Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent III: Who Were You Expecting, John?

I relied heavily on Sarah Dylan Breuer for parts of this sermon. I seriously owe that pastor/teacher dinner, she has saved my bacon repeatedly.

Isaiah 35:1-10
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. 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. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you."
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

James 5:7-10
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.' Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Prison was a lonely place. Chained in a filthy, vermin-infested cell, unable to walk around, and without human contact except when his disciples brought him food, or when Herod wanted to chat, John had a long time to think. Who knows what he had expected when Jesus came up out of the water of the Jordan, and the dove descended and the Voice spoke?

Maybe John was like so many others, who expected Jesus to use his power to overthrow the Roman oppressors, to utterly destroy all the ungodly hordes surrounding the small nation of faithful men and women, to re-establish in glory the Throne of David.

Maybe what John expected was for Jesus to use his power to clean up the corrupt religious leadership, to bring the Temple elite in line, to re-establish true holiness in the worship of God.

Maybe what John expected was both of these things. What he was seeing was none of them. The Sadducees still ran the Temple like their personal property, the Romans still occupied, the only throne in the entire province was occupied by the despicable, the insufferable Herod Antipas, in whose dungeon John now languished.

And it ate at him. What if he’d been wrong? What if he’d been imagining things? He had to know! So he sent some of his disciples off, to find his cousin and ask him, point-blank: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus answers John, and in answering, he flips the question on its head. “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.”

You see, in those days, there was a very simple system for keeping track of who had pleased God and who had sinned against God. We see a glimpse of it in the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel, where the disciples see a man who was blind from birth and ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Simply put, if you were sick, if you were blind, if you were crippled, if you were deaf, if you were a leper, if you were poor, you had done something – or perhaps your parents had done something – which caused God to punish you in that way.

Jesus said, “No. God does not hate you. God is not mad at you. The Kingdom of God is for you.”

Jesus was the one John was expecting, but he was doing things in ways neither John, nor anyone else, expected.

John expected Jesus to replace the Roman Empire with an empire of God. As it turns out, of course, this is exactly what Jesus came to do… only, instead of swords, there was Good news. Instead of spears, there was healing. Instead of siege towers, there was resurrection. Instead of castles and thrones, there was forgiveness of sins.

The Kingdom of God is not a social hierarchy, not even an inverted social hierarchy. The Kingdom of God is a covenant of equals. The opportunity to heal, to teach, to comfort, to feed, to clothe, to befriend is offered, without prejudice, to all.

Jesus isn’t just speaking to John, of course, nor is he simply addressing the crowds around him that day. Jesus speaks to us. Jeanyne B. Slettom says. “The message of both John and Jesus is a call to live according to the way of God and not the way of empire. The way of God is described over and over again by the prophets: take care of society’s most vulnerable (the widow, the orphan, the immigrant); limit the gap between rich and poor (the Year of Jubilee), do not use power to further the narrow self-interest of yourself and your friends; do not accumulate wealth at the expense of the poor. So when John’s disciples question Jesus, he answers in language they both understand: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed. This is the way of God—definitely not the way of empire. Nor is this news as reported by political shills; it is the good news that can be seen and heard by anyone who is paying attention.

“The question put to Jesus is this: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ By implication, the question is also put to us: is this the one we are to follow—which would require us to change—or can we prolong business as usual for a while longer while we wait for someone else to come? If Jesus reveals God by his unswerving fidelity to God’s way of being in the world, then do we not reveal the same when we act in fidelity to Jesus? The incarnation of God in the world is always already happening, but we can act in ways that bring more light to the strangers in our midst, to our neighbors, our friends and family members, and—as so many devoutly desire at this time of year—to ourselves.”

John was expecting a Jesus who was, more than anything, like The Terminator – out to wreak vengeance on all the perceived enemies of God. Yet Jesus came to teach and to heal, to love and forgive.

And when all that teaching and healing and loving and forgiving resulted in the whip, the cross, and the tomb, Jesus took it all – and even forgave those who were killing him. And the teaching, the healing, the loving, the forgiving didn’t stop when Jesus rose. These things continue today.

The question, then, for us is this: what kind of Jesus are we expecting to return? If we, like John, are expecting The Terminator, I think we’ll be just as disappointed as he was.

But if we’re expecting the Jesus that John’s followers were told about – the one who gave sight to the blind, who brought life to crippled limbs and light to blinded eyes, purity to lepers and life to the dead, and who preached the glorious Good News to the downtrodden and impoverished... if this is the Jesus we long for, the Jesus we confess with our lives and our lips…

Well, that's the only Christ there is. That Jesus – his humble service to the poor, the outcast, and the sinner, his willingness to eat with Pharisees as well as tax collectors and prostitutes, and most of all, his willingness to die on a Roman cross for us and for our salvation – is the judge of the nations, God's final answer to the question of what humanity, at its worst or its best, really deserves, in God's time. The extent to which I can finally embrace that truth, the extent to which I can receive others with the kind of generosity with which Jesus received those who came to him, is the extent to which I can understand just how boundless God's generosity, forgiveness, and love are toward someone like me.

And so I can say with all my heart, Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

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