Matthew 11: 2 – 10
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
You’ve made the trip into the attic, or the garage, or the basement, or the shed, to drag out all the boxes and bins and bags. You open each one, remember what’s been packed where, and remind yourself of where it sits or hangs or stands. Inevitably, something you know you had is no longer where you thought it was. And there’s one bulb out somewhere in the hundreds of them, and now that whole section is dark. Do you dig through for spares? Do you go get something new? Do you just cram another strand in there, or decide this year you’ll go without lights and next year you’ll fix it – knowing good and well that you’ll forget between now and next year and you’ll do this all over again. And as you unwrap each piece, you tell and retell the story that goes with it. And you find a place for everything. And inevitably the dog ends up in the Styrofoam, and the cat slips into the lowest tree branches, and you realize that it’s time to glue Joseph’s head back on (again), and you find a place to put the Baby Jesus figure so that he can make his appearance in the nativity on Christmas morning. (Hopefully this year you’ll remember where he is.)
And there’s the choir concert one night, and the band concert the next night. And your office party is a pitch-in lunch, and theirs is a dress-up dinner. And the babysitter’s at her friend’s party, so you hope maybe the college friend next door is home from school already. You thought you were so far ahead on the shopping and then you realize that you still haven’t figured out what to get your brother-in-law. And you forgot you need a Secret Santa gift for the teacher. And maybe something for the mail carrier; they work so many extra hours this time of year.
And everyone’s coming to your house for Christmas dinner because your sister decided to remodel her kitchen and of course it isn’t done yet. And is that a tickle in the back of your throat? Why are you so tired? Uh oh. A light’s on down the hall. Who’s gotten sick in the middle of the night? And why is there water on the kitchen floor? How does a refrigerator just suddenly quit working entirely?
So. Everyone’s feeling that JOY of Christmas, right?
Well, one of the things you managed to do in the middle of everything else that we think this season demands of us … you managed to get to worship today. That may have included its own series of comical events and annoying circumstances and even near-disasters, but you made it. You’re here. So maybe we can take a moment of pause together. And breathe. And consider. And refresh our memory, about the JOY.
Today’s text is a departure from the timeline. It’s a much later part of the story and maybe not one you would first think about when you think of this time of year. But it’s also a series of events that help us refresh our memory, and help us pause, and breathe, and consider the source of our joy.
John the Baptist was born just before Jesus. His mother Elizabeth was Mary’s cousin. We see in the other nativity telling, in Luke, that when a pregnant Mary visits a pregnant Elizabeth, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps with joy as the two greet each other. It is one of the simplest and most beautiful moments of scripture. The gift of a child in Elizabeth’s age, and the gift of a child in Mary’s innocence, resonates in each woman’s spirit and they are deeply and wondrously linked from the earliest moments of their being.
John spends his life as a herald for Jesus: the one who goes before him to declare the way, to proclaim the good news of the Messiah, the one who will save the people. John calls the community to repentance and doesn’t sugar coat it even a little bit – they need to prepare themselves, be ready, be different, pay attention. He steps from the wilderness, from his locust-eating and hairshirt-wearing, and baptizes Jesus, as the skies part and the voice of God declares it all blessed.
This is no ordinary preacher, and no ordinary relationship. It is deep, and profound, and lifelong, and sometimes unexplainable.
In this text from Matthew, John has landed in prison … for telling the truth. King Herod had visited his brother, seduced his brother’s wife, come home and disposed of his own, and taken the sister-in-law as his new bride. John, not one to mince words, called him out on that debacle … and, as you might imagine, that didn’t go over well. So, here is John, in prison.
As he had traveled and preached and told the stories of Jesus and who he was for the world, John had gathered his own following, his own students and disciples. While in prison now, he had heard from them about the ways Jesus continued to teach and preach and heal, how he was drawing attention and gathering crowds and troubling the authorities and stirring up notice.
And John had to wonder: So why am I the one sitting here in this jail cell? After all this, is this what it’s come to? Has all of this been worth it? Or has it been for nothing?
But it’s for that very reason that John’s question strikes us as odd: He’s been right there the whole time, leading the way, clearing the path, setting things up, getting people ready, preparing them to hear the good news of God’s love from God’s own Son. How in the world does he still need to send his disciples to Jesus to ask that incredibly puzzling question “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
But we ask it too, don’t we? Even from this side of history, even knowing how the story starts, and how it goes, and how it ends, and what it means. We still sometimes ask ‘Is this it? Is that what we’re looking for?’ It makes sense that perhaps we would wonder if we match up with Jesus’ expectations. We know the many ways we can fall short of following faithfully.
But this scripture, this moment with John in his prison cell, this moment when he’s seen and done and lead and heard and been part of all the ways that Jesus shows all of us to be: In this moment, John seems to make a way to say that maybe when we think we’ve met all that was expected of us, we will still find a moment to wonder if Jesus is matching up with what we expect of him?
But how does Jesus respond? Does he tell John’s disciples to get a grip, that yes of course he’s the messiah, haven’t we already covered this, haven’t you been paying attention? No. But does he just give them a simple and straightforward ‘Yes, I’m the one’? No. This is Jesus. You knew that wouldn’t happen. You ask him a simple question, you get a long and round-about answer. It’s his thing.
What Jesus gives to John in this moment … in the midst of John’s waning confidence and overwhelming sense of things being impossible … what Jesus gives John is permission to ask the questions, and the reminder that he already has the answer.
