On 3 Advent, 12/15/2019: A Reality Check

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The Holy Family with St. Elisabeth and St. John the Baptist and Jesus

from The Rev. Clarence E. Butler
15 December 2019A
A Reality Check

Over the years of my ordained ministry, I have resisted for the most part giving my homilies and sermons a title that could be placed in an announcement kiosk outside the entrance to the church. I have done so because titles do not convey the complexity of the lessons that we hear in liturgy. Today, however, I break that self-imposed rule. And I do so because we are halfway through Advent, which, liturgically, is designed to prepare us to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the birth of a baby, the birth of an innocent child.

Advent has, liturgically speaking, another function. That function is to remind us of the second coming of Christ, and that Christ comes not as a baby. And so it is that, however comforting and romantic that may be, the lectionary of today and throughout Advent is not about the arrival of a little child. Rather, what confronts us today are questions about and directed to an adult, Jesus of Nazareth, who claims to be the Messiah.

What did we hear last Sunday in the words of the Prophet Isaiah? That from the stem of Jesse, we should expect the arrival of a prince of peace, and that when the prince of peace reigns, there shall take place a change in the world never before experienced: a little child shall lie down next to the lion and put his hand in the den of vipers, i.e. poisonous snake; rivers shall change the direction of flow; refreshing springs of water shall appear in deserts. And so it is that a lot of responsibility is placed on the shoulders of a baby.

However, the lessons which we read and hear on this third Sunday of Advent force a reality check upon us. The individual to whom Matthew’s gospel points is not a child. Liturgically, we are expecting a babe in the manger. But because of a question that John the Baptist poses, and the answer that he receives, reality is thrust upon us. Reality: It is not a babe in the manger who has been giving sight to the blind, healing the sick, and teaching the Good News of Reconciliation with God.

Even John the Baptist is confronted with a reality check. John was expecting a Messiah different from the one about whom he was hearing. Before he unleashed his rant against Jesus possibly as a false Messiah, he sent his own disciples to inquire: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt. 11:3) In other words, ‘Who are you? By what evidence can we be assured of your authenticity?”

John’s question is a legitimate one for, as we know, there were those who believed that John himself was the Messiah, a fact that he denied. What this gospel story does not tell us, but what we must dig out of other biblical sources, is the fact that when John made this inquiry, there was an existential urgency to John’s question. You see, John was sitting in a dungeon beneath Herod’s palace, sensing his own imminent end.

John, our locusts and wild honey-eating prophet, had been incarcerated for having called into question Herod’s morals. Herald had committed the same act that earlier the Hebrew King David had committed. Herod had acquired the wife of another man by inappropriate actions. Herod Antipas the Tetrach, the Roman Ruler over subjugated Israel and Jerusalem, had married his brother’s wife. Like that earlier prophet, John had spoken truth to power. John had denounced Herod publicly. Empirical, non-biblical history reports Herod to have been one of the most ruthless rulers in history, exterminating his own family in order to gain and retain power.

Giovanni_di_Paolo_-_Saint_John_the_Baptist

 

However, in the meantime, as John sat in his dungeon cell, it might be safe to say that he was surprised by the things he had heard about Jesus, who had proclaimed that he was the Messiah. This Messiah had not come with chariots of fire and a large army. Rather, this Messiah was spending his time giving sight to the blind, healing the lame and cleansing the lepers, unstopping the ears of the deaf, raising the dead. While those activities might have been beneficial to the individual who received this form of mercy, they most definitely did not fit the job description that John and others had written for a long-expected Messiah.

Like you, I was not a contemporary of John the Baptist and, like you, had I known him personally I would not, even then, have been able to read his mind. However, as I listen to his call for repentance and the question that his disciples took to Jesus, I believe it fair to say, that he, John the Baptist, was not expecting Jesus, the proclaimed Messiah, to rescue him personally from the usual fate of one incarcerated in a dungeon. What John expected was a Messiah who would come with great might and, when once enthroned as king, command the biblical Hebrews to return to revering the God who had set them aside as a light to all nations.

What, you may rightly ask, does John’s surprise and possibly veiled disappointment have to do with our understanding of Advent, as we await the Messiah of God in our own time? First, I shall say that biblical history teaches us that we cannot, as much as we would like, predict the form and means by which God appears in the life of each individual. Waiting can be nerve-wracking and is not just the province of prophets and priests. Think personally for a moment of those many times when you have waited for news of a birth or a recovery of a member or friend. Waiting can be stressful. And waiting to know what God would have us do, can be stressful. John’s question, conveyed to Jesus by his disciples, cautions us to tarry, to wait, and to recall that God works not on our time, as much as we would so desire.

Second, this reality check is important to you and to me as we are reminded, over and over and over, that God does not need a mighty army and a bejeweled crown, in order to bring peace. Where two or three are gathered, much can be accomplished in establishing the reign of God. The Messiah has come and continues to come daily with a message of hope of peace, a hand of healing, a heart of compassion and transformation, a costly sacrifice for sinner and saint alike.

Third, and I believe of equal importance, what we learn from John’s question is this: we must not ourselves to be limited in our imagination, in our vision of God whose grace, whose love of the created order surpasses all human understanding. Like John the Baptist, so are we greatly tempted to forget the wideness in God’s mercy. John’s question is a reality check that reminds us that we know not the ways of God.

This is a lesson that Job of ancient time came to understand when God put the following question to him: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” (Job 38:4f.) Or, “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth…?” (Job 38:12f.) It is this God who determined the time and appearance of the Messiah.

Instead of a mighty arm, God’s Messiah himself, comes each day with forgiveness and each day brings another opportunity for humankind to get it right. Yes, we shall celebrate at Christmas with joyful songs the earthly birth of God’s Messiah. But the real celebration is that God has made it possible, through the Messiah’s sacrifice on Calvary, that in our anticipation and celebration of that birth we see not a babe, but God’s Messiah who offers forgiveness and peace, and can gladden our hearts with his daily appearance among us.

AMEN

(image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/…/File:Giovanni_di_Paolo_-_Sa…)