Last week we heard John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness words like “Repent!” and “You brood of vipers!” Words of judgment and condemnation for a people who had fallen away from the Lord; a people who had lost their hope, allowed their religious practices to become a prison instead of broadening their freedom, and turned to the false gods of politics and wealth. This people waited for a Messiah of power and might who would not cause divisions to cease, but instead crush their oppressors and gain their advantage in the quest for peace. The rod of Jesse’s tree was not supposed to be humility and sacrifice but the A-bomb of ancient Israel unleashed against Rome.
John had been preaching in the wilderness, and his message was powerful and dynamic. His popularity spread and the more people listened to him, the more volume he turned up on his preaching until preaching gave way to ranting and excess such that Herod could no longer ignore him and instead of listen to him, attempted to silence him by imprisoning him. Could this be the one? Could this raving lunatic in a loincloth be the deliverer, the promised messiah, the one who would set the captive free? What is it about his message that inspires and offends such that people would flock to him only to be insulted and condemned? What is it about his message that needs to be silenced
That’s a familiar tune—the crying out of one in the wilderness of our everyday distractions—one voice calling for help, pointing out the brokenness of our world, gains a critical mass. They turn up the volume and we hear them as ranting; ranting about our need to do something different, break free of the status quo. The problem is that people like the status quo. It offers us a false sense of security and comfort even when it fails to meet our needs or is harmful to us. So not only do we reject the prophets, the activists, the intercessors and advocates who point out the abuses and negligences that the current status quo affords, we attempt to silence them.
That’s what happens to John. He is not only calling people to repent, he is pointing out the abuses of the current system and those who have the power and responsibility for doing something about it. That is what lands him in jail. Herod arrests John because he doesn’t like what he has been saying, he doesn’t like being called out or having his actions questioned. This powerful man—a king—the epitome of wealth and position dressed in soft robes does all that he can to silence this wild man dressed in a loincloth and eating locusts and wild honey.
And it is in this place—alone, desperate not for his life but for his message of transformation to not die with him—that he sends his disciples out to inquire of this new voice, this quieter voice. The voice that gives sight to the blind, heals the sick and lame, raises the dead, and brings Good News; the voice that wishes not to offend but to mend. It is this voice that John will lend his own when he asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
This is the question of Advent—the question we raise whenever we are confronted with a prophetic message or someone advocates for the needs of the poor and the marginalized. The question of Advent first by the people to John, “Is it you?” And then by John to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come or do we keep waiting?” Is the same question we continue to ask, “who will come and set us free, make us whole, and bring us peace?”
We spend Advent waiting for a Messiah rooted in our Old Testament history and scripture–O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel. And though we know he is of the past, born a babe in a manger in far off Bethlehem—Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel has come to thee O Israel—we await his coming again. Our expectations are not wrapped up in presents and trees but in the return of the Messiah who promises us peace and the hope of something more, something better.
For some of us that something better is a marked improvement in the conditions of our daily life. But for most of us, that something better is a world at peace with itself, a life in which suffering is eradicated, relationships in which hatred, selfishness, and spite no longer exists. Who is this Messiah that we wait for? And what does he bring that could better our lives?
Most of us in this room have privilege and prosperity that we have either inherited or worked hard for. It is not a curse or something to be ashamed of—it is who we are in the time that we live in. It is not the possession of that power or prosperity or privilege that defines us. It is how we use it. Are we willing to share what we possess in order to help others achieve and be successful? Are we willing to even name that our privilege has helped us achieve all that we have?
We believe that everything we possess is a gift from God—and that is true. But we do ourselves and others harm if we believe that God has found greater favor in us than in others. The gifts we have been given—be they wealth, ability, or privilege—are entrusted in our care to steward in preparing this world for our Savior’s return. They are the same gifts that were given to those with power and authority in John’s day—those who wore soft robes in royal palaces—and instead of using them to prepare the way of the Lord by feeding the hungry and raising up the down trodden, used them for their own personal gain, comfort, and well-being.
It is in this life, on this earth that we await the Messiah—the one who was and is and will come again. As Christians, we have given ourselves to waiting in hopeful anticipation of his expected return. We have also given ourselves to the task of John the Baptist—the preparation of the world by word and action to receive the message of Jesus Christ. We do not have to be a reed shaken by the wind but neither must we be the ones who wear soft robes. Our call in mission and ministry is to find a way to help others hear the Good News; to partner with God and one another in doing the work of reconciliation that brings redemption to this world. That is how we wait expectantly in the Advent that may well be the whole of our lives. It is in that expectant waiting, the anticipation of Christ’s coming again, that we can sing Rejoice!
Emmanuel comes to us in many ways, most of which we never expect, some of which we never realize. And it is only in the living of our lives as preparation for his return that we can ever be truly ready for his coming again. Amen.
Advent 3A: Isaiah 35:1-10; Canticle 3; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Sunday, December 15, 2019
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer