All of the lectionary readings for today portray a vivid sense of God’s arriving and appearing.  The Old Testament gives a clear image that the coming of the Messiah will be a profoundly transformative experience.  The faith story of the Bible tells us relentlessly that nothing that is skewed and distorted and deathly needs to remain as it is.  The promise of the Messiah works against our exhaustion, our despair and our sense of being victims of fate.  

The community of faith is able to wait for newness only because it remembers the newness given in the past.  We read this in the Psalm for today.  The Church remembers Jesus and celebrates him as the one who permits human life to begin again.  It is the faith of the Church that allows us to be buoyant in the face of seemingly persistent suffering.  We believe that God’s will for the world will ultimately prevail over all that is distorted and pathological.  As Christians we distinguish ourselves from the despairing, who believe that nothing can change, and from the self-sufficient, who believe that they themselves will effect the change.  Rather than these life stances, we choose life that is directed by God.  It is the God we experience in our present and to whom we entrust our future. 

For the second Sunday in a row we read a story about John the Baptist, but today’s story is a far different setting from last week’s.  John is now in prison.  This is the first mention of John’s imprisonment.  The matter-of-fact manner in which Matthew mentions this indicates that Matthew’s listeners knew the story of John the Baptist.  Only later will Matthew comment on the reason for John’s arrest and execution (14.1-5).  

John’s ministry is over and we are looking back in retrospect.  We see a glimpse of the end of John’s era, standing at the doorway of the new era.  Through Jesus’ words we hear the early church’s understanding of who John the Baptist was.  

The image Matthew shares is that John the Baptist is troubled in his prison cell.  He sends his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one?”  What has happened to cause John to doubt, or at least to be uncertain?  There are two possibilities.  One reason for John’s uncertainty could be his situation in prison where he lies despondent and forgotten in his cell.  He becomes haunted with doubts.  Out of his dejection and discouragement he questions who Jesus is.  

The second possibility is the more likely explanation.  While in prison, John hears what Jesus is doing: namely acts of healing and mercy.  For John, the fierce denouncer of sins, he understands the Messiah’s role to be one of judgment.  John wonders, “What kind of Messiah teaches in synagogues, preaches a gospel of the kingdom, heals diseases and eats with sinners?”  John is uncertain, not because of his circumstance, but because of what Jesus is doing.  Jesus is not the Messiah John expected.

John’s delivered question for Jesus provides the occasion for Jesus to clarify who he is.  Jesus refers to two sections of Isaiah (35.5-6; 29.18-19) in his response.  He does not answer “yes” or “no.”   He refers John’s disciples to report what they have seen.  Jesus’ activity does fulfill an expectation of the Messiah and we will see (in the next few chapters) that judgment is associated with Jesus’ presence, but the primary activity of this Messiah is the restoration of the needy and the giving of life to the lifeless.  What John needs is a new understanding of who the Messiah is.

Jesus acknowledges that such a new understanding may be difficult.  From our perspective, we know that there are those who choose to wait for another in hopes of finding a leader more to their liking.  Jesus, however, defines his own messiahship.  

From John’s uncertainties the focus shifts to Jesus’ opinion about John.  Jesus confronts the crowds three times with their eagerness to hear John.  Jesus describes John as a prophet, but more than a prophet.  John fulfills the special role of the messenger who prepares the way of the Messiah (Mal. 3.1).

Jesus heaps great praise on John.   Yet even the least in the kingdom is greater than John.  This is not a rebuke of John.  It is an acknowledgment of the surpassing character of the new age dawning in Jesus.  Make no mistake, in this new age disciples are vulnerable to arrest and imprisonment, but we are also charged and empowered to participate in the messianic activity of Jesus.

During Advent, John’s questions can be our questions.  As we await the coming of the Christ, what kind of person, what kind of ministry, and what kind of relation to us are we expecting?  Like John, we will have to answer based on what we hear and see. 

References:
Walter Brueggemann, Charles Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, James D. Newsome, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV, Year A; 1995.
Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: A Comprehensive Commentary on the Lectionary, Year A; 1992.
Thomas G. Long, Matthew, from the series Westminster Bible Companion; 1997.
Frederick Dale Brunner, Matthew: A Commentary, in two volumes; 1987.

Sermon
We love to hear these nostalgic words of Isaiah, “the desert shall rejoice and blossom.”  We love the Hollywood special effects image of the straight highway magically appearing in the wilderness linking Babylon with Israel, the Promised land for which we long and to which we shall return from exile.  We love hearing these words because, we connect them with Christmas.  These are the prophetic words we hear read every Advent.  We hear Isaiah and we think to ourselves, “Christmas cannot be far away.”   

But when we leap ahead to Christmas, we forget why and when these words were written.  Every Old Testament student’s best friend, Walter Brueggemann, reminds us that these most sweeping and extravagant claims for greatness, power and triumph come from Israel’s saddest and darkest time – Exile.  When the exiled people of Israel looked around in Babylon, there was no evidence that anything would ever change.  They were the defeated nation.  Their homes were destroyed.  The center of their worship-life, the Temple, had been destroyed.  Any one who stood back from that situation to assess it would have correctly observed that those people had no reason to hope.  There was no evidence to indicate a future for these beaten, homeless people.  But it was from exactly that context that Isaiah wrote, “He will come to save you” (35.4).  

