Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Third Sunday of Advent [Year A] - December 11, 2016 (Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 3:2-11)

This morning our hymn should really read, “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist cried,” because John the Baptist, the person that old hymn is about, is no longer there. That’s where John began, of course, crying out on the banks of the River Jordan where he was baptizing people, but now John is in prison. His bold, throaty pronouncements about a kingdom coming, have now diminished to a tentative questioning. “Did we get the right guy?” he wonders about Jesus in the loneliness of his cell. Was he right in announcing Jesus as the one who brings the kingdom?

"The Preaching of St. John the Baptist" (Domenico Ghirlando, 1486) 
As a prophet, someone who speaks truth to power, John knows this matters. It matters because John had hoped that he was helping bring about God’s new kingdom, that he was preparing the way for the Lord. John had helped people get ready for this. He had gotten them stirred up and full of anticipation. “Repent!” he had told all those people. “Change your ways! Bear good fruit.” In fact, saying just that to the king and his entourage is essentially what got him in trouble. He had criticized some of Herod’s lifestyle choices, and it was not received well. As he lives out his sentence in confinement, he manages expectations. It’s starting to look to John like the great world-change he had foretold in Jesus may not be coming to pass. His characteristic boldness has changed into doubt.

On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist once cried.
But now he’s thinking he might have lied.
He sits in shackles, waiting still,
For God his righteous plan to fulfill.

Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever anticipated something, hoped for something—perhaps even touched the edges of its very reality—only to have it turn out to be different once it arrives? Have you ever felt set up for something—something you think will be just perfect—only to be disappointed or disillusioned when it comes to fruition?

It occurs to me that this time of year is ripe for that kind of thing to happen, what with Christmas wish lists and all. I have always been really interested in nature and science and I remember once as a young child I went through geology phase. Things like rocks and precious stones fascinated me. I learned that my birthstone was turquoise and I mentioned it would be really cool to have some turquoise someday. My grandmother heard me say that, and so she got me a turquoise ring. I still remember the profound awkwardness and disappointment I felt when I opened it up on Christmas morning. In my mind I had been thinking just a big chunk of turquoise (I had no idea what I’d do with such a thing, but that was what I was expecting) but she had gone through the trouble to find a ring. After all, birthstones are about jewelry, right? But as a fourth grade boy, I was never, ever, going to put on a ring.

That’s the message this third Sunday of Advent, with John the Baptist in prison. (Maybe he’s wearing a turquoise ring). We pause to reflect on the possible disconnects between the act of waiting and preparing and what we’re actually waiting and preparing for. We take the time, like John, to manage expectations a bit, to wonder if we’ll actually know it—and want it—if what we’re expecting finally gets here. Like the prayer as we lit the Advent wreath put it today: We allow our deeply-held hopes to be re-shaped by God’s promises.

Because it’s not just Advent and Christmastime that can fall prey to possible disillusionment. As we walk the whole journey of faith we find it’s a relatively common occurrence. We commit every so often to a certain new direction in life, or a certain faith community, or a certain ministry, only to find ourselves wondering once it’s underway if it’s really what we’re looking for and hoping for. Doesn’t quite pan out like we want. We may be quick to judge John for possibly jumping ship too soon, but when we’re honest with ourselves, especially when we’re stuck with bleak surroundings, when we look around and see little hope, John the Baptist’s questioning often becomes our questioning. What is God bringing us, anyway? What does he promise?

Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples is to point to the signs of what has been happening as Jesus has made his way through Galilee. The ministry of fierce judgment and dramatic overthrow of the religious authorities which John seems to have been expecting in the Messiah has not been happening, but signs of God’s coming kingdom are there. The blind are receiving their sight, the lame are walking, the lepers are being cleansed, the deaf are hearing, the dead are raised, and the poor are receiving good news.

