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Advent 3A December 15, 2019

Isaiah 35:1-10
Canticle 3, p. 50 BCP
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Our opening reading from the great prophet Isaiah describes a profound transformation of people, animals, and the whole creation. The disabled are healed. Those who are afraid receive strength. Waters break forth in the wilderness and deserts bloom. All the people and the animals form a joyful procession to Jerusalem.  

Walter Brueggemann writes, “The Bible is relentless in its conviction that nothing that is skewed and distorted and deathly need remain as it is. God’s power and God’s passion converge to make total newness possible….Jesus is remembered and celebrated as the one who permits human life to begin again….The Church in Advent remembers this newness happening in Jesus and prepares itself for the affirmation that God is at work even now to bring the world to God’s powerful well-being.”  (Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching, p. 19.)

Our reading from the Letter of James begins with a loving word of advice, “Be patient, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” We are called to “strengthen [our] hearts.” We are called not to grumble against each other. We are being asked to calm ourselves, put our roots down deep into the grace and love of God, and wait expectantly for the coming of our Lord.

Last week, we met John the Baptist out in the wilderness preaching repentance. Now he is in jail. John the Baptist has been put in prison by King Herod because he confronted Herod with his immoral behavior. Even though he is locked away, John is hearing news about what the Messiah is doing.

Although John is in prison, his supporters are able to visit and talk with him, and he is able to send some of them to Jesus to ask a very pressing question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?”

Of course, we remember that John confidently proclaimed Jesus as the Savior and asked our Lord to baptize him. Why is he now wondering whether Jesus is the Messiah?

Biblical scholar Beverly Gaventa writes,” One reason for his uncertainty could be his situation in prison. This is the explanation often picked up in sermons on the passage and developed psychologically, that is to say, John is depressed and forgotten in his jail cell, and as his incarceration continues he becomes haunted with doubts. Out of his dejection and discouragement, he sends to question Jesus.”

Gaventa continues, “The text, however, offers a more likely, explanation. In prison John hears about ‘what the Messiah was doing.’ presumably those acts of healing and mercy depicted [in our passage.] To a fierce denouncer of the sins of the people, the Messiah’s primary task must be to carry out the final judgment, to see that the ax is laid to the root of the trees and to burn every tree that does not bear fruit. What sort of Messiah could Jesus be who teaches in the synagogue, preaches the gospel of the kingdom, and heals every disease and infirmity? John seems uncertain, not because of his own plight but because of what Jesus is reputed to be doing. He is not turning out to be the kind of Messiah John expected.

Here is is important to remember that, in the history and writings of the people of God, there were two strands of thought about the Messiah. One was that the Messiah would be a military hero, coming in with great force and conquering the Roman Empire and freeing the people. The other strand was the thinking of prophets such as Isaiah. 

Gaventa continues, “What John needs is a new understanding of who the Messiah in reality is, what sort of work the Messiah does,  and with what sort of people he does it….Seeing and hearing that Jesus is preoccupied with people who have been marginalized by their situations, who can do little or nothing for themselves may represent a threat to some and prevent their accepting Jesus as Messiah. Like John, they expect that the Messiah should be doing more about stopping crime and punishing criminals. They would prefer to wait for another in hopes of finding a leader more to their liking. Jesus alone, however, defined his messiahship.” Gaventa, Texts for Preaching, pp. 26-27.

The scriptures do not tell us how John worked though this issue, but Gaventa’s comments remind us that it is very difficult for some of us to accept the messiah who is so clearly described in Isaiah’s prophecy, a loving savior who brings all of humanity and all of the creation to wholeness, health, and joy.

The text does give us Jesus’ comments on John. Our Lord says that there is no human being who is greater than John. And then our Lord gives us one of his paradoxes. “The least in the kingdom is greater than he.” John is a great man. He is a prophet and he prepares the way of the Savior. Yet, as Gaventa writes, “…the one who is least in the kingdom is greater than John. The age of fulfillment toward which John points is so decisive that even Jesus’ disciples…who understand and share his fulfilling activity, are greater than John. The comment is not made as a rebuke of John, but as an acknowledgment of the surpassing character of the new age dawning in the person of Jesus. It is an age in which disciples are still vulnerable to arrest and imprisonment, but are also changed and empowered to participate in the messianic activity of Jesus.” (Gaventa, Texts for Preaching, p. 27.

We are already following our Lord. We are already disciples. Yes, we are flawed and fallible humans, yet we are already in our process of transformation, and we are working to help our Lord build his Kingdom. Once again, I share an ancient prayer by an anonymous mystic who lived 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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