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Third Sunday of Advent
Pastor Anke Deibler
- Isaiah 35:1-10
- Luke 1:46-55
- James 5:7-10
- Matthew 11:2-11
Grace be to you and peace from God our father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The John the Baptist we meet in today’s gospel is very different from the one we met last week.
Last week, John was standing on the banks of the Jordan River, wrapped in a camel hair cloak with a leather belt, wind in his hair and staff in his hand, urging everyone to repentance. He announced the coming Messiah with absolute certainty, and he described that messiah as bringing an ax to chop down unfruitful trees and a winnowing fork to separate out the chaff, which he would burn with unquenchable fire.
John spoke of a baptism with fire and spirit, and it very much looked like he was on fire himself. A strong prophet with a strong conviction.
Today, John is in a very different spot. It is a year or two later, and John’s convictions have gotten him jailed. Because he was so on fire with the righteousness of God, he spoke out against the king, against his adultery with his sister-in-law. The queen did not want someone walking around talking like this about her, so she did what the powerful have always done: arrest John to shut him up.
Now John sits alone in his dark prison cell. He has plenty of time to think. And he begins to wonder. His certainty is starting to waver. Did he make a mistake? Was he wrong about Jesus?
Because Jesus is so very different than the messiah he had expected. Jesus does not swing an ax or a winnowing fork. Jesus does not call unquenchable fire on people. He is not at all what John had expected.
Also, Jesus is not rescuing him. He is supposed to be the messiah, the savior, the anointed one of almighty God, but he isn’t saving John. Jesus is so close by, yet isn’t doing anything to make John feel better.
John’s thought is probably along the lines of, “This is not how I thought it would turn out.” And isn’t that a thought we can relate to?
I retired so I could have a few good years with my dad, but now he died. This is not what I had expected.
I got married with the full intention of committing myself for life, but now my spouse wants to get a divorce. This is not what I wanted.
I thought my friend was my BFF, but today at lunch in the cafeteria, she ignored me and sat with another group of kids, and I am really upset. This is not what I thought would happen.
I worked for this company for 15 years and now they laid me off because they need to downsize. This comes totally unexpected.
I imagine everyone here has had thoughts like this: I thought I would have graduated by now; I thought I would have a partner by now; I thought I would have kids; I thought my health was good; I thought my business was solid; I thought I could trust my parent/spouse/friend.
Like John the Baptist, we have sat in the dark, alone, brooding. Trying to make sense out of events that took such a completely different turn. Trying to make sense of Jesus.
John is not the only one in today’s Bible readings who is in this spot. The Prophet Isaiah in our first reading speaks to a people who are sort of in jail: they are in exile in Babylon. After the Babylonian army captured the country and destroyed Jerusalem with its temple, they took 10,000 people into exile in Babylon.
There they sit now, captive in a foreign land, trying to make sense of what had just happened. They thought they would always be in the Holy Land; after all, they were God’s people. They had never expected defeat and deportation. What now? How can they make sense of all this? How can they make sense of God? Does God still care?
John sends some of his own disciples to ask Jesus if he is the One or if John should wait for someone else. Jesus’ answer is very caring.
First, he does not judge John at all for his doubts. He doesn’t ridicule him, as in “what happened to that mighty Prophet John on the Jordan’s banks?”
Second, he doesn’t just say, “Yup, that’s me.” He points to concrete evidence that might help John overcome his doubts.
Third, Jesus enlists John’s disciples as witnesses. “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.” The disciples are to discover with their own eyes what difference Jesus is making in the lives of people, so that they go back to John not just saying, “This is what Jesus says,” but also saying, “This is what Jesus does; we have seen it with our own eyes; this is amazing.”
The Prophet Isaiah calls his people to do the same kind of witnessing: “Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart: ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God!’”
Encourage one another, Isaiah says. When you see someone weak and anxious, talk to them. Encourage them. Say to them: “Here is your God.” Here is where I see God at work right now. These are the signs that God is present and God cares and God is at work to help you and strengthen you and bring you home.
“Go and tell John,” Jesus says today. “Go and teach the nations,” he will say after the resurrection. Go and be witnesses to my presence, my power, my love, my kingdom.
When you see weak and feeble and anxious hearts, go and witness to them about the power of God to transform your life.
When you see people sitting in dark places, disappointed and confused and in doubt, go and tell them about Jesus, about very concrete examples of Jesus touching you and making a difference in the real world.
When people have misguided expectations about what the messiah will do for them, go and share with them the kind of ministry Jesus came to fulfill and the amazing blessing his love can be.
Pastor Barbara Brown Taylor wrote this sentence that caught my attention: “Blessed are those who do not let the Messiah they are expecting blind them to the Messiah who is standing right in front of them.” We assist one another whenever we are blinded because Jesus isn’t doing what we thought he would to do. When people are angry at Jesus because of the unexpected turn their lives have taken and complain that Jesus didn’t do anything, we can answer: “Well, he didn’t do that, but here is what he is doing, because he loves you and he cares.”
Jesus does one more thing in our gospel reading: He affirms John and his ministry. More than a prophet, he calls him, the messenger who announces the Lord’s coming and prepares the way, the greatest one of the Old Covenant.
This is so important and so caring. When our lives are thrown for a loop, we have a tendency to question everything. I can just imagine John in prison asking himself: Has all my work been for nothing? Has my strong faith brought me anything? Has my ministry for the kingdom been in vain?
In response, Jesus admits that the kingdom moves forward in fits and starts, but it always moves forward and there are always signs of hope. John’s work was not in vain, because signs of the kingdom are springing up all over the place: healings and justice for the poor. While he is in prison, the effects of his labor continue. Even if he is going through a period of hopelessness and doubt, there is hope among the people he touched. He did not labor and suffer in vain, not at all.
Going through a time of doubt is never pleasant. It is especially hard during this time of year, when everyone around us is cheery and is trying to create the perfect holiday spirit. It can really make us feel like we are out of sync.
So it’s doubly comforting to read about John the Baptist now, in Advent. He, too, was down in spirit and confused about what exactly it means that Jesus is the messiah. Jesus does not fault him for it, but gently gives him the assurance he needs. Jesus affirms the value John adds to the world, the blessing he is to those he touched. Jesus strengthens John’s weak hands and firms his feeble knees and speaks to his fearful heart, “Here is your God!”
Sometimes we are the ones reaching out to others with that affirmation and care. Go and tell, Jesus calls us. Point to the signs of Jesus’ presence, of the kingdom’s advances, of reason to hope. We do that in God spotting, in Bible study, in Jumpstart, in conversations during coffee hour, and in many other ways. Keep your eyes and ears open for people who might need your ministry, especially during this supposedly happy time of year.
Sometimes we are the ones needing the help. Then it is a blessing to be here among the people of God, where caring brothers and sisters in Christ will guide our search for answers, our search for direction, our search for deeper faith, our search for signs of Jesus’ love.
Here we all gather, no matter what amounts of faith or doubt are in our hearts. Here we encounter God in God’s word, in one another, and very profoundly in Holy Communion. Bread is placed into our hands; wine is poured for us; and we hear the amazing promise: Jesus, given for you. For you when you are strong like John on the banks of the Jordan. For you when you are weak like John in prison questioning his faith. For you at every stage in between. Jesus is for you. You can see him and taste him and be assured once again: No matter what unexpected and unwelcome turns life might take, Jesus is given for you.
Then our weak hands are strengthened and our feeble knees made firm, and our fearful heart hears the amazing promise: Here is your God. Given for you. Amen.