Sunday, December 11th, 2016 – Advent 3 Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11 and Isaiah 35:1-10

Audio will be posted soon.

Matthew 11:2-11
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 7 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? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 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.’ 11 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.

Isaiah 35:1-10
1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 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. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 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.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 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; 7 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. 8 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. 9 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. 10 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.

Friends, welcome to the third week of Advent.

I’m reminded around this time of year, as I am every year at this time, that preparing for Christmas is hard work. There are gifts to find and cards to address. Lights to hang and trees to straighten. Parties to host and parties to attend. Family to welcome in and in-laws to avoid. And in the midst of that, all the other normal parts of life that don’t stop for the season. There are relationship that need healing and relationships that need ending. There are jobs to search for and committee meetings to attend. There are annual reports to write and the dog still needs a walk. Preparing for Christmas is hard work.

But what I’ve realized is this season more than any other is that this season of Advent, this season of patient preparation and patient waiting for the arrival of Christ, the incarnation of God in the humble and vulnerable form of a child, this season of making room for Jesus in the Inn of our lives is even harder work. Because Advent, unlike Christmas, won’t ask for much from your wallet or your time – but it will ask for something from your heart.

It has dawned on me that throughout these past few weeks, in worship we’ve been confronted each week with a question. A question that, if we let it, will burrow its way into our heart and create a holy disturbance there.

In the first week, we were confronted with the question, “Are you awake?” In the scripture, we were told to “keep awake, for you do not know the hour that your Lord is coming”, which begs the question not only can we keep awake, but are we awake. We are invited to ask, “Where have I fallen asleep with regard to my own life and the life of my neighbor and the world?”

Are you awake? That’s the first question of Advent.

And then once we are awake and alert, last week, we were asked to consider what are the places in our life needs starting over. Despite what we might hope, we cannot simply separate ourselves into the wheat and the chaff, the good and the bad, but rather as Pastor Pam said, we all need to repent, which means “turn around”. Why? Because the line between the wheat and the chaff runs right through the middle of each of us. And so what is the chaff in your life that finally needs to be released into the wind and burned in the fire, so that our lives might bear fruit and provide nourishment to the world once again.

What needs repentance in your life, what needs turning around? That is the second question of Advent.

Now, those two alone are hard and haunting questions and so it’s a miracle that any of you have showed up here today, trudging through the snow, looking for more.

Because today’s advent question is perhaps the most difficult of all.

Is Jesus the One we’ve been waiting for? Or are we to wait for another?

That is the third question of Advent and it is the question of the Christian life. And the question itself comes from, of all people, John. John the Baptist.

You know John. He was the wild one last week – so confident in his message and his mission that he had no need for a custom made, slim-fitted tunic and red power belt. No, just some camel hair and an old belt of cracked leather would do. John, who was shouting in the wilderness, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near!” and who warned of the One who was coming who was greater than he. John, who knew exactly who Jesus was the moment he laid eyes on him at the river Jordan, and said, “I need to be baptized by you!” John, who held Jesus’ torso in his hands as he lowered him into the current of the water. John, who had a front row seat to the symphonic ballad of God’s voice breaking through the heavens to proclaim, “This One, this is my beloved Son, of whom I am well pleased.”

 That’s the confident John, the one who knew so clearly, who now is having second thoughts.

You see, John’s life is not what it was a week ago. Today, he is in prison at the hands of King Herod, and for the confident he had, he now has a question.

Go and ask Jesus, he says to his disciples, are you the one, or do we need to wait for another?

It is a question that is whispered out the small window in a prison cell that lets in just enough oxygen and sunlight to preserve life and just enough oxygen and sunlight to prolong it. It is a question asked to John’s faithful followers, who had every reason to find greener pastures. It’s amazing that John still has disciples. It’s not good for your resume as a prophet to start questioning your own prophecy.

Go and ask Jesus, he says to his disciples, are you the one, or do we need to wait for another?

Can you feel the weight of those words? Just imagine those words in the mouth of a foster child, arriving at her fifth foster home in three years. Are you the one I’ve been waiting for, or should I wait for another? Imagine those words in mouth of a mother whose miscarried 14 times, only to hear that this embryo has held on…for now. Are you the one I’ve been waiting for…

That is the weight of the hurt and the disappointment and the fear and the uncertainty in John’s words. John who has held Jesus in his hands, looked Jesus in the eyes, even heard the voice of God proclaiming Jesus as God’s son. But that’s how dark this prison cell is. You forget and you doubt the things that have been most loudly proclaimed to you.

We know what that’s like. To be in a place of such darkness and brokenness and despair and insecurity that we start to doubt the things that have been loudly proclaimed over us – that we are loved, that we are powerful, that we are valuable, that what we do matters to this world.

