Advent 3, Year A RCL
Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
On this, the third Sunday of Advent 2007, still early in our church’s newest year, we hear the voice of John the Baptist – the prophet, the one who proclaimed the coming of one who would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. John poses a question as to the authenticity of the (then) new ministry of Jesus. His question reveals an attribute of doubt that is not often associated with this person’s story in the life of Jesus. It is an unexpected and yet understandable perspective from his point of view.
John’s role is, perhaps, a minor one in most of our conception’s of the Christian Story – though he certainly wasn’t a minor figure then. John was, as I said, a prophet, an ascetic who lived on simple foods, wore simple clothing, and preached of the coming of the Lord – that one day, one would come forth who would overturn the oppressors of God’s people, who would bring healing to those who are sick, make the blind see, make the lame walk.
He had a message for the world – to make straight their paths so that they might be ready to receive this mighty king who would bring good news to the poor. Talk about preaching for Advent! John’s message was one of anticipation – of waiting and of preparation. His was a message was both of great hope, and of great warning – that those who were not ready for this king would be in for it when he arrived on the scene.
John had a ministry of his own, he had a following of his own and disciples of his own. He was baptizing those who would listen and those who needed the hope in his message, that good news was being preached to them, that they had a place in God’s kingdom and it was a place higher than that of their own oppressors, those in power who ignored the obvious needs of community members (and outcasts) within plain sight.
So, knowing that John was expecting a powerful and mighty Messiah, one might understand a little more when John asked the question of Jesus – are you the one? Are you here to do all the things that I have been proclaiming – the pronouncements that I was born to make as a prophet of God, as one following in the footsteps of Elijah… Are you him? Are you here? Is my work complete? Have I fulfilled my mission?
John questioned Jesus’ authenticity as the one to fulfill all that he had proclaimed – because Jesus’ way of being in the world did not match up with what John expected – Jesus did not look, or act, or sound like the Messiah that John had been proclaiming all those years – so he had cause to question.
John’s expectation’s of what to look for came from a place of biblical proportions. The same God that was poetically described in our Hebrew text – one who would make fruitful the deserts, make tender the wild beasts, make a Holy path for the righteous to walk on – that same expectant savior was described in the passages prior to that as one who would bring vengeance and judgment down on those who ignored the needs of the poor, and oppressed those who were victims of poverty and economic and societal injustice. This Jesus, this new bearer of John’s prophetic witness, this one being proclaimed as the one greater than John that would follow – he did not seem to wield the kind of power that John was waiting for.
Though his words may have stated, “I have come to bring, not peace, but a sword,” his way of doing this was through preaching a message of love – a commandment of love – but not reaping the kind of “eye for an eye” justice that perhaps John was certain he would see, or at least might begin to hear of through the walls of his imprisonment.
Jesus answered them, “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.”
John’s expectations of how the Messiah might live out his ministry were unmet – Jesus’ words, his message back to John, was that all that he had proclaimed would come was being fulfilled. And the teaching that he turned this interaction to was for the crowds and for us as well. God does not always enter our lives in the way that we expect, in the way that we assume, in the way that we desire. God’s movement, incarnation, presence and practice among us is God’s work, not ours. Our work, like John’s, is to discern where God is present, where God is calling us to be present, and to do as Jesus told John, to see and hear God’s work in the world.
Our own presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori speaks to this truth in her address to the church in this Advent season. “Advent is both a time to ready our eyes to see God in unlikely guises, and to put our hope in God's ultimate graciousness.”
– PB Katharine Jefferts Shori
Unlike John, we stand on the other side of the story of Jesus’ life. We have the opportunity to respond differently than John did. Remember – he was a prophet, and Jesus’ ministry was newly on the scene when John’s ministry was phased out – and by phased out I mean, when John met his untimely demise. We hear these scriptural stories from a place of hind-sight – both from the writer’s point of view and from our own experience of having heard the Jesus’ story in church, in Sunday School, at the movies, on Broadway, on the street corner, etc. etc. etc.
John did not have access to all that we have in the teachings and practices of the church that tell us that Jesus’ way of being did not live up to expectation, that it was a surprising, vulnerable entry into the world. Hearing John’s doubt we have some insight into what it might have been like to be a first century Jew, hearing the stories of Jesus’ words and actions for the first time as they spread by word of mouth throughout the synagogue and the streets. John believed in the impact that the Messiah was meant to have on the world he lived in every day – but unlike us, he had to have faith without knowing – what was to come.
So where does that leave us? 3rd millennium Christians, who have the history, who have the insight, who have the rest of the story – that Jesus’ way of overturning the oppressors, of changing the world that we live in was fulfilled in light of his death on a cross – a cross that proclaimed him King of the Jews – death to the human shell that housed God’s incarnate presence as one of us, so that we might be set free from those things that separate us from the love of God – our own sin and sadness that separates us from one another and keeps us from fulfilling the Greatest Commandment, that we love one another.
In this season of Advent, of expectation, perhaps you find yourselves questioning with John, “Are you the one who was to come, or are we to wait for another?” The answer my friends, is that Jesus was the one to come and the “another” whom John wondered that the world is waiting for is you. If John were here today, I believe he might offer prophetic words and witness in response to Jesus message in an email marked “reply all.” He might sound a little something like this – let anyone who has ears listen.
You are the bearers of this story, and of this season. You are the ones, who know and are called to practice the love of God, and love for one another. You are called to see those who are blind to truth, and offer them a new vision for what the world could be. You are called to respond to those who are deafened by the sound of their own voices and the chaos of consumption and to offer them a new sound – one of quiet and peacefulness. You are called to offer safe passage to those who cannot bring themselves to the foot of the altar because they are kept distant from their own fear, their own doubt, their own entrapments of the need for control. Heed to word of God – and look forward with hope and awareness that the Messiah is coming, and you have work to do to prepare. This message is marked reply all. SEND. Amen.
Delivered by The Rev. Mary Catherine Enockson
The Episcopal Church of Our Saviour, Rock Hill, SC, December 16, 2007