Sunday, December 11, 2016 – The Third Sunday of Advent
Canticle 3 The Song of Mary Magnificat Luke 1:46-55 James 5:7-10
This morning, back in his own time period, our friend John is struggling. He is in prison, and I hope for his sake that this particular outcome had at least crossed his mind at some point in the planning phase of his ministry. It should have, he is after all a prophet in a dark and dangerous time in history. And the title prophet is rarely synonymous with a smooth ministry or a long and happy life.
John is having a moment of uncertainty – having rushed out ahead to proclaim the way of the Lord, he has looked back to see …? well he’s not sure and he wants to check. Like we all do from time to time. Wait, is this for real? Because I could be a fool here. What if I am wrong?
I think that’s normal for those of us in a culture that questions our sanity – that questions our being a Christian, when being a person of any religious faith is no longer the norm, why on earth would you bother with all that? Why would you buy into it? Well, speaking for myself, and I obviously have a stake in this, but have you looked around? REALLY looked? Have you seen anything else worth buying into? Anything that speaks to your heart and soul? That is worth your life and love? Anything out there on the open market of our consumer driven world that is going to sustain you? Me either. Unlike John, I wasn’t born into this tradition, I chose it, I came running toward it; I was willing to risk a great deal to have it. To come home to this life of faith. But even if we choose it, that doesn’t mean we don’t doubt, no one wants to be a fool. Though I find it personally reassuring that Isaiah is clear that the Holy Way home to God will be such that every traveler will make it, not even fools will go astray. No need to worry, faithful fools still find their way to God. Don’t misunderstand me, John is no fool – he is dynamic, prophetic, a man on fire to proclaim the coming of the Lord. And he has been doing this his whole life – he recognized Jesus when they were still in their mothers’ wombs, yet, in this moment John asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
How does Jesus answer him? He says, tell John to look around him and see what is happening, these are the signs that the Kingdom has come near, that the Messiah has come, and God is keeping God’s promises.
Let’s be clear, it’s not like there have been huge, sweeping changes that affect vast numbers of the population. Not in a statistically significant way. People are still living in poverty, still suffering under injustice, the powers that be are still in control, there is violence and oppression, and that will continue to be the case. John will be killed unjustly as will Jesus, and there will be nothing any of their friends and followers can do about it. At first glance, their world has not changed, and yet – as Jesus points out to the disciples, tell John about these signs that signal that the world altering shift has begun. That while it may look like little has changed, nothing will ever be the same, for the kingdom of God has drawn near. Sight, and hearing, and health and life and good news are being restored to God’s own; to those in need; to the least of us. Signs of the wonders of the grace of God happening in the here and now, of all that is yet to come.
John asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” and Jesus answers, ‘Look and see all that is happening with God’s grace… the kingdom is happening right now.’ That’s all good… we can leave it right there.
OR we can lean in a little more, and push this story a bit harder. (Don’t you wonder what’s going on when our prophet John asks a question like this?) John is the combination of his father’s attendance on the holy of holies in the Temple, and his mother’s deep longing for a child; he was literally born of this and for this. He is the embodiment of the longing of God’s people for the presence of God in their midst. And no longer out in the wilderness but pent up and imprisoned, all John can do is think about what his life means in light of what might really be happening. He is in prison but not a failure, a success. He has done what he set out to do, the job he was born to do. He has proclaimed the coming of the Lord, he has made the path straight, he has prepared the way.
For there’s a deeper longing here in John’s question, “Can it really be true, is this really happening finally?” Not so that John can be right. But so that God’s people might truly be saved. “Are you the one?” As Jesus responds to John’s question, tell John what you see happening – these signs and wonders that signal the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, the realm of heaven has begun. The implied answer is, “I am. I am the one sent by God, just as God promised.”
Jesus doesn’t question John’s faith in God or in Jesus as the Messiah. He seems to acknowledge the question as a demonstration of that faith. And as the disciples are leaving, but I’m willing to bet, while they are still close enough to hear, Jesus tells the crowds who John really is. So these disciples can pass that on to John. Jesus says, go and tell John all these things are happening, so he was right all along. And Go and tell John: he is more than he might have thought himself to be. Go and tell John he did what he was called to do and be. To phrase it like Jesus will in Matthew’s Gospel, Go and tell John, you have been salt of the earth and the light of the world… (As noted in Karoline Lewis’ essay, **
I am wondering if in these remaining weeks of Advent, when we are feeling unsteady and unsure of all that will be in the year to come for our nation – perhaps we would do well to be a little more like John in this morning’s texts. Not in his prophet in the wilderness phase, but in his imprisoned and wondering, longing phase. Which I know is not particularly attractive either. But hang in there with me for a moment. To take some wisdom from this morning’s letter of James – let’s be patient for a moment and entertain the thought.
What about this question, “Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” What was true then is true now – the world isn’t perfect, there is violence and oppression and poverty and injustice, and it would be easy to be overwhelmed by all of that. But there are also signs and wonders, if we look. There are places where God’s kingdom breaks through even now, places where we can see it, if we are paying attention. Better yet, there are places where our finger prints are on the tearing open that allows God’s light to shine through the darkness into the world. And that’s good news, though if we are honest, we are better about that for others than we are for ourselves.
So here’s my question for us – what would happen if we take this opportunity to explore our longings and our fears? To lean in a bit with faith that we shall be safe in God’s hands while we do so… that we might risk asking John’s question, “Are you the one, or should I wait for another?” … because I long for this, but I am afraid to trust more fully, to invest more fully, to be more fully faithful… to this relationship. What would that take for you? To invest more in the relationship between you and God’s self? So that you are willing to be open and vulnerable to welcoming Christ anew in your life, when we sing the hymns and celebrate this Christmas Eve?
Perhaps there is some dark place within where you long to allow the light to seep in, if only you could risk it. That’s what asking this question is about – leaning into that risk – are you the one? Would you illumine my doubt, my darkest fears? So that my longing heart might rejoice with overwhelming love?
I wonder what would happen if we were willing to ask, together, as the people of God in this community, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” and then wait, and long, wonder and listen, together, for God’s answer?
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”