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Advent 3A RCL December 11, 2016

Isaiah 35:1-10
Canticle 15
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Our opening reading from the prophet Isaiah is God’s word of hope to the people who have been in exile in Babylon. They are going to come home. The desert will bloom. “Waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” There will be springs of water everywhere.

It is a joyful thing to return home, but it is also a fearful thing. God will strengthen the weak hands and the feeble knees, and, perhaps more importantly, God will help us in our fears. Our God tells us to be strong.

And what does God do? God heals the people. The blind see; the deaf hear; the lame person leaps like a deer; those who have not been able to speak sing with joy.

There is going to be a highway in the desert. No one is going to get lost on the way home. No lions or other animals will be there to eat people. The people of God will be able to walk home singing for joy.

The coming of God means a restoration of the earth, healing of the people, peace, and safety.

In our canticle for today, the Magnificat, Mary sings of our God who lifts up the humble and lowly, casts down the mighty from their thrones, feeds the hungry and tells the rich they already have enough.

In our reading from the Letter of James, we are given more guidance as we prepare for the coming of our Savior. We are called to be patient. But this is not a passive waiting. We have the example of the farmer, an example we know very well. The farmer plants the seed, but he or she does not simply sit around and wait. The farmer works hard to do everything possible to help that seed grow. We are called to be patient, but this is an active, aware kind of patience. We are called to be awake and ready for our Lord to come to us, We are called to do everything we can to help his kingdom to grow just as the farmer helps the crops to grow.

In our gospel, we meet John the Baptist once again. This time, the situation is very different. John is no longer on the banks of the River Jordan baptizing people. He is in prison because he confronted King Herod, who had an affair with his brother’s wife. King Herod used his power to put John in prison.

John is wondering about this. If Jesus is the Savior, why am I in prison? I thought the Savior was going to separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. I thought the Savior was going to get rid of the bad guys.

Let us remember, there are two strains in the Hebrew scriptures when it comes to describing who the Savior is. One strain says that he is a mighty military hero who comes in and throws the Romans out and  kills all of his enemies. The other one says that his is a kingdom, not of might and power but of healing and compassion.

John sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the Savior or if someone else is going to come along. And Jesus tells them to go back to John and tell him what Jesus is doing—healing people, giving them hope and new life. What Jesus is doing coincides with Isaiah’s description in our first lesson.

And then Jesus tells us that John the Baptist is a great prophet. John is the one sent to prepare the way of the Lord. Yet the least person in the kingdom of Jesus is greater than John. This comment by Jesus reminds me of that wonderful line from the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts. (Zech. 4:6.) It also takes us back to the Magnificat. God exalts the humble and meek.

Mary Hinkle Shore, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul Minnesota, writes,  “The kingdom of heaven is the message and ministry of one who enacts God’s will, not by laying waste to his enemies, but by ‘giving his life a ransom for many.’ “

She says, “When being arrested in Gethsemane, Jesus does not appeal to his Father for ‘more than twelve leagues of angels’ (Matt. 26:53), but goes quietly with his accusers. …To our friends who want to know why things are not better if God’s Messiah has already come, we can say that God’s Messiah chose to combat evil with his innocent suffering and death. This does not answer every question about persistent injustice, nor does it absolve Christians and others from working for the good of all their neighbors. Yet the choice Jesus made for the cross over those legions of angels is testimony that God’s justice, mercy, and peace are probably not as likely to come by means of unquenchable fire as they are by means of suffering love.” (Shore, New Proclamation Year A 2007-8, p. 24.)

As we have noted before, Christ’s kingdom has begun but it is not yet complete. We are living in that in-between time. Part of our work in Advent is looking for signs of God’s justice, mercy, and peace and helping individuals and groups who are working to build God’s kingdom right now. We are blessed to be able to give to the United thank Offering and to Episcopal Relief and Development, and I know that all of you are sharing God’s love in many ways each day.

Years ago a dear friend and colleague gave me this prayer by an anonymous mystic writing in the fifteenth century:

Thou shalt know him when he comes
Not by any din of drums—
Nor the vantage of His airs—
Nor by anything he wears—
Neither by His crown—
Nor His gown—
For His presence known shall be
By the Holy Harmony
That His coming makes in thee.     Amen.

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