Sermon preached at Sunday Assembly, Holy Wisdom Monastery, Middleton, WI
Third Sunday of Advent – December 15, 2019
Text – Matthew 11:2-11
Out there beyond these sanctuary doors, December is in the final, mad dash to Christmas, fueled on with a consumerist frenzy of shopping and a kind of exhaustion which arises from way too much to do and so very little time in which to accomplish it all. Amid the too short days and long nights of the impending cold season, we’re all very much in need of that proverbial “long winter’s nap.” Our culture doesn’t so much observe the twelve days OF Christmas as it does a countdown TO Christmas. Once it’s over we move just move on to the January white sales.
Yet in here, inside this room, it’s Advent, and even the color is different. It’s calming blue, not green the color of money and red the color of too many credit card accounts! The mood and feel are different as well, in spite of all the best efforts of the outside culture to impose a mad rush on the church as well. I have always loved Advent, but some of my congregants over the years have not so much. Infected I think by a mall culture that starts playing holiday music even before the Halloween decorations come down, some of my church members have grumbled at me for making them sing Advent hymns instead of Christmas carols. A friend and ministry colleague told me that three of his elderly members informed him they were going to worship at the church down the street in December because they sang Christmas songs! Ah, the pressure!
Today’s Gospel reading is a perfect example of the kind of tension that exists between the Christmas out there and the Advent in here. In here, it’s all about a guy named John the Baptist. Out there most folk have never even heard of him, or if they have, John doesn’t get a nod in the Christmas folderol. Amid elves and reindeer and snowmen and the yearly controversy surrounding Starbucks paper coffee cups, a locust-eating, camel-skin clad man of the wilderness is holiday persona non grata. John just ruins the red and green scene.
Still, it’s Advent in here, and no less than Jesus himself heaped tons of praise on John, calling him unequaled among those born of woman – which pretty much includes us all, right? So if Jesus says pay attention to John, well, I think we should pay attention.
But to what end we might ask? What possibly could a desert fellow from 2000 years ago have to say to us in 2019? After all we prefer our Christmas wrapped up in “tidings of comfort and joy,” don’t you know? To quote Barbara Brown Taylor, “When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness he sounded like God’s own air raid siren.”
So what are we to make of John? I have to admit he’s a real character, an “in your face” kind of a guy. He has no inside voice, no pianissimo. Everything from this guy is in a loud outside voice, all fortissimo. And on top of his volume, John just doesn’t know how to soft pedal anything. The ever so polite Scottish Bible scholar, William Barclay, said of John: “…[h]e was incapable of seeing evil without rebuking it. He had spoken too fearlessly and to defiantly for his own safety.” You can say that again! Ultimately of course, his loud mouth and his head strong opinions proved to be his undoing, for as you may recall, John eventually ran afoul of King Herod and paid for it with a severed head!
Yet all of this raises something that seems a bit odd to me. Given John’s sharpened axe in one hand and a flaming torch in the other, coupled with a tongue that never, ever held back, John’s question communicated to Jesus from his jail cell via some of his associates strikes me as strange: “Shall we look for another Savior?”
After all, at the start of Jesus’ public ministry, when Jesus came to be baptized by John, John seemingly recognized in Jesus that Jesus was the one who was to come. In the Fourth Gospel, John even points others to Jesus saying, “Behold the Lamb of God.” So why this question? And why now?
A few scholars think that John had become worried and troubled by the seeming delay of “God’s wrath to come.” John had been forcefully announcing that the time was coming when God’s winnowing fork and unquenchable fire would separate the just from the unjust. Perhaps John had figured that Jesus would be the one who would bring it on, soon and very soon. But that’s not what John was hearing about the Galilean. Instead, the reports John was receiving about Jesus’ ministry were about healing and providing cups of cold water to little ones. That hardly qualifies in the burning up chaff department! So maybe John was having second thoughts about Jesus. Was the Nazarene really “the one who was to come?”
Anyway, a dying man can’t afford to have doubts; so John needed to be assured; his inquiring mind wanted to know, prompting John to send some his disciples to Jesus with the question: “Are you the One who is to come, or must we go on expecting another?”
Was John wrong about Jesus? His question doesn’t mask his disappointment. “If you know who you are, Jesus, just say so. If you’re not the one, then we need to reopen the search process, and fast.”
Some may wonder why we should bother with John’s question at all anymore. No one today is a disciple of John the Baptist.
That’s true, but John’s question still haunts me. In fact, maybe his question is even more troubling now than it was when John asked it two millennia ago.
If John had expected faster and better results from Jesus’ appearing, doesn’t it seem obvious that we also might wonder the same thing now after 2000 years: “Jesus, are you still the one?”