In prison times of our life, we can forget the very ingredients of life that have been given to us, that are necessary for life. People say you need water to live – the same is true about love. Without it to give and receive, we grow cold. The same is true about purpose. Without purpose to get us out of bed to face the world each morning, we whiter away.

So, yes, we can feel the weight of John’s words. We get his full-throated question because we have asked it ourselves.

Are you the one, Jesus, or do we need to wait for another?

And the beauty of hearing this text in Advent is that, if John can ask it, then so can we. Then in the middle of Advent and in the middle of a sanctuary, fragile faith that’s gone cold is welcome here. That’s the beauty of this text.

The risk of such a scripture reading is that it invites us to actually answer the question– is Jesus the One you’ve been waiting for? Really? Or should I wait for another? Or more realistically, should I just stop waiting.

Now, let’s take a look at how Jesus responds to John. First off, let’s be honest, those are hard words to hear. Because built into them is a vote of disappointment and hesitant-confidence.

The first thing he does is he tells John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see!” What remarkable grace that is. Jesus doesn’t get defensive. He doesn’t lash out. He doesn’t give a simple, “Yes, John, I am the One. Quit being a doubter. Just let me into your heart and you’ll know it’s true.” No, Jesus says, “Don’t ask me, tell John what you see!”

Jesus entrusts his reputation, his identity into the experience of others. He trusts that their testimony will be enough. And they aren’t even Jesus’ disciples –they are John’s! But he trusts their experience. What do you see and hear?

And then Jesus quotes from the book of Isaiah, that we heard earlier from Oden – 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.

Now those words from Isaiah….John would know those words. Even if he had forgotten them for a time, he would know those words the moment he heard them. It is such a hopeful word – about the wilderness and desert being glad and breaking forth with streams of water, the blind receiving their sight, the deaf hearing, the lame leaping like dear.

But here is the interesting thing – some scholars and theologians will say that those words are out of place. They don’t belong there. You see those words are spoke in the 35th chapter of Isaiah… while the people are still imprisoned in exile. Which means they aren’t true. The blind don’t see, the deaf don’t hear. The lame are still lying on the ground and the desert runs dry. It is a word out of place. Some scholars say it belongs later in Isaiah, when the world is in a better place for the people of God. So, who moved it?

But theologian Barbara Lundblad suggests that perhaps no one moved it. Perhaps the Spirit of God planted that word right where it needed to be. “Put it here,” breathed the Spirit, “before anyone is ready. Interrupt the narrative of despair.”[1] In this way, “It is a word that dares to disturb the despair of the present.”[2] It speaks of hope and light in the prison of exile.

And these are the words Jesus sends to John, the prisoner who hasn’t been set free. These words that don’t belong here – these words that are out of place. But these words dare to disturb the despair of John’s present, shedding a ray of light into that dark prison cell, reminding John of the promises of God that have faded away.

That’s who Jesus is – he’s the One who interrupts the narrative of despair.

Is Jesus the One we’ve been waiting for? It is the question John asks, and it is the question we are asked on this third Sunday of Advent. Is Jesus the One you’ve been waiting for? Jesus, who speaks hope into despair, light into darkness. Jesus, the one who believes in and brings peace instead of violence, mercy instead of vengeance, presence instead of isolation.

And if we can say yes to that and celebrate that birth of Jesus in our day, then we become the ones speaking a word out of place. Advent and Christmas are Word out of place. A word of defiant hope interrupting the narrative of suffering and despair. Because, let’s be honest…“(t)he world appears to be pretty much the same as it was before Jesus with respect to idolatry, injustice, powerlessness, exploitation, scarcity, and violence.”[3] And it is just such a world that needs a word out of place needs to be spoken.

Is Jesus the One, we’ve been waiting for? If so, go and tell the world what you see: tell the world that oil pipelines are being rerouted away from drinking water; tell the world that American Muslims and American Jews are joining hands in solidarity during a time when they both feel threatened; tell the world that the eyes of New York are being opened to the systemic racism in their parole boards which prevents black captives being set free and changes are on the way. Or more locally, tell the world that children of Northfield are receiving toys at Christmas, and tell the world that Northfield sees the need for affordable housing and it is being designed.

Friends, welcome to the third week of Advent.

There’s still time.

Are you awake?

Have you repent, have you changed your ways?

Is Jesus the One?

If so, then the fourth question that will confront us next is this: where is God asking you to give birth to Jesus in your life? Or maybe from the perspective of Joseph, into what part of your life is God trying to be born, and will you welcome God there, or will you dismiss her quietly?

May these questions continue to confront you and live in you as we live into the day of Christ’s arrival, which is both here and on its way. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1941

[2] Alan Storey

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3091

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