Do you think you have it tough?  Do you think your life is difficult?  Well, maybe you are correct.  Maybe your life is truly difficult.  Maybe you got a raw deal.  Maybe your boss is unfair.  Maybe you have a diagnosis that is really scary.  All of those things and more can be your reality.  But none of those things have to be the end of your story.  I know that there are real people sitting in these pews every Sunday.  I know your stories and I may understand them better than you do.  That is what I do.  I know that any of us can be caught up in the web of sin that leads to death.  But I believe that God has something in store for all of creation.  It is not just for a few individuals.  God’s desire is cosmic, sweeping, grand and glorious.  In God’s plan, the dessert will break forth in blossom; a river will flow through the wilderness and a highway will be made straight.  And one day, God willing, we will all return home.  We will all return home to live with God.

Years ago I read an article about parental grief (“Grief Work,” Harold K. Bush, Jr. Christian Century, Dec. 11, 2007, vol. 124; no. 25, p. 36).  Some of you know that for about the first third of my career in ministry I was a hospital chaplain and pastoral counselor.  Mostly out of that context, the exposure and need, I became an expert in grief.  When I was leaving one hospital to go to another one, I did a review of my personal statistics with patients and families.  I had been involved in an average of 300 deaths per year.  That is about one a day.  Because of that experience, I had to learn about grief.  It was not enough to simply have the experiences of sitting with the patients at the time of death or the experiences of being with the families of the deceased.  I needed to learn about the grieving process.  I eventually learned enough to teach a class for the University of Alabama entitled, “The Grieving Process.”  One of the things I learned about grief is that, if we live long enough, we all have the experience of loss, which is what leads to grief.  

I eventually figured out that the experience of my father’s death was one of my best teachers.  I began to pay attention to my own feelings, my own grief.  I read grief studies and research.  I read what Freud said about grief.  But a great deal of what I read did not fit me.  My experience was different from what the so-called experts said.  One research study said that normal grief should be resolved within one year.  By the time I read that study my Dad had been dead for more than a year and I still missed him.  My Dad has been dead for 33 years and I still miss him.  Many of you know that my mother recently died. She was 98 years old. I have only begun to miss her. Is something wrong?  Something does not fit.  Is it me?  Or is it the theories about grief?  

I know that we all have a tendency to be drawn to and believe those people and things that agree with us.  That is probably one of the reasons I am so impressed with the article on parental grief.  The author is an English professor whose son died when 8 years old.  Rather than reading theories about grief, he found studies reporting how grieving people really feel.  In some cases, the pain of loss gets worse after the first few years. I finally read something that I had been thinking for over 20 years, the pain never goes away.  I am talking about the pain of loss from the death of my parents.  I miss them.  But that is not the loss this current research describes.  Parental loss, having a child die, is more painful.  It is perhaps the most excruciating experience of our lives.  It is the experience that leaves us wondering why.  It is the experience that makes us question the existence of God.  It shakes the foundations of faith.  It makes us feel like we will never feel good again.  

Thank God, that is not the end of the experience for all of us.  For some of us, we realize that we do have hope.  If we start with a foundation of faith, maybe we will be like the house built on the rock, rather than the sand.  Maybe, we begin to think to ourselves, we can survive.  Life will never be the same.  Our expectations for how life will be have been shattered by our loss, but we have hope.  We have hope because of what God has already done.  We remember that God created life out of chaos.  God delivered us out of slavery.  God has brought us out of exile.  God has come as Emmanuel, God with us, to be one of us.  

John the Baptist is languishing in prison when he hears what Jesus is doing.  Jesus is not doing what John expected the Messiah would do.  John wonders, “Have I been a fool?  Have I wasted my life on a fool’s errand?”   Jesus does not attempt to explain theology to John’s disciples.  He wisely says, “Tell John what you see.”  

Now that is the tricky part, isn’t it?  What do you see?  Do you see a world that gives you a raw deal?  Do you believe that no body loves you and everyone is out to get you?  Are you the person walking around with a rain cloud over your head?  Do you believe that if something can go wrong, it will?  

I remember walking into the emergency department of the medical center late one afternoon and sitting down at the nurses’ station beside a cardiovascular surgeon.  The college age daughter of one of the hospital administrators had just died.  My surgeon friend had been the doctor in charge of the case.  We had both been there with the family. We looked at each other and I asked, “Bad day?”  He said, “I don’t have bad days.  Tough stuff happens.  Bad stuff happens.  But it does not ruin my day.”  

Was that glib bravado?  Was that his way of surviving?  I believe that is how he lives his life.  What do you see when you look at your life?  What do you see when you look at the world?  Is the world a bad scary place that you fear?  When innocent shoppers are shot in a mall, do you say, “I’ll never go shopping again.”?  When teenagers are in a fatal car wreck do you vow that your children will never ride in a car with other teenagers?  When terrorists attack, do you cower in fear, locked inside your home that has become a fortress?  Or are we like John’s disciples?  Can we look at our world and our experiences and see God at work?  Do we see God’s miracles of healing?  Are we a part of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless?  Are we spreading the Good News to those who are imprisoned by their fears?  Do we believe that Good News ourselves?  Do we as a church reach out to this neighborhood and community?  Do we care for each other because the love of Christ compels us to be involved in the lives of others?  

I cannot imagine a better time of year to be serious about our mission and outreach than during Advent.  This congregation has the opportunity to be involved in two specific ministries: one for foster children and one for the homeless.   We must be like John’s disciples.  We must go and tell others what we have seen.  We must share with others our experience of the love of Christ.    

Go and tell others what you hear and see.

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