Third Sunday in Advent; December 11, 2016; Year A
Isaiah 35.1-10; Psalm 146.5-10; James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who brings healing to the earth, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It has been shared with me that one has quite a bit of time to think when confined to a prison cell. Today in our Gospel reading John the Baptist is in prison and he’s thinking about a lot of things.
Just last week John was in the wilderness calling people to repent and get ready Jesus. One day John is baptizing Christ himself, and the next he is enclosed in a jail cell wondering what his future holds, wondering what the world’s future holds. John has lost his freedom.
So what happened? John lived in a certain time and place where if you said something against someone in power, you could be locked up just like that. This still happens today in many parts of the world, where freedom of speech is not a human right, but this happened in John’s day all the time.
The person John spoke out against was no one to mess with. His name was Herod. Herod, was given the power to rule over his fellow Jews by the Romans who occupied the land. Somewhere along the line Herod thought it would be a good idea to marry his half-brother, Phillip’s wife, Herodias.
So John the Baptist, a very well-known and well-respected prophet and person, spoke out against Herod’s marriage to another man’s wife, publically saying, “It’s unlawful.” Herod didn’t like that and had John arrested.
It was in prison that John started to reflect on his life, not only his life but mostly on this one called, Jesus. John’s whole identity was wrapped up in preparing the way for Jesus, the one he believed was the savior of the world, God in the flesh.
John had big expectations for Jesus. If we can remember back to last week’s Gospel reading John confidently proclaimed on the riverbanks to the people: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3.11-12).”
This is what John expected Jesus to do: to gather like a shepherd those who were repentant and prepared for his coming and to judge people like Herod with unquenchable fire.
John really believed that when the Messiah would come in his own lifetime, it would be the final judgment and people would receive what they deserve, whether good or bad. Jesus would have at least brought an end to the Roman occupation and lousy rulers like Herod. The vision that was in our first reading today in Isaiah would be realized: “He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you (Isaiah 35.4).”
Jesus has finally arrived and John gets thrown in prison. This wasn’t supposed to happen. No rulers have been driven out and the same old injustices keep happening. It is no wonder he sends some of his followers from prison to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
John’s question is an important question, even for us here today. Who are you really, Jesus? Who are you for me? Who are you for the world?
If you are God in the flesh, God with us, I have expectations: I expect people to not be locked up unjustly. I expect drugs to no longer rule people’s lives. I expect an end to economic injustice. I expect war to cease. I expect everyone to have shelter, and no one to go hungry.
We, like John, can find it easy to question and doubt Jesus when he doesn’t save us (or others) from the harsh realities of the world. It is so hard to keep hoping when we’re sitting in prison, like John, or when we know that the outside world is even tougher than it is in here. It is so hard to hope when it seems like we keep waiting and waiting for something, anything…mostly for the promises of God to be real.
John knew well the promises of God, God’s promise to save and redeem the world, to make all wrongs right, and to destroy death forever. He had been waiting his whole life for Jesus. Sitting in his jail cell, he needed to know: Are you the one I have been waiting for, the one for whom I prepared the way?
When Jesus hears John’s question out of the mouths of John’s followers, he does not give a straight answer.
He says: “Go and tell John what you 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 leaves it out there for John and everyone else to decide for themselves who he is.
I wish we could hear from John again, but we don’t get to. He asks the question and remains in prison until his death. In chapter 14 we learn that Herod has John beheaded. John never gets to witness the end of the story. John never sees Jesus die on the cross, and he doesn’t get to see the resurrected Jesus who conquered death.
Jesus didn’t save John from prison; he didn’t even save himself from death on the cross.
What do we do when Jesus disappoints us or does something other than we expect? Years ago I came across some writing by a man named, Nicholas Wolterstorff. His son died and he wrote a book called, “Lament for a Son.” In the book he questions God. He writes:
How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song—all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself. We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God. A new and more disturbing question now arises: Why do you permit yourself to suffer, O God (p. 80)?”
Instead of raising his own army and driving out the Romans, instead of freeing John from prison, Jesus is raised on a cross and dies. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
The cross and Jesus dying on it can be offensive in many ways. It can be offensive that Jesus would rather die for us than strike down our enemies. It can be offensive that Jesus would rather love and forgive those we might hate. It can be offensive that Jesus would rather be present with us in the people around us than come crashing in and fix everything we think is wrong in life.
Maybe our prayers aren’t always answered, or at least answered in a way we are hoping for. But Jesus tries to tell John, if in directly, “Yes, I am the one you have been waiting for.” People find healing in me. Lives are transformed. People who were lost are found. People who didn’t think they had anyone, have me and a community that will come to be known as the church.
You don’t know it yet, John, but the dead will be raised to eternal life, including you. Freeing you from prison and driving out the Romans won’t accomplish this, but giving up my life in love for the world will.
We know the end of the story when John didn’t. Maybe we would never choose the way God chose to save us and the world, but we trust that God’s way is the best way.
Rev. Katie Hines-Shah, in the Christian Century writes: “Jesus comes to be fully one of us—to know our joy and sorrow, our goodness and sin, our life and death. Jesus will know what it is to be poor, to lose someone you love, to be friendless, to suffer. Jesus will, like John, face an imprisonment that ends in death.”
Whether we like it or not, this is the kind of God we have. I’m thankful for this God and I look forward in hope with all of you to once again celebrate the birth of Christ into the world.