Debie Thomas wrote a beautiful essay last week called ‘Has It All Been For Nothing?’ and points out the generosity and beauty of Jesus’s response to the question John’s disciples bring:
… Jesus says: go back to John and tell him your stories. Tell him my stories. Tell him what your eyes have seen and your ears have heard. Tell him what only the stories — quiet as they are, scattered as they are, questionable as they are — will reveal.
Lutheran pastor Rev Dr Janet Hunt said a few years ago:
Sometimes I simply find that I, too, simply need someone else to tell me what they know for sure.
And apparently that’s OK. For Jesus’ response to John’s question carries no judgment, no surprise, not even a small measure of wondering that John would wonder. It’s as though it’s to be expected that all of us — every single one of us — would need the witness of one another to bear us up.
Jesus doesn’t answer John and his disciples directly. He gives them a recitation of his works. ‘You ask if I’m the one? Here is what I’ve done. Does that sound like the one you were looking for?’ They have to decide. Because Jesus doesn’t take offense … because he doesn’t come back with any sort of blame or shame, no accusation of a wavering faith … because Jesus knows how new and different and revelatory this kind of understanding of the world can be … he isn’t offended by John’s question. And he isn’t wounded by ours.
This takes the magic out of it … but not the wonder. This means we can ask our questions too, and still rest in the joy of a God who loves us enough to move among us again and again and again and again until we come to know what such love can mean. Discipleship and faith must constantly be renewed. Even John the Baptist had to ask the question. As treasured preaching professor Ron Allen says, “…God never gives up on offering the world opportunities to become more like the realm of heaven.”
We are in a season called Advent – from the Latin word adventus, which means ‘coming.’ Christ is coming. The Light of the World, Prince of Peace. And isn’t THAT something we need? Isn’t that what we eagerly await?
Purple candles are lighted through the season – purple to signify royalty as we await the coming King. But it is also the color of penitence and reflection, and in earliest tradition, this was the case for Advent. Much like Lent, Advent began as a season of somber reflection, including fasting and increased devotion through prayer and discipline. It is a season of waiting and watching.
But at this point something happens. This third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday. The first word spoken in the ancient mass on this third Sunday in Advent is gaudete. ‘Rejoice.’ Gaudete in Domino semper. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always.’
Seven years ago, in 2012, it was my first Advent season here with you. Many of you will remember that in those days, to use a biblical phrase, in those days we were not worshipping in this space. This room was torn down the concrete and steel, being completely renovated into the sacred space we treasure each week. So during that season, we worshipped in Peake Hall. When you walk out of the sanctuary, there are two doors in front of you – one to the Library, one to the Chapel. Those were one room then, and none of the commons, gym, or education space was there. (I know, it’s weird to remember, isn’t it?!)
But that Advent, on the 3rd weekend, the weekend I was to preach, on the Advent theme of joy, something happened. That Friday, with a sermon already tucked away and ready to go, we were in offices and cars and homes and schools … and heard about children at a school in Connecticut. The horrific killing of 20 little ones, and 6 teachers. Sandy Hook. And 48 hours later, we were to gather in worship and talk about joy.
I think of that day often. The number of times we have gathered for worship and been forced to name another tragedy of violence in our nation … Sandy Hook Elementary School. Emanuel AME in Charleston. The Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. The campus square in Charlottesville. The Islamic Center in Detroit. The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg. So many. Too many to name. Too many.
As people of faith, as those who claim Jesus, as individuals and a community privileged to choose to follow the one we call Savior … in a world that would divide us, in a time that would have us choose sides, in a season of rancor and dissent and sheer inhumanity and injustice like we could never have imagined … as this community, in this moment, what are we asking of Jesus? And what is he asking of us?
Here’s what I said on December 16 2012, after Sandy Hook, and here’s what I’ll say today, in the middle of the chaos that is around us – and inside us – in seemingly every waking moment:
There is only one thing. There is only one thing that makes any bit of sense.
It does not explain why. It does not answer how. It does not promise never again. It does not make it all okay. But it is the only thing to say … the only thing that makes sense to say. And it is the very thing we say every time we’re together. It is the very thing we say in the fact that we are together at all.
God. Is. Here.
The Lord your God is in your midst. (Zeph 3:17)
How can we still read words of JOY today? How can we still light this pink candle? Why do we sing ‘Gloria’? How can we possibly ‘come with joy’
Because God is here.
God was there.
In every anguished cry, in every injured body, in every moment of panic.
In every act of bravery and compassion and selflessness and goodness and heart.
God was there.
And God is here.
In the tears we cry, the grief we carry for people we do not even know.
In our fear that this could be our child.
In our certainty that if it is anyone’s child anywhere, it is everyone’s child everywhere.
And in our lighting of a candle,
and our singing of songs,
and our praying of prayers,
and our breaking of bread.
God is here.
I heard a great phrase the other day: “Jesus did not come to meet our expectations … he came to meet our needs.”
What do we need of Jesus right now? What does he need of us?
In the midst of all the stuff from the attic, and the things on the calendar, and the preparation left to make, here we are, at the 3rd Sunday of Advent. JOY.
We are halfway there … we move from waiting for the Promised One, and we turn our hearts in expectation … we actually expect that Christ will come! And so on Gaudete Sunday, we ease our penitence, we breathe in celebration, we soften the color from purple to rose, and we rejoice.
In the presence of God, we rejoice.
We rejoice in the presence of God.
 Debie Thomas, ‘Has It All Been For Nothing?’, Journey with Jesus, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1201
 Janet Hunt, ‘The Blind Receive Their Sight’, Dancing With the Word, http://words.dancingwiththeword.com/2013/12/the-blind-receive-their-sight.html
 Ron Allen, Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3091
 Ben Witherington, ‘Preaching This Week’, Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=778