December 15, 2019, The Third Sunday of Advent
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Lessons: Isaiah 35:1-10; Canticle 15: (Luke 1:46-55); James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
From Matthew’s gospel, “(John) … said to (Jesus), ‘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, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this Third Sunday in Advent with the lighting of a rose-colored candle, our attention shifts away from anticipating Jesus’ second coming, his eventual return at the end of this age, to all that transpired at his first coming, his first Advent, at Bethlehem. And with that shift, we are invited to probe the depths of this Advent Season more deeply.
You see, our scripture lessons this morning offer what appear to be conflicting messages. Our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah proclaims what was expected to happen at the first coming of the Lord, the Christ, the Messiah, and the transforming power his presence would bring to this world. Our Response – the Song of Mary offered in Canticle 3 – that wonderful passage where Mary proclaims how blessed she is to be the bearer of the Christ child - suggests that this birth, this first Advent, will create an almost utopian society. A society where the mighty will be cast down and the humble and meek exalted.
But then, our scripture lessons shift. Just like last Sunday’s gospel reading, today’s lesson from Matthew bypasses Advent and Christmas altogether. In fact, this encounter between John and Jesus happens about thirty years afterJesus’ birth. And as for our reading from James? Well that is believed to have been written as long as thirty years afterJesus’ ascension. The truth is our texts confront us with the reality of today’s world and challenge how we might respond.
See, here we are two thousand and nineteen years since the birth of the Christ and all those wonderful Christmas promises of 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 reality. Oh, we go to parties, sing carols, share gifts with one another, and feel pretty good, maybe even feel hopeful. But all it takes is the death of a loved one, sudden unemployment, hearing that dreaded word “cancer”, a broken relationship, or some tragedy in the world whether an act of terrorism, or an earthquake, hurricane or volcano, and even if we dolight more candles, put more gifts under the tree, all our expectations and beliefs about what Christmas and that birth of the Christ was and is supposed to be, can burst like a bubble. Goodwill and peace are as scarce today as they were in John the Baptizer’s time. And like John in today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, many find themselves imprisoned – imprisoned in fear for their own future, fear for their communities and nation, and I think that if we are honest with ourselves we will admit that we, too, like John, wonder, Jesus, “Are you the one or not?” John has his doubts, and I am pretty sure that at times, many of us, do, too, especially when we are confronted by the often-overwhelming power of evil and ill-will that seems to permeate our society today.
John had doubts. He had proclaimed that the Messiah had come. “Behold the lamb of God,” he shouted. He believed his world was about to be forever changed. But now years have passed, and everything seems the same. The Roman oppressors still govern the land and justice is rare. 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 dank, dark prison wondering – wondering, “Maybe I am wrong. Maybe I am as crazy as people say I am. 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?” Matthew says that John is no longer sure; he is disappointed in himself, his followers, with Jesus, and I think he was even disappointed with God.
So, John sends word to Jesus and that says a lot about responding to doubt. The Bible is filled with stories of people with doubt and, surprisingly, we find that God never condemned or punished them. Most people have doubts or seasons of doubt. But doubt that does nothing, doubt that doesn’t seek, 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 and way of life so deeply that it becomes an idol. And in scripture, it is idolatry that God condemns and punishes 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 who 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.” Nice words, but are you the one or not?What John was looking for – what all of us seek – is a Messiah who will 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 wouldbring into this world, for John and millions of Jews like him, Jesus falls far short of the mark. Instead of coming as a mighty warrior to re-establish Israel’s throne and independence, Jesus chooses to hang out with sinners, outcasts, the lame, the poor, and the sick. Let’s face it those folks weren’t the movers and shakers of society; but rather, they were moved and shaken by every whim of the rich, the powerful then, just as they still are today. Come on, Jesus, these people can’t change the world. They can barely fend for themselves, let alone help others. Are you the one or not?
All John wanted was a little sign, some indication that Jesus is the one. And what he got was Jesus saying, “Don’t be offended by me … I choose to identify with the poor.” And in that moment, John got it. In recognizing his own helplessness, John realizes he is just as defenseless as all people in need. And just like God promised, God forever stands with the poor and outcast, the shunned, and brings to them what no one else seems to care to bring: grace, mercy, love, forgiveness, and protection. Jesus chooses to identify with the helpless and in so doing, he does fulfill all those 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. And when we grasp that reality, the true identity and intention of the Christ begins to make a difference in how we think, live, and hope for today, and for the future.
See, I find that as 21st Century Christians we can feel stuck between God’s promises made and God’s promises actually fulfilled, God’s promises kept. As Rev. Anna said so well in her sermon at the 8:30 service last Sunday, we live in a constant state of “already” and “not yet.” We live between Christ’s first coming and his second. We, too, like John in today’s gospel reading, are often disappointed by the world, even by our own selves, and perhaps, even God. So we wonder if Jesus is the one or are we to wait for another. But the Advent Season and, for that matter, the Christmas story itself, tells us that God came not to 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 bursts into our various worlds every moment of every day if we so choose to watch for it, embrace it, and then be it. That is the deeper message of Advent: whether Christ returns today or a thousand ages from now is unimportant. All this waiting for God to act urges us to realize that God already has acted in the person of Jesus Christ who was and still is the one: Jesus the Christ who desires to continue to fulfill all God’s promises in and through how we choose to think, speak, act, and live.
John asks the question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The answer, friends, can only be found when those promises of God are fulfilled in us: in the hearts and minds of all God’s people: and fulfilled so completely and deeply that we are changed by them not just today, or in Advent, or at Christmas time, but everyday of our lives. But that choice is ours and ours alone. For then, and only then, can we become and continue to bethat Good News of redemption, wholeness, and God’s welcoming grace; the Good news of God in Christ here in this valley, our state, nation, and the whole world. “Are you the one?” The answer is up to us.
As our Advent journeys continue, may God grant us the grace to consider and act upon these things. Amen.