Third Sunday in Advent

TEXTS: Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11

“Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:10-12)

That was John the Baptist last week. If you read both scripture lessons noted in last week’s post, you would have heard from John the Bold Proclaimer, come to herald the advent of Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, who at last would set all things right—rewarding the virtuous, destroying the wicked, and restoring the nation’s sovereignty. Clearing. Gathering. Winnowing. And burning.

John was full of hope … I guess …

Today, however, we hear from John the Disappointed. He is locked in Herod’s dungeon for condemning Herod’s behaviour—and, very soon, his head will be the main course at Herod’s banquet.

What a difference a week makes! Of course, in real time, it’s been much longer than a week. The Revised Common Lectionary has jumped ahead eight chapters, right into the middle of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry. Many months have passed since John baptized Jesus and proclaimed him the Chosen One.

And who knows how many months John has been in prison? He was cast there, you may remember, because he denounced King Herod … calling his marriage to Herodias incestuous, among other things … And—just like other prophets who insisted on publicly embarrassing other kings—John was now paying the price.

But that’s not the worst thing for John. After giving his unequivocal support to Jesus—even calling him “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29)—John, apparently, is having second thoughts.

And so he sends his own disciples to ask Jesus, quite plainly, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

What’s going on here? This is the third Sunday in Advent. Christmas is but half a month away. By this time, most of us have bought our trees, decorated our houses, been to at least one party, and gotten a good start on our Christmas shopping. Now it’s time for Mary and Joseph, isn’t it? Or the angels. Or the shepherds. Or something else that will help get us into the Christmas spirit … Instead, we get this passage about John and his doubts! That’s a strange choice for Advent, isn’t it?

Or is it? In the midst of all the planning and shopping and celebrating we have been so frantically about, is there also a smattering of doubt and fear? The holiday season is not all about mistletoe and fruitcake, is it? I think any pastor—along with physicians, psychologists, and counselors—would tell you that Christmastime is a terrible time for many.

Throughout the season we call Advent, there is an increase in requests for counseling, admissions to mental health facilities rise, and suicides peak, along with episodes of domestic violence. It would seem that John is not alone in his troubles.

We should not be surprised by John’s crisis of faith. He is, after all, in prison, and—so far—what he predicted and longed for has simply not arrived. For when John announced the coming of God’s Kingdom and proclaimed Jesus as the Lord’s Anointed … Well, he expected things to change. Now—after the passage of way too much time—things seem all too dreadfully the same!

To put it another way, what John hoped for in Jesus was the consummation of all God’s promises to Israel. Now, sitting alone in a prison cell, he is still waiting for that to happen. Why hasn’t the Messiah picked up his winnowing fork? When will Jesus throw the chaff into the unquenchable fire?

John is beginning to wonder if he’s made a mistake.

Certainly, this is not the John we heard from last week!

But, look … isn’t this John a tremendously more sympathetic character at this time of the year? I mean, we are all still waiting for the consummation of the Christmas promise, are we not?

Is not this our problem: that the very things which are most wonderful about Christmas are also the things that are most difficult about Christmas? We hear the promises of “peace on earth” and “goodwill to people” … and then we pick up the newspaper, or turn on the evening news. Headlines and lead stories—and sometimes even what takes place in our own homes—make it abundantly clear that peace and goodwill are as scarce today as they were in John’s time.

And so, try as we might to ignore the darkness of the season—and of our spirits—by lighting candles on the Advent wreath or putting presents under the tree, all it takes is the loss of a friend or a job or a loved one to burst our good-cheer bubble and leave us as deflated as John was, alone in his prison cell.

When this happens, we, too, are disappointed. Disappointed with ourselves. Disappointed with the world. And even—and perhaps especially—disappointed with God … which feels all the worse at Christmastime.

Which is what makes this gospel passage so poignant. And so necessary. The message of Scripture—and of the Church—must speak to people’s disappointments as well as to their dreams. Jesus knew this. That’s why he confronted religious leaders who were more of a burden than a blessing to ordinary people. That’s why he embraced our human pain and sorrow. And maybe that’s why the beloved Christmas carol tells us that “the hopes and fears of all the years” are met in him.

The Bible does not tell us how John received Jesus’ answer. I doubt that he found it reassuring. Jesus instructs John’s disciples to go and tell him what they have heard and seen. But John already knew what Jesus was doing. In fact, that’s likely what had provoked his doubts in the first place.

