the Christ. And our reading
from James? Well that is believed to have been written as long as thirty years after Jesus’
Ascension. So, what’s going on here? Wouldn’t a better gospel choice on this 3 rd Sunday have been
about the angel speaking to Joseph, about his fears and worries – after all his fiancé is pregnant? I
think a reflection on Joseph would have been good fodder for a sermon and help us prepare for
Yet instead, we hear these far later words of John “Are you the one … or are we to wait for
another?” And I find that selection from the gospels to be absolutely brilliant! I cannot think of a
more appropriate reading on this 3 rd Sunday of Advent because in these words of John we hear the
echo of Christians who for over two thousand years have been asking, “Are you the one or not?”
See, we have been waiting for the promised return of Christ, that Second Advent, waiting for the
ushering in of God’s eternal kingdom upon the earth, waiting for that day when peace with God and
our neighbor will lead nations to beat weapons into plowshares and wars cease forever. If you are
the one, why haven’t you returned? John had proclaimed the Messiah had come. “Behold the lamb
of God,” he cried out. He believed the world was about to be forever changed. But now years have
passed, and everything seems to remain the same. Roman oppressors still govern the land and
John's own people continue to fight among themselves. Jesus hasn’t done what he was supposed
to do. John expected in his lifetime to see the climax of all God’s promises to Israel. Instead, he is
sitting in a dark, dank prison cell wondering – wondering, maybe I was wrong. Maybe I am as
crazy as people suggest. Maybe, Jesus isn’t the one after all. Maybe, he’s just one of many
prophets, good teachers, a moral wise man, but the promised Christ? John is no longer sure. John
has doubts. And I think John is incredibly disappointed not just in Jesus, but in God as well.
I find John’s story to be very much our own. I know I identify with it and perhaps so do many of
you. See, Here we are two thousand and twenty-two years since the birth of Christ and all those
wonderful Christmas promises of lasting peace on earth and goodwill among all people pale in the
face of today’s headlines. Just like the early Church James addressed in our New Testament lesson,
we are still waiting for God’s promises to become our own reality. Oh, we go to parties, sing carols,
share gifts with one another, and feel good, feel hopeful. But all it takes is the death of a loved
one, sudden employment, hearing the dreaded word “cancer”, a broken relationship, and even if
we light some more candles, put more gifts under the tree, all our expectations of what Christmas
is supposed to be burst like bubbles. Goodwill and peace are as scarce today as they were in John’s
time. And like John, we often find ourselves imprisoned – imprisoned in our fears for our future, for
our communities, and I think that if we are honest with ourselves we will admit that we, too,
wonder about Jesus, “Are you the one or not?” John had his doubts, and so have most Christians.
And that is an important reminder for us as people of faith. The Bible is filled with stories of
people with doubt and, surprisingly, we find that God never condemned or punished them.
Everyone has doubts, or seasons of doubt. But doubt that does nothing, doubt that doesn’t seek,
or ask hard questions or explore answers can become an excuse for inaction, “Oh, I don’t do that
because I have doubts” and doubt can become our focus, our way of life, and in many ways,
become an idol. And it is idolatry that God condemns and punishes in scripture every time. Honest
doubt can lead to an even deeper experience and knowledge of faith. Remember, Jesus said that
those who will seek will find. But we have to seek. We have to act upon our doubts and that’s what
John does in this story. He sends word to Jesus and Jesus responds with what I doubt was a very
satisfying answer. Jesus says, “Tell him the lame walk, the blind see, the dead raised, the lepers
cleansed, the poor hear good news” and so on. Nice words, but are you the one or not? What John
was looking for – what all of us seek – is a strong Messiah who will stand up and declare himself,
make us proud, and do what he promised to do.
Instead, all John gets is Jesus. And given all the expectations of the Hebrew people for what the
Messiah would bring into this world, for John and millions of people like him, Jesus falls far short of
the mark. Jesus hangs out with sinners, outcasts, the lame, the poor, and the sick. Let’s face it
“these folks aren’t necessarily the movers and shakers of society; but rather, they are moved and
shaken by every whim of the rich, the powerful” (David Lose, Reflections) then just like they still
are today. Come on, Jesus, these people you hang out with can’t change the world. They can
barely fend for themselves, let alone help anyone else. Are you the one or not?
Now, John knew what Jesus was doing and that’s what prompted him to ask questions in the
first place. All he wanted in the midst of his own helplessness and feelings of failure and error was
a little sign, some indication that Jesus is the one. And what he gets is Jesus saying, “Don’t be
offended by me … I choose to identify with the poor.” And in that moment, I think John got it. In
recognizing his own helplessness, John realized he is just as defenseless as all those in need. And
just like God promised, God forever stands with the poor and the outcast, the shunned, and brings
to them what no one else cares to bring: grace, mercy, love, forgiveness, dignity, and protection.
Jesus chooses to identify with the helpless and in so doing, he fulfills the promises of God. Helpless
in our own sins, God, in Christ, declares that he is for us, not against us. Christ becomes one with
us and in us. He becomes the promised Emmanuel and that promise of God with us begins to make
a difference in how we think, live, and hope for today and the future.
As 21 st Century Christians I think we can feel stuck between God’s promises made and God’s
promises fulfilled, God’s promises kept. We live between Christ’s first coming and his second. We,
too, are often disappointed by ourselves, the world, and perhaps, even God. But the Advent and
Christmas story tell us that God came not fulfill our expectations, but rather, to bring redemption
to the weak and the strong, to offer hope that can transform the coldest heart by the very
presence of God that offers to burst into our worlds every moment of every day.
“Are you the one or not?” In all honesty and with Christians throughout the centuries, from St.
James’ early Church to Holy Cross, Valle Crucis, we need look only to those around us, see the
presence of God in Christ transforming one another, and grasp that the only answer to that
question is: Yes, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus is the Christ, the promised one. He has come and will
come again. I believe it because I see God’s promises fulfilled in you and even in me. And so with
that whole communion of saints of ages past and ages yet to come we are content to wait because
whether Christ returns today or a thousand ages from now is really not that important. What
matters is that at his coming he finds our hearts prepared – prepared like a manger for his bed as
the old carol suggests - and lives that truly live his gospel – the Good News of God in Christ we
believe and demonstrate truly is for all people in all places and at all times. And for that promise,
and especially that reality, let us say, “Thanks be to God!” Amen.