Third Sunday of Advent
December 15, 2019
Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11
Stir up the wills of all who look to you, Lord God, and strengthen our faith in your coming. Amen.
Randi was the 89-year-old matriarch of my former congregation. She was a short woman who stood tall in influence through her gentle, wise, and faithful contributions to the ministry. She was on my call committee and when she stood in the congregational meeting and said she felt God was calling the congregation to call me as pastor, the people listened and I was called as pastor.
One of the contributions Randi made to the congregation, well into her 90’s, was to count the number of people who participated in the Sunday Eucharist. She carefully counted the number of people who walked past her and then she wrote the number down on an index card. At the end of the year, for the Annual Report, she prepared the Communion Registrar Report and presented the number of people who received communion. In my personal bible, I still have one of those cards written in Randi’s distinct writing, her fingers bent 90 degrees at her knuckles because of arthritis.
As her body failed her late in life, I visited with her in the nursing home. Randi knew death was approaching. Reflecting on her life and death, she asked me a question that shocked me.
“Pastor,” faithful Randi asked: “have I done enough to get to heaven?”
I was shocked! Hadn’t she heard me preach, like all her pastors before me, the grace of Jesus Christ? Hadn’t she counted the number of people who met Christ in the Eucharist! Hadn’t she been part of a congregation that at the core of its teaching is the forgiveness, grace, and mercy of Jesus Christ which bestows salvation as a complete and total gift of grace?
In today’s gospel, we hear another shocking question from a person of great faith.
Sitting in a jail cell, perhaps sensing his own life would end in execution, perhaps wondering if all of his sacrifices were worth it, John the Baptist asked a rather shocking question. He sent his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another?”
What’s shocking about this was that earlier John as so sure Jesus was the Messiah. Earlier in Matthew, the third chapter, we read this: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
And John surely would have known, as recorded in Matthew 4:25, that “great crowds followed Jesus from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judean, and from beyond the Jordan” and that in response Jesus sat down on the mountain and preached the Sermon on the Mount.
Surely word had gotten out about how Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law of her fever, restored sight to the blind man and hearing to the deaf man. The crowds that followed Jesus down the mountain must have shared all the amazing things Jesus was doing. And still, John wondered … doubted?
Some commentators speculate that John may have had a different vision of Messiah. Perhaps John was among those expecting an earthly king to restore the socio-political-economic fortunes of the nation of Israel. Maybe he already knew about the healing and the power revealed in Jesus, and maybe his question was not so much about the person of Jesus – but God’s plan of salvation: “Is THIS the salvation God intends, or are we to await a different salvation?”
As Professor Barbara Rossing pointed out, John, like so many others, and perhaps like us today, may have expected a Messiah, a Savior, the long-awaited one to come as a LION … a Lion roaring with might to subdue his foes … when in fact, the prince of peace came as a lamb … a lamb healing, and forgiving, and ultimately dying on a cross.
Regardless of the underlying motivations of John’s question, and perhaps they were mixed and complex, the great John the Baptist, one Jesus himself commended in verse 11 “Truly, I tell you, among those of women no one has arisen greater the John the Baptist,” John questioned … wondered … perhaps even doubted?
Friends, on this Third Sunday of Advent, I find hope in this doubting John.
I find hope in this doubting, and questioning, and wondering John, a person of great faith whom God used in powerful ways, who wrestled with the very identify of Jesus. I find hope in this wrestling, because of how often it is that I, and people of faith, WE who have seen and tasted, we who have experienced and known the power of Christ in our lives, how often it is that we question and wonder!
And, like John in his jail cell, and Randi imprisoned in her dying body, we find ourselves imprisoned in a variety of ways, and from those imprisonments we cry out: “Christ – where are you? Who are you? What exactly is the salvation you bring?”
- Imprisoned as we are in bodies failing us – disease, old age, injury stealing away health, vitality, and ability …
- Imprisoned as we and/or our loved ones are in addictions, mental illness, physical or emotional abuse …
- Imprisoned as we are by grief and despair – trapped in loss and pain at the death of a loved one, even years earlier …
- Imprisoned as we are by fear and anxiety – held bondage by thoughts of terrors that might be afflicted upon them as individuals, or upon their families, their church, their county …
- Some among us imprisoned by racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia – oppressed, and violated, and harmed by these and other evils.
From a variety of imprisonments, perhaps this Third Sunday of Advent allows us to give voice to our own questions, our own wondering, our own doubts. Reminded by Barbara Rossing that some of us look for a lion when God sends a lamb, maybe we scratch our heads today at God’s work which challenges us, surprises us, and disappoints us.
To John, to us, Jesus speaks!
“Go, tell John what you hear and see” Jesus relayed to John. 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.
Into our places of fear and dread, anxiety and worry, the Word of God speaks! The prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled! The desert rejoices and blossoms, the burning sands becoming pools, the thirsty ground becoming springs of water!
To John, to us, Jesus says look: look beyond the four walls of your imprisonment. Look beyond the ways in your understanding you fail to see God at work. Look instead to see the ways God IS at work in the world!
Even as earthly lions roar their empty and hollow roars, the lamb lives! In water and word, in bread and cup, in a doubting prophet, in an aged and dying saint, in a forgotten manger, in busted up sinners like you and me, the Word of God, Jesus Christ, lives and speaks, redeems and saves!
Friends in Christ, in faith today, we cling to this promise.
The promise that Randi’s salvation was never in her own hands. Her salvation was always in the hands of our merciful and loving Jesus who in his death and resurrection made room for Randi, for us, forever in God’s promises. The promise spoken to use each of us, that regardless of the changes and chances of life that challenge everything we have believed, that leave us wrestling, wondering, doubting and questioning, God in Christ Jesus speaks the promise that nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Even as we question, doubt, and wonder, God remains sure in God’s promises to us: in the promise of the Lamb, we are joined to the new life of God.
May that Good News strengthen our faith so that transformed by grace, we may walk in the ways of Jesus Christ our Lord now and forever.
Thanks be to God!