The people in the Bible are no strangers to fear, distress and despair. They know what it means to wait and wait and wait for God’s promises to come to pass. They are the ones who long for things to change for the better. They hope that the way things are now are not the way they will always be. The people of the Bible, who are after all the people of God, are Advent people. Those in the Hebrew Scriptures are expecting a Messiah and the restoration of Jerusalem as the great City of God. And those who have experienced Jesus as the Messiah in times of great tribulation and difficulty are waiting for his return.
During their time of waiting, sorrow and sighing have laid claim to them. Isaiah writes to a people in exile. They have been forced from their homes, removed from the holy city of Jerusalem, where they have worshipped for centuries in the Temple. They have been taken into captivity in a foreign land where they have been forced into slavery. They are without familiar landmarks and in danger of losing even their identity because so much that matters most to them has been stripped away.
As their time of exile continues, those who remember Jerusalem are getting older. They are losing their eyesight and their hearing. They have been made lame by hard labor and long travel. Their hands have become weak, and their knees are feeble. They are the only ones who remember what it was like to ascend to the mount of the Lord and to enter the courts of the Temple. They alone can describe what the streets looked like and the special foods tasted like. The customs and rituals that bound them together as a people of God are slipping away, and they are the last to hold onto them.
Meanwhile their home is falling apart. It is becoming a wilderness, a dry and arid place. The city is falling into ruin. They are afraid and anxious. All that they hoped for, all that God promised appears to be slipping away.
Hundreds of years later, John the Baptist is experiencing something similar. He finds himself in a small cell in one of Herod’s rural jails, waiting to be executed. The man who traveled freely, living in the wilderness, roaming free, is now in prison. The mighty prophet whose message was heard by the thousands of people who flocked to him is silent and isolated.
He had always been so sure about his message. He was clear about who he was and what his role was and he was certain about Jesus, so certain that St. Luke tells the story that John actually jumped in the womb when his expectant mother came near a pregnant Mary. Tentative and doubtful are words that had never been applied to John the Baptist.
Yet, here he is in prison, asking his disciples to convey to Jesus the most plaintive of questions, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Can you imagine it? Certain, confident John now wonders if everything he worked and sacrificed for was worth it. And if Jesus doesn’t turn out to be what John expected, John won’t have any time left to wait for another to come. His own death is imminent.
Into the lives of desperate and despairing people, God speaks words of hope and accomplishes deeds of deliverance. This is what God has been doing for God’s people since the world began. God speaks and a garden comes into being where before there had been a barren desert. God acts and the blind see, the lame walk and the wounded are healed. God makes a way for those who have been in exile to return and be restored.
God speaks in Jesus. God acts in Jesus.
When John is despairing and alone, Jesus sends a message to him. It is a message to restore hope and to provide comfort, but also to open John’s eyes to something more. John had expectations of what God’s coming Kingdom would be like. And he certainly had ideas of what God’s Messiah would be and do. His vision probably included cleaning up corruption, restoring righteous leadership, clearing out the Roman occupiers and setting up a just government. He had been working pretty hard to get people ready for the changes that were coming. As a model for this new rule, there could be no one better qualified than John. In the Kingdom of Righteousness and Justice that he proclaimed, he set the standard. Think of it: he was a vegetarian on a strict diet. He lived simply with almost no possessions. He was celibate, utterly devoted to his religious practice and regular in prayer and fasting. He was the first citizen of a renewed and restored religious order. And he thought Jesus would make it all happen.
Instead Jesus confounded him. He spent all his time with outcasts, the sick and disabled. He seemed to break a number of religious rules and ignore some religious practices. His diet seemed to be a bit heavy on wine and frequent feasting, often with some unsavory characters. Jesus didn’t even have as many followers as John did. John at least had spoken out publicly against Herod’s adultery, even if it had landed him in prison. While John was suffering, Jesus wasn’t living up to his expectations.
But you know that Jesus loves John and he admires him. He sends messengers to console him. Using words from Isaiah he reminds John that the Kingdom is often revealed in the most intimate and personal ways as God restores sight, heals the lame, cleanses the leper and raises the dead. He knows what John is facing. After all, Jesus himself will face a similar fate. Both of them will die. But Jesus knows that God is present here and now as people experience God together.
And then Jesus does one other thing for John. He affirms him in public. He tells the people that John is the last great prophet and the messenger of the new age. Jesus is certain that there is no other human being who has been truer to the ideals of righteousness and justice in this world. But the best of the kingdoms of this world cannot compare to the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus is calling all of us into.
In his kingdom, even the least, the last and the lost are great. In the Kingdom of Jesus the weak are made strong, the sorrowful are comforted, the sinner is redeemed and the despairing are restored to hope. Ultimately even death will be conquered.
And the best news that Jesus brings is that this all begins now. It’s all happening here. The Kingdom is present when Christ is near. Jesus opens the kingdom for John while he waits alone in a prison cell. The Kingdom opens later for Jesus while he hangs on a cross. And the Kingdom is present for us no matter how much sorrow or sighing we have experienced.
A few years ago a good friend of mine was dying, too young and too quickly from rapidly metastasizing cancer. He had been in exile from the church for years because he had been deeply hurt. As a gay man and a pastor he lived in silence and in fear until he couldn’t take it anymore. He always found something to criticize when he visited a church, and he was both witty and sad in his caustic commentary on how the church fell short of its ideals. One of the churches he had tried and rejected was one that was very familiar to me. As his condition worsened he longed for communion and for community. He began to come for the Eucharist as he was able. He asked if someone could offer the newcomer’s classes to him personally since he couldn’t be present for them. He started to receive home communion and pastoral visits.
In the midst of terrible desolation, pain and fear, he found his greatest comfort in the words of Scripture, the sacraments and in the community that loved and accepted him with open arms. He began to plan his funeral, trusting that the community that had welcomed him home would be willing to mark his passage into his eternal home.
My friend wasn’t cured of cancer. John the Baptist never got out of prison until they lead him out to be beheaded. Jesus’ journey took him to the cross. But in the midst of those circumstances God opens eyes and ears to the Kingdom of Heaven where love, joy, freedom and healing are the deepest reality. God was present for my friend in ways that healed his soul and restored him to communion. Jesus was present for John to strengthen and encourage him during his final days. And God will be present to you, good people, through all the changes and chances of this world, and we will all return with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon our heads; we shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Amen.
3 Advent, Year C December 11, 2016
Isaiah 35:1-10 St. Luke’s, Ballard
Matthew 11:2-11 Britt Olson