a sermon, based on Matthew 11.2-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016
Whenever I consider this world’s sickeningly repetitive demonstrations of inhumanity, I say, I shout, “This must stop!” And whenever I feel this rise of righteous indignation, I know I share spiritual kinship with John the baptizer who preached to all who dared listen:
Bear fruit worthy of repentance…
for the ax is at the root of the trees.
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down
and thrown into the fire…
One who is mightier than I is coming…
His winnowing fork is in his hand.
He will clear the threshing floor,
gather the wheat into the granary,
and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.
Jesus, whose advent John proclaimed, arrives, but without the expected judgment. John, arrested for disturbing the peace, huddled in a dark prison, still harbors hope for the fulfillment of his prophecy. Hearkening for word that the ax has swung, the winnowing fork has swept, he hears news of Jesus’ ministry, taking sad note that the world continues on its weary, wicked way as though nothing had happened or would happen.
I share John’s disappointment whenever I imagine how life could be or, arrogantly, ought to be or whenever I join in countless prayers and efforts to bring dreams to light and to life, yet behold the vision evaporate in the heat of the world’s stubborn resistance to change. (Truth be told, sometimes my desolation is about my reluctance to engage and enact my vision to do something different, to be someone different.)
Long ago, at moments like these, I’d cry out to God, giving God another chance to prove that God is God, in charge of the world and in control of me. But God always declined my graciously offered opportunities to fulfill my visions. (My disillusionment with God often led to my deeper, personal discouragement, for I believed my dreams were flawed or, worse, false, thus unworthy of being fulfilled as, indeed, I myself, the dreamer of my dreams, must have been.)
Today, I no longer wishfully theologize about a god of my imagining. Yet, after 2000 years of Christianity, in the face of sadly abundant signs of humanly sinful, sin-fueled suffering, I still share John’s soulful lamentation: Jesus, are you the one or must I look for another? Usually, I raise the question in curiosity. For John, imprisoned, awaiting execution, it was a matter of life and death: Jesus, are you the Messiah or has my ministry, my life been a lie?
Now, there are times when John’s cry is an issue of critical concern. Whenever the hungry again plead for bread and the homeless for a bed and an uncaring world shrugs, “There’s no room in the inn!” Whenever a prayer for peace again is drowned out by the deafening sound of war. Whenever the call of the oppressed for freedom again is reduced to a whisper under the weight of bondage. Whenever visions of love again are vanquished and dreams of justice again denied. Whenever and wherever, we might cry: Jesus, are you the Messiah or have we been fools to follow you?
Nevertheless, I believe that John asked his poignant question, yes, in despair, yet also with hope that Jesus would answer. Jesus did answer. Though not saying, “Tell John who I am, that I am the Messiah!” or “Tell John what I say!” but rather, “Tell John what I do. The disabled, diseased, deaf, dead are made whole.”
Yes, the world goes on its weary, wicked way. Jesus never promised anything else. ‘Til Judgment Day, there will be sin and suffering, hunger and homelessness, war and strife. Yet whenever and wherever we, who follow Jesus, do what he did – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, pray and work for freedom and peace, act in love where there is hatred, welcome and acceptance where there is exclusion – there and then Jesus advents, he comes with hope and healing.
John was God’s messenger proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. Yet he could not perceive that Jesus, as Messiah, rules with love, not force, governs with justice, not judgment, whose power is revealed in service and sacrifice, not violence. Therefore, “the least in the kingdom of heaven”, the least of Jesus’ followers, those who behold, however imperfectly, who Jesus is and those who do, however partially, what Jesus does, even we, are greater than John.
Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)
Illustration: St. John the Baptist in the Prison (1565-1570), Juan Fernández de Navarrete (1538-1579), The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Note: John is depicted with his wrists bond, his head bowed and eyes downcast in disconsolation. His camel hair garment (Matthew 3.4, Mark 1.6) lay at his side, above which, partially visible is the head of the staff, often associated with John the Baptist in art, bearing the scrolled Latin inscription, Ecce Agnus Dei, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (see John 1.29, 35).
 Matthew 3.8, 10, 11b, 12. From the gospel passage appointed for the 2nd Sunday of Advent.