Matthew 11:2-11 (CEB)
Now when John heard in prison about the things the Christ was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
Jesus responded, “Go, report to John what you hear and see. Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them.
Happy are those who don’t stumble and fall because of me.
When John’s disciples had gone, Jesus spoke to the crowds about John: “What did you go out to the wilderness to see? A stalk blowing in the wind? What did you go out to see? A man dressed up in refined clothes? Look, those who wear refined clothes are in royal palaces. What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. He is the one of whom it is written: Look, I’m sending my messenger before you, who will prepare your way before you.
I assure you that no one who has ever been born is greater than John the Baptist. Yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Isaiah 35:1-10 (CEB)
The desert and the dry land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus.
They will burst into bloom,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
They will receive the glory of Lebanon,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon.
They will see the LORD’s glory,
the splendor of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and support the unsteady knees.
Say to those who are panicking:
“Be strong! Don’t fear!
Here’s your God,
coming with vengeance;
with divine retribution
God will come to save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
and the ears of the deaf will be cleared.
Then the lame will leap like the deer,
and the tongue of the speechless will sing.
Waters will spring up in the desert,
and streams in the wilderness.
The burning sand will become a pool,
and the thirsty ground, fountains of water.
The jackals’ habitat, a pasture;
grass will become reeds and rushes.
A highway will be there.
It will be called The Holy Way.
The unclean won’t travel on it,
but it will be for those walking on that way.
Even fools won’t get lost on it;
no lion will be there,
and no predator will go up on it.
None of these will be there;
only the redeemed will walk on it.
The LORD’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing,
with everlasting joy upon their heads.
Happiness and joy will overwhelm them;
grief and groaning will flee away.
December 10-11, 2016
Third Sunday of Advent
“Are You the One?”
We stay in the Gospel of Matthew this week and discover a bit more about John the Baptist. Last week, we met John at the banks of the Jordan River, proclaiming to the people to change their hearts and lives and turn toward God. He was baptizing ordinary people, as well as the Pharisees and Sadducees, those religious and political leaders of the day, who he referred to as “children of snakes.”
In last week’s gospel reading, John seemed confident that he was preparing the way for God’s presence to be known by preparing the way for Jesus, who he said would be greater and mightier than him. John convinced people that God’s presence would be coming with the sharpness of an axe and the flames of fire to clear out the dead wood.
We move forward into the Gospel of Matthew today and now John the Baptist has been thrown into prison by the authorities who were feeling the challenge of his prophetic message. In prison, John seems to be having his doubts about Jesus.
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” This was the question, from prison, that John the Baptist asked his disciples to carry to Jesus. John seemed so confident last week that Jesus was the one sent by God as the Messiah.
And remember, the people had been waiting a long time, close to 500 years, since the prophetic word of Isaiah had come to them. We heard a little of that prophecy in the Isaiah passage read earlier, where we are told to “Be strong! Don’t fear!” that when God comes, “the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will be cleared, the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing.”
John has heard the stories of Jesus cleansing those with skin diseases, causing the crippled to walk, restoring sight to the blind and raising the dead. Yet, in the solitude and darkness of his prison cell, John has his doubts.
To us it may seem like Jesus was living out Isaiah’s prophecy, but still, Jesus is not what John or others expected. They seemed to be looking for the “vengeance” and “divine retribution” part of Isaiah’s prophecy. They were looking for power and might, more like a military leader might offer.
And here was Jesus spending most of his time with the poor and marginalized and doing what he was doing consistently with humility, mercy, grace and love.
And so the doubts and questions about Jesus start to spread. Some even believed John the Baptist was a good candidate to be the Messiah. He certainly had good qualifications.
His birth was also a miraculous one…born to an elderly woman; announced by the Angel Gabriel, the same angel who announced the coming birth of Jesus. John had clergy blood in his family, with priests on both his mother and father’s side.
It seemed that John was born to be a preacher. John also had followers and disciples and he lived a life of holiness and did whatever was necessary to stay focused on God.
Yet, like John, we too know how easy it is to have our heads and hearts filled with questions and doubts when we are desperately waiting for something. And those questions and doubts can become even more profound and overwhelming when we have been waiting a long time for something to happen, or something to change, or the truth of something to be told. That’s when disappointment sets in; and disappointment combined with questions and doubts can be very unsettling and almost paralyzing.
When we get in those places we grow weary…we tire of waiting and hoping and preparing and welcoming.
When we think about John the Baptist and the others in our Gospel story, we can’t blame them for doubting or going back and forth in what they think. We too have had our doubts. We too have known uncertainty and want assurance, or at least reassurance.
One thing that makes us different from John the Baptist and the others in this story is, we know the rest of Jesus’ story…they don’t know how this story ends…But we do.