I can’t speak for you, but when I peer out at the world, I sometimes wonder myself if much has changed at all by Christ’s coming. In fact, for twenty centuries having elapsed, wouldn’t you think there would be more a little more to show for Jesus showing up on the scene? Is the world any nearer to God’s realm than it was when Jesus first appeared? Or are we just left asking the pathetic line from that old Peggy Lee song, “Is that all there is?”
“Are you still the One, Jesus?” Yeah, maybe it’s the wrong question, but I still think it deserves an answer. It shouldn’t be dismissed. Wouldn’t we just be better off looking for another savior?
The truth is, many have looked, and many still do. They look for other saviors -economic ones, social ones, political ones, techy ones, even pseudo religious ones. They look for panaceas of every kind in a frantic and frenetic hunt for salvation in one form or another. They ask, if not with words, at least by their behavior, is this Jesus the one or should we look for another?
However this may be, the Gospel offers us the same answer Jesus gave John in fulfillment of Isaiah’s ancient hope. Those who have walked in all kinds of darkness bear witness to a light that shines for them in God’s grace and forgiveness. A leprosy of the spirit God has cleansed. People crippled by despair or pride now walk in the power of Christ who said yes to their human dignity. Persons deaf to the appeals of the poor and the powerless now hear the cries of the weak and those without help. And the poor have Good News preached to them whenever women and men serve the cause of justice and mercy for all the daughters and sons of God.
As with Barbara Brown Taylor in her sermon that I quoted earlier, I wish I could tell you that Jesus’ coming has changed everything – that once it got out about what God had done in and through Jesus, everyone saw the light and turned toward it on the spot. Yes, I wish I could tell you that.
But I can’t. I can’t because I look at the world and doubt it. Sometimes I just wish God would flash some giant neon sign in the sky with all the answers for everyone to see.
But it doesn’t happen that way, does it? We don’t get unmistakable signs. Instead, what we get is a vulnerable little baby born in a barn in an obscure little town on a silent night long ago. What we get is an arrival that almost passed unnoticed. That’s what we get. What we get is what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “a steady drip of mercy from the followers of a man named Jesus who is still playing doctor to a lot of marginal people in this world.”
Like it or not, the realm of God comes in drips, not in downpours. It comes in small stories. It comes with modest returns, one cup of cold water at a time, to make a moral metaphor out of it.
It comes in the form of a little girl from Scandinavia who just refuses to give up her crusade to get the attention of the world’s powerful to do something about the care of the planet for the sake of all the children.
It comes in the form of two lesbian women of faith here in Madison who created a Healing House, the nation’s first medical respite center that welcomes families who are homeless.
It comes with the efforts of doctors who refuse to let borders inhibit their healing mission.
It comes with a psychologist from my rural Iowa hometown who is reaching out to save farmers from suicide, farmers who are on the brink of despair and bankruptcy, caught in the middle of trade wars and tariffs.
It comes with the adoption of three little brothers by two women who were determined to give them a home and keep them together, against the odds of a system that says a real home can only be defined in one way.
It comes with a little religious community committed to ecological sanity and earth care restoring some prairie land on the shores of a Wisconsin lake.
It comes with two men in Canada who provide portable water treatment units to isolated villages in Laos.
It comes with a small church on the poorest side of a small island in the middle of the Pacific providing the homeless and the needy with free and low cost clothing and household goods for forty years now, amid the opulence of a tourist culture that just doesn’t see.
It comes with the tenacity of a 70+ year old Dubuque woman who has made a crusade out of teaching low income city folks to grow their own food in container gardens and getting corporations to plant vegetables for the local food pantry instead of landscaping their properties.
I could go on. So could you if you think about it. Drip. Drip. Drip. None of these are headline stories. Just little ones on the back pages. Just a few people saved at a time, but it is sort of like that song we sang back in the 60s about two and two and fifty making a million until that day comes round.
I know that there are still folk in this world who wonder if God has forgotten them, who wonder if Jesus is the one who is to come, or if they should be looking somewhere else for help and hope. I can’t blame them for asking.
I’m not really sure how to answer them. What I do know is that even the grandest of canyons and the deepest of caves get shaped and formed by the incessant drip, drip, drip of single drops of water. As James suggested, we must be patient. And I also know this – that for me, I am changed and that my world is changed in Christ. Drip by drip by drip. In small works of justice done. In the practice of mercy extended. In the good news lived out. In the vision of peace implemented.
In Christ we don’t just have a crucified Savior who came long ago to the least and the lost of Galilee and Judea, but who still comes to us as one unknown in the midst of every kind of death with restoration and rebirth. Drop by drop the Messiah has decided to come. And every time you and I chose to live as Jesus lived and love as Jesus loved, the realm of God draws closer.
Maybe this is not how we expected the realm of God to come. But it is coming, nonetheless, not with irresistible power, but with unanswerable love, a way that leads to truth and life.
When the world asks if Jesus is the One who is to come, or should we look for another,” I think your life and my life should be the answer to that question, pointing to God’s presence in this world.