Nov 26 2014

Are You the One, or Shall We Look for Another?

Matthew 11:2-11

Is Jesus really the “Coming One”, or shall we look for another? This is the kind of question that has been brought to me countless times over a quarter century in ministry: Where is Jesus in the midst of my difficult circumstances? Where is God’s deliverance in a world that can be as twisted as this one? I will always remember words from a man who had lived a generous and faithful life but was now withering away from a painful illness: “Is this what it all comes down to?”, he asked me.

Every year, as we engage the season of Advent, most of us are eager to get to the familiar stories of Christmas: the angel’s visits to Mary and Joseph; the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem; the birth of the tender child who is laid in a manger; shepherds, heavenly choirs, and wise visitors from the east. But the lectionary does not rush us; instead, the Second and Third Sundays in Advent have us spend time with John the Baptist, the one who proclaims the coming of the Messiah as his earthy ministry begins. And, in a particular way, he is the one who helps prepare us for Jesus’ “coming”!

In Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, Matthew 11:2-11, is the gospel text for the Third Sunday in Advent. Ten days before Christmas, we are given a story set thirty years after Jesus’ birth! In it, John the Baptist questions whether Jesus really is the one John thought he would be. It is a bit startling, especially since the gaunt prophet has been dedicated to “preparing the way of the Lord and making his paths straight”. It is John who has called everyone to bear fruit worthy of repentance, who has baptized people in the Jordan and told them that the Coming One would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire. Now, well into Jesus’ earthly ministry, it is he, from the darkness of jail cell, who sends his own followers to ask Jesus the crucial question.

Yes, Jesus and his ministry are loose in the world, and he is touching people’s lives. But the murderous Herod still wields his power, and the people of Israel still bend under the yoke of the Roman empire. There is little immediate reward for all of John’s sacrifices; he now faces his own death without seeing the fulfilment of God’s promises. He had believed that once the grown Emmanuel, “God with us”, was on the scene, everything would be fixed. John probably looked hard at the locked door of his prison cell before he sent his own disciples to ask Jesus: “Well, are you the One?”

Advent, and Christmas, can be very challenging times. The relentlessness of activity, all the orchestration, even the sentimentality, are not always helpful, particularly for people in pain. What we declare to be a celebration of the Messiah’s coming can be a real burden for some of us. So when God graces us in ways that give us permission to be honest with ourselves and trusted folks around us, about how we really feel and where we’re really at, there is a way in which we are set free, even if it is merely to admit that our present experience can seem as shadowed as John the Baptist’s jail cell, Christmas or not. And this kind of honesty and freedom of expression may itself be a grace in a world of serious illnesses, disappointments, perpetual war, school shootings, scapegoating, and diminishment!

Are you the Coming One? Or shall we look someplace else?

It is a profound moment. Jesus doesn’t answer “yes” or “no” to the messianic question. But he does say to John’s followers, “Go and tell John what you see and hear: 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

I think that most of us, whether celebrating or suffering, have been imagining the Messiah as the One who comes to take earthly power. And we can be disappointed when he doesn’t seem to do that. But the Gospels are teaching me, slowly but surely, that the Messiah is the one who brings God’s power. And Jesus surely does that! That is what John and his disciples are invited to see and hear. It is what those who have gathered to be taught by Jesus are being invited to see and hear and experience.

And what is the power that Jesus brings? It is the power to give sight to those who have been blind to the humanity of others; to open the ears of those who have been deaf to God’s loving priorities; to enable those of us who have been unable (or who have not had the courage) to stand up and walk in faith to do so; to grant the untouchable and cast-out the experience of being touched and loved and accepted ,including the exiled parts of ourselves. It is the power to remove the stain of labels and judgement that have nothing to do with God, and drive away demons of guilt and dehumanization that paralyze us. It is the power to raise those who have been dead (spiritually and physically), and to bring good news of God’s everlasting love to the invisible and forgotten. And the Advent gift is that we may be empowered to now celebrate Christmas more honestly and hopefully, seeing in the undefended child in the manger the promise of the Christ he will grow to be.

Christmas is not an escape from the reality of the world; it is the beginning of new life as that same world is redeemed! How might a congregation inspired in the name and spirit of this Jesus manifest his kind of power in the world, together? Let us take no offense at him!


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