Nor, I imagine, would John take much comfort in the rest of Jesus’ answer: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

What kind of answer is that? I’m sure it’s not what John wanted to hear. What John probably was looking for—and, if truth be told, what we look for most of the time, too—is a strong Messiah for a strong people, a Messiah who helps those who help themselves, a Messiah who knows how to stand up for himself …

What he gets, instead … is Jesus. And measured against John’s hopes and expectations, Jesus falls disappointingly short of the mark. I mean, let’s face it. The people Jesus seems preoccupied with: the lame, the deaf, the poor, the sick—and the dead, for heaven’s sake—these are not the movers and shakers of the world. No. They are the ones who are moved and shaken—moved and shaken by every whim of the rich and powerful.

These people are not going to change things! They are the social outcasts and economic losers of John’s day—the kind of unfortunate people who can barely fend for themselves, let alone help anyone else.

Why in the world does Jesus talk about these people when John—apparently at the end of his rope—asks for some sign, just some little indication, that Jesus is in fact the One for whom Israel was waiting? Well … maybe that sign is given. And maybe it’s simply this: all these outcasts and losers share one thing in common with John the Baptist. And that one thing in common is their need.

Think about it. There’s John, pacing and pondering in his cell. John, who—suddenly, despite his earlier fame, despite his charismatic personality, despite all his followers, despite even his mighty faith—finds himself in a position of absolute need. And—whether he realizes it or not—he is now at one with all those who are in need: with the poor and the lame, with the outcasts and the lepers, and with all the others who can boast of nothing.

Nothing, that is, except their utter dependence on God’s grace and mercy and protection.

And here, I think, we find a clue to the meaning of the last part of Jesus’ answer to John—the part about not being offended by Jesus. For to the degree to which we claim to have made it on our own—to not need anything we cannot earn or make or hoard for ourselves—to that degree we will undoubtedly take offence at Jesus—this one who was born in a stable, laid in a feeding trough, and, ultimately, hanged on a cross.

But, at just the same time, to whatever degree we admit our need … to whatever degree we identify with all those who depend on God … to that degree, we discover in Jesus a God who is—once and for all, absolutely and completely—for us!

Now, this, I realize, can be a frightening thing. We live in a world that preys on the weak. Not surprisingly—from early on—we are taught to trust no one, to take nothing for granted, and to cover all the bases.

And so, when push comes to shove, we try to hide our insecurities and fears behind our houses and careers and accomplishments. Until, that is, the word “cancer” or “downsized” or “divorce” is spoken … and then we know ourselves to be just as fragile and vulnerable as anybody else. And at these moments—which seem so much worse … and so much more common at this time of year—the words Jesus speaks offer us some measure of comfort.

This is what we prepare for during this season. In Christ, our Emmanuel, God draws near to us. In the flesh and blood of that very human baby, the God of earth and heaven becomes one of us: living our life—and dying our death—so that we may believe in his promise to be with us—and for us—forever.

And so, while Matthew’s portrayal of John and his doubts is striking—even startling—maybe it’s not so odd that we hear about it at Christmas.

This is the time when so many of us feel stuck between God’s promises made and God’s promises kept; when we find ourselves living in between Christ’s first coming at Bethlehem and his second coming in glory; when we—we who are also disappointed by ourselves, by the world, and even by God—fall on our knees to utter a prayer as desperate as it is ancient and simple: Come, Lord Jesus … come!

Here’s the good news: whatever our misgivings, whatever our doubts or failures or regrets—whatever our disappointments—God is not disappointed in us!

He comes to us anyway—to join us in our weakness, to embrace us in our insecurity, and to comfort us in our fear. In Jesus of Nazareth, God came—not for the strong and the proud, but for the weak and the vulnerable. He came—as Isaiah said—to “strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees” (Isaiah 35:3).

In Jesus, God came … for us.

So there’s John—still pacing, pounding the few steps around his cell, wondering and worrying whether Jesus is really the One—when, all of a sudden, there is a knock, an entrance, and the delivery of the long-awaited response to a heartfelt question.

And I imagine his disciple saying: “John, Jesus told me to tell you that the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at him.”

I wonder if John got it. I hope so.

I hope we do, too.

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