We know that even though December holds the shortest and darkest days of the year in our part of the world, we have been promised that God is with us as Emmanuel. We have been promised that Jesus is the light of the world that can be symbolized by our candle light and by the lights that decorate our trees and homes in December.
We know that loss and grief is magnified in December; debt and poverty become more obvious when presents are supposed to be going under the tree. Yet, because we know the rest of the Jesus story, we know that God came to be fully one of us…to know the sorrow and joy; the pain and goodness; the suffering and the hope.
Jesus knows what it is to be poor, to lose a loved one, to suffer, and to grieve.
And Jesus knows what it takes to offer hope and promise and light. Jesus tells John’s disciples to go tell John what they have seen and heard…to remember how the blind are seeing, the crippled are walking, the deaf are hearing, the lepers are clean, the dead are raised, the poor are hearing good news, and people are being invited into a relationship with God.
Then when John’s disciples had left, Jesus spoke to the crowds about John and asked them to remember why they came out into the wilderness to see John and to be baptized by him…what had they experienced?
Jesus reminds the crowds that even though they came to hear a prophetic message spoken, they also saw one who was preparing the way for God’s presence to be seen.
Now Jesus, is inviting us to prepare the way for all to experience the coming of God’s presence and to experience wholeness in new ways.
It seems like a good time to return to the question asked by John the Baptist, “Are you the one?” or should we keep waiting for another?
In these dark days of December when we know that there are questions and doubts and anxieties and disappointments all around us and at times even within us, are we able to say that Jesus is the one? And if we believe Jesus is the one, how do we show that to a waiting and needy world?
Are you the one for another person to see Advent hope and love and peace and joy lived out in daily life?
Are you the one to offer a word of encouragement to another who is disappointed?
Are you the one to speak a kind word in the midst of holiday anxiety?
Are you the one to speak a word of peace in the midst of mistrust and anger?
Are you the one to offer a meal, or a present for under the Christmas tree, or a Christmas tree itself?
Are you the one to lend a listening ear when grief revisits a friend or family member?
Are you the one to model justice and mercy that restores and heals in an unfair world?
Are you the one to light a candle to shine in someone’s darkness and remind them that God is with us?
Are we the ones who can respond and witness to God’s love for all people on the basis of what we hear and see?
Even in the midst of all we hear and see that we consider ‘bad news,’ we can hear and see the good news. We’ve all heard stories of those that pack up supplies and equipment and head into places of disaster and tragedy within days of the events. We might have at times even said, ‘I wish I could do something like that.’
And while we need people who can response in those ways, it is also the small, steady, consistent ways we respond to needs that will allow others to see that we are the ones sharing God’s love and presence with humility, mercy and grace. It’s the small things that may only touch a few people in this big world, but still it touches God’s people when and where there is need.
It’s consistently bringing food for the Food Pantry; it’s taking a tag from the Christmas tree to buy a gift; it’s helping a neighbor with a need; it’s staying in the conversations when we have the opportunity to talk about poverty and homelessness and refugees and the marginalized and forgotten in our communities.
When we hear something that sounds good, we may say or perhaps have heard others say, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” And here’s the thing…we who know God through who we know Christ to be, have the opportunity to let others “see it.” We have the opportunity to show others Christ.
We know that for every need we meet or every conversation in faith we have, there are many others that go hungry or sleep without a bed or shelter or feel that God has forgotten them. But we stay at it and keep asking, “Are we the ones?”
This last week, at the same time I was working with this gospel question of John the Baptist, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” I saw and reread the classic editorial called, “Is There a Santa Clause?” that seems to get reprinted every year at this time.
This editorial was first printed in the New York Sun newspaper in 1897 in response to the Santa question by a little girl named Virginia. That question could easily be translated in our 21st century to, “Is there any hope?” “Is there any encouragement from anything or anybody?” or, “Is there a Prince of Peace?”
‘Peace’ is our Advent theme for this third week of the Advent season and is certainly a theme of God coming into the world as the Christ child. The Advent of Christ introduced the world to the possibility of peace and it is our call as Christ-followers to be the ones that live God’s peace in how we live our lives.
The late Fred Rogers of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, put it well when interviewed about how we can see God in a world filled with evil and troubles. Fred Rogers said, “God’s revealing evidence is everywhere; we just have to receive it.”
And so often to receive the Prince of Peace, we have to be the ones that share peace, and share encouragement, and share hope.
In a Peanuts comic strip, Linus is listening to Charlie Brown who is upset with world conditions. In the midst of Charlie’s pessimistic outcry, Linus interrupts him to say, “I think the world is better today than it was six years ago.”
This only upsets Charlie Brown even more. He shouts, “How can you say the world is better today than it was six years ago? Don’t you read the newspaper and watch T.V…How can you say it’s better today?”
Linus answers, “Because I’m in it now.”
Are we the ones who can make the same response in these Advent days?
May it be so for each of us.
Thanks be to God.