John would have recognized that these were, in fact, hallmarks, clear signs of the kingdom of righteousness John wanted to arrive. The particular elements of judgment and condemnation that John was especially hoping for are taking more of a back seat, at least for the time being, to the intense joy and freedom that Jesus is about. As the prophet Isaiah says in the very part of scripture that Jesus quotes to John’s disciples, life can be a desert. At times it can feel like a wilderness and it is bleak and lonely, but it’s not a nuclear bomb that God needs to drop in order to start over, but a bunch of crocus bulbs. It’s not a bulldozer that Jesus is bringing to start the kingdom, or even an axe at the base of the tree, as John had once proclaimed, but springs of water that can feed new life. It’s not a mighty army that God plans to roll in, reminding all there will be hell to pay, but a simple message to strengthen the weak hands and feeble knees. Managing our expectations is a part of receiving God’s kingdom.

Earlier this week Pastor Joseph were down in a nearby city for a conference meeting and we found ourselves driving right through the middle of the downtown while we were there. I had never been through this town, and although I was aware from watching the news and reading the papers that it has fallen on hard times, it wasn’t really apparent to me what that meant until this week. It is a bleak desert. Storefront after storefront lies empty. At night crime rules the streets. Then at one point we noticed one side of a building, right near a main intersection, had been boarded over and then painted over. At the top were the large words, “Before I die I want to ______________.” And underneath were dozens of different answers to that question, scrawled out in different chalk handwriting:

“Before I die I want to see my children live their dreams.”
“Before I die I want to travel the world.”
“Before I die I want to be clean from drugs.”
“Before I die I want to grow some hair.”

It was a little like what some people call their bucket list, or their ideas of what they want to achieve before their life ends, but there was something a bit different about it. After some brief research after I got home, it appears that this project might be some sort of anti-gang endeavor, as that city has in recent years become infested with gangs and gang-based crime. The goal of the wall seems to be is to get gang members and other citizens of that bleak downtown to envision hope, to dream of joy. It is an ongoing reminder for people imprisoned in cycles of violence and decay to imagine that their desert can blossom, to manage expectations for how change could come. The wall looked a bit like a crocus bulb, a stream of water, right there in the midst of such wilderness. And the handwriting was that of a bunch of John the Baptists, hearing that new life is possible, that God is loose on the earth to rescue people that the blind were being given sight and the lame given new legs. It is good news to everyone, especially those whose life feels like it has no value that God loves them, that God is coming for them that God cherishes them and wants to transform their landscape from death to life.

For that is the promise of the truest crocus blossoming in the wilderness, for at some point we’re all living in an abandoned downtown. It is the cross of Jesus where God manages our expectations in a way that lets us know we are not perfect, but we are precious to him. It is the cross of Jesus where we see that someone has not just come to preach and heal, but that someone has come to offer his life for us. And with Jesus, “Before I die” becomes “Because he dies.”

Because he dies…our lives contain worlds of hope, of power, of glory. Because he dies the world is filled with all kinds of renewal: people building houses with Habitat for Humanity on Advent Saturdays when they could be shopping. Because he dies, some people apparently did go shopping, because twenty-five unclaimed stars on our Angel Tree got grabbed up within 24 hours once we put out an appeal on Facebook in the middle of the week. Because he dies, a family grieving the deaths of three family members within the past two years experience the warmth and care of a community of faith in ways they’d never imagined. Because he dies…we could go on and on with the outreach just of this congregation and our Synod, and organizations like Lutheran World Relief, not to mention all the crocus bombs of new life God is dropping in lives we haven’t even heard about yet.

We could go on and on telling these things to John in prison—and we need to—telling others with wavering faith, and telling ourselves and our own skewed expectations that God’s kingdom has come near. This is the kind of world we live in…where these beautiful, wonderful things are happening.

In Herod’s prison the Baptist cried
And longed for hope to be born inside
But God was there, amidst the gloom
Just wait! You'll see the kingdom bloom.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

No comments:

Post a Comment