Third Sunday Of Advent
Third Sunday Of Advent
December 15, 2013
My dear friend, fellow clergy person and BFF, Ellen Brantley, holds a Blue Christmas Service at her church each year. She told me that only a handful of people attend. The ones who do are the ones who acknowledge how much they need a service like this; a service that recognizes that the holidays aren’t sweetness and light for everyone. Ellen said she wishes that more folks would attend, even if the service doesn’t address their life or circumstances. It would be a sign of support and empathy for those who need the service most.
I imagine that there are a lot of people who want to be empathetic and supportive of those that struggle at this time of year. But I also suspect that doing that would force them to admit that they also struggle at this time of year. This season, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, is supposed to be idyllic. We have an enormous amount of pressure on us to be happy. This is the time of year when we are supposed to be making memories, experiencing Norman Rockwell type moments with extended family and friends gathered around a long table laden with food. Christmas lights should twinkle in the eyes of young children, while strains of Silent Night and Joy to the World drift in from the carolers who are now at our door.
It’s a lovely image, a lovely ideal, but it’s an ideal. Ideals are hard to live up to. But we feel pressured to try and think we’ve failed if we don’t quite make it. We’re supposed to be happy at this time of year, but more people turn to clergy and counselors and doctors for help with depression at this time of year than any other. That’s irony, isn’t it? The season when we are told in numerous ways that we are supposed to be brimming with joy is also the time when depression numbers skyrocket. We are under a great deal of pressure to be happy, to reach for ideals, and even if the gap between reality and those ideals doesn’t leave us depressed, it may leave us disappointed.
Disappointed. My trusty Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word disappointed as “defeated in expectation or hope.” Disappointed is how we find John the Baptist in Matthew’s gospel. This is a strange continuation of the story of John the Baptist. Just last week we read about him proclaiming the Jesus was the One, the Messiah, the Savior the people had been waiting for. He was proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
But this week it’s a different story. Some months must have passed since John appeared out of the wilderness. Some time has passed since John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan. And what has changed? John is in jail. He’s in jail not for committing some legal infraction, but because he spoke an uncomfortable truth to power, to Herod and to his wife Herodias. A truth that they did not want to hear. So that same power, that same vehicle of oppression and tyranny has put John in jail.
Jail at any time or in any context would not be a happy place to be. If the depiction of ancient jail cells in movies is somewhat accurate, I would believe that John was not only in a small, dark cell, but he would also be shackled to the wall with chains. The chains might have enough slack in them so that he could move about as much as the space allowed, but that’s not saying much.
So there he is in jail with time to think. I wonder if he didn’t share of the same expectations about the Messiah as everyone else. Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to overthrow Rome’s tyranny? Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to end the oppression of the people and stomp out the injustice they had endured for so long? Well if that’s what the Messiah was supposed to do, it hadn’t happened yet. The proof of that was the jail cell John waited in. Up until his arrest he has been preaching that with the coming of Jesus the in-breaking of God’s kingdom was upon them. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven comes near. But now? Has it all been a lie? What if he has been wrong this whole time? When he finally has the opportunity to talk with his disciples, he sends them to Jesus with just one question. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? “
Are you the one who is to come?
John must have been disappointed; defeated in expectation or hope. Like all of us, he wants to know, at least a little, that what he has been doing, what he has been preaching, the sacrifices he has made and will make with his life, are worth it. They were done in service to God and to God’s Messiah. So let’s make absolutely sure that the one I’ve been proclaiming is the One.
Are you the one who is to come?
It may seem counter intuitive that this should be the chosen passage for the Third Sunday in Advent. We shouldn’t be dealing in disappointment or doubt at this stage of the game. We’re too close. Christmas is almost upon us. Perhaps, though, addressing our disappointments is exactly what we need to do on this Third Sunday. The closer we move toward Christmas, the recognition of the incarnation of the Word, of Love, of God in our frail and broken midst, the more we look around and see how far we are from peace and goodwill to all. The angels tell the shepherds to fear not. But reasons for fear are everywhere. The world’s tears have yet to be dried. Death still stings. Hatred and ignorance feeds the maw of violence. The world is still broken. In the face of all that how can we not feel some disappointment that our hopes for peace and justice and goodwill for everybody have yet to be realized? Even as we are told by countless messengers that we should be happy and joyful, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed, at least some of the time.
Jesus’ answer to John doesn’t help the situation either, for John or for us. Jesus does not give a definitive answer. He doesn’t come right out and say, “Okay, John, yes I am the Messiah. I just don’t like to spread that info around too much, but I am the One. I have arrived.”
Jesus says nothing even close to that. Instead he tells John’s disciples to go and tell John what they observe, what they hear and see. “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.”
Jesus won’t declare that he is the Messiah, the one they’ve been waiting for. This is consistent throughout the gospels. Instead he points to what is happening. He points to the signs all around that declare the kingdom of heaven is indeed upon them. He points to the signs of the kingdom of God just as John pointed to him as the incarnation of God’s salvation.
The blind see. The lame walk. The lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised. The poor receive good news. The kingdom is upon us.
This may serve as a disappointing answer, because like John, we want absolute clarity. Yet truthfully isn’t this the same answer we also receive? Except for those lucky people who see Jesus’s face in a potato chip, we don’t get definitive answers to the why’s of our world. God’s voice doesn’t boom from the heavens. We don’t get answers to the why’s very often. Why do bad things happen? Why does tragedy occur? Why do people hate and hurt? The answers to the why’s aren’t forthcoming. But in the midst of all that is broken, we also see what is being healed. We also see that good is being done, peace is being made, good will is being shared. And every time we see that, every time we see a gesture of love, an act of kindness, an offering of peace, we are reminded that the kingdom of heaven is upon us. May our disappointment, our defeated expectations move once more into renewed hope. The one we have been waiting for has come and will come again. God is in our midst. Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia! Amen.”