3rd Sunday of Advent (Year A) – Sunday, December 15, 2013 – Matthew 11:2-11
(also Matthew 3:1-12, Isaiah 11:1-10, from last week, which was canceled due to snow)
Trinity and St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Churches, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Pastor Evan Davis
We’re 9 days out, people. 9 days! Is your Christmas cheer on the upswing, still? Does each successive Christmas song on the radio increase your Yuletide bliss? Or…are you not really feeling it this year? Or has it peaked out already, and our impending Christmas celebrations seem a bit anticlimactic? Metaphorically, do you find yourself walking alone on the dark, cold, icy streets, on the outside looking in, wondering why everybody is so darn happy and why you can’t be too?
Disappointment is a reality for many among us during the Christmas season. It gets shoved under the rug and pushed to the side because nobody wants to spoil the fun, but many people are profoundly disappointed, disappointed with God, this time of year. Perhaps you are among those who mourn a dear one who won’t be around the Christmas tree this year, those who are struggling to find meaning, those who can’t forgive themselves for making a mistake, those who cannot find someone to love them. Those who wonder if Jesus makes any real difference in their lives.
John also was profoundly disappointed in Jesus. Did you notice that we have left the run-up to the Christmas story in the dust and jumped ahead 8 chapters and 30 years to John in prison, while Jesus, now an adult, is out doing his ministry? Around us now the lights are twinkling, the presents are being wrapped, the carols are ringing, we’re ready to party, so WHY are we in prison with John? Why are we being dragged through the dark night of John’s soul?
John wanted a Savior he could believe in. A Messiah he could be proud of. An axe-swingin’, bad tree-burnin’ Messiah who would bring the unrighteous to their knees. A new ruler for a new age of peace and prosperity for Israel. But all he got was Jesus. This Jesus, who as he heard apparently, was out spending his precious time with the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, and even the poor. Peter Woods points out this week how unexpected and offensive this must have seemed to John and most people. He writes that in the average mind, “Blind people deserved to be blind, the lame had offended God, lepers were unclean and punished by God and the dead were off in a shadow world where the best they could hope for was that someone would remember them. As for the poor, the ptochoi (Greek word for poor, evoking a spitting noise) well you can watch the spittle as you say the word. Spit and contempt, not good news, were the just deserts of the poor.”1 John had been preaching about the one who was going to chop down injustice and burn up the enemies of Israel. But all he got was Jesus.
Advent is not just about joyful expectation. It’s about waiting for the light when you really are in the darkness. Sometimes it’s just a pleading for God to come into our lives. Today we hear of John’s doubts, not his proclamation. If you’ve ever doubted that Jesus makes any difference, if you’ve ever been angry at Jesus, if you’ve ever wondered what in the heck you’re doing here in church waiting for this guy, today John is your man. If you’ve ever felt that Isaiah’s great visions of God’s future are pie-in-the-sky dreaming. If you’ve ever felt like you’re in a prison cell at Christmas time, today John is your man.
As John looked out the bars of his dark and dreary prison cell, I imagine he maybe felt a lot like Nelson Mandela, staring out the bars of the prison on Robbin Island, at times wondering if his life was all for naught. Or Martin Luther King, in prison in Birmingham, wondering if that dream of his would ever come true. And so John asked, “are you really the One? or are we to wait for another?” In other words, so…when’s the real Messiah coming? Is this really it? I’m in prison for proclaiming…you?
As if to rub it in, Jesus concludes his reply to John with an “oh, by the way, ‘blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’” Blessed are those who are not offended by what they might interpret as the shameful dishonor and spectacular failure of Jesus’ Messiahship. Blessed are those who take no offense that Jesus does not do what they or we want him to do, that he does not give what they or we want him to give.
In a world in which a billion people are desperate for their next meal, all we’ve got is Jesus. In a world in which all of us sometimes get a little disappointed at Christmas, it’s true. All we’ve got, all we’re waiting for this Advent, is Jesus. But it is Jesus who’s on his way. And with Jesus, disappointment turns to surprise.
The first surprise is about us – that those ones we would push to the margins are actually us. The surprise is that though we may not be blind, there are many things we cannot see. The surprise is that though we may not be leprous, there are times when we are made to be outcasts, on the outside looking in. The surprise is that though some of us know what it means to be poor better than others, we all suffer from lack of something – be that love, money, friendship, health, employment, fulfillment. Jesus reveals the final surprise that though we are not dead yet, we are all dying. Jesus is coming for our sake. Jesus knows what we need better than we do.
And so, in Jesus, the One who really is coming into the world, we have a Messiah who is totally committed to people like us – the blind, the outcasts, the poor, the dying. Our Messiah breaks down the labels between outcasts and insiders, poor and rich, righteous and sinners, by showing us how we all stand in desperate need of the divine. And we have a God who hungers and thirsts to fill our need for himself…and hence that God comes to us in the flesh, in the baby to be born in Bethlehem. This simple human being who is also God, comes to you and for you, because he knows that what you need this Christmas and every day of your life is not another sweater nor even a new iPad but his very self. We have a Messiah who gives himself to us – in water, in the Word, in bread and wine. We have a Messiah who gives our lives back to us in freedom so that we may spend our lives giving life and love to our neighbors.
For the least in the kingdom of heaven understand this better than John – that the Messiah comes to turn the world upside down. That he comes as a king unlike every human king, as a leader without ambition, a Savior without enemies. That the kingdom that comes with him will be complete in all the splendor of Isaiah. That he comes not to snatch us away from suffering but to walk right into its open jaws. That Jesus comes not to avoid death but to die, and in dying to reveal eternal and abundant life.
Is Jesus the one we’ve been waiting for? Well, look around. You all are being transformed by your encounter with this Messiah. The hungry are being fed. Minds and hearts are being opened. Those who mourn are being consoled. The lonely are being welcomed into community. Mandela’s hope has birthed a rainbow nation. King’s dream has become the ethic of a society slowly bending toward justice. Disappointment is turning to surprise. No, my friends, I think we’re waiting for the right guy. This One we’re waiting for – he chooses to make us, dying though we are, his partners, and he re-births us into new life through a fiery Baptism by the Holy Spirit, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD – that’s the spirit that rests on each of you and especially upon Cindy and Anna Gae, as we welcome them into the mission we share. Amen.
1Peter Woods, “When Faith Falters – Advent 3A”, http://thelisteninghermit.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/when-faith-falters-advent-3a/ (accessed December 11, 2013).