‘tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home

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3rd Sunday in Advent, December 15, 2013

Isaiah 35.1-10; Psalm 146.5-10; Luke 1.46b-55; James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

John is in prison. The one who we heard about just last week that was calling people to repentance and baptizing them in the Jordan River is behind bars.  The one who was out in the desert wilderness wearing camel’s hair for clothing and eating locusts and wild honey has now lost his freedom.  The one who prepared the way for the Word of God made flesh in Jesus, is locked up.  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 is in prison.

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, of course, 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 steal and marry his half-brother, Phillip’s wife, Herodias.  Did you catch all that?

So John the Baptist, a very well-known and well-respected prophet and person, spoke out against Herod’s marriage to Herodias.  As a result, Herod threw John into prison.

It was from prison that John heard about what Jesus had been up to since baptizing him in the Jordan River.  John had big expectations for Jesus.  If we can remember back to last week’s Gospel reading John confidently told the crowds and crowds of people who kept coming out into the wilderness about the one who was to come.

John 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; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. 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, the savior of the world would come in his own lifetime, it would be the final judgment and people would receive what they deserve, whether good or bad.  For sure, it would be 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: “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Isaiah 35.10).”

Jesus has finally arrived and John gets thrown in prison.  No rulers have been driven out and the same old injustices keep happening.  For John, it’s like only having a Band-Aid when an artery has been severed.  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 drugs to no longer rule over people’s lives; I expect children to not be recruited for war or typhoons that wipe out whole islands of people.  I expect to no longer see such a prevalence of economic injustice where those in power constantly get off scott-free.  I expect everyone to have a place to lay their head down at night to sleep in peace and to have a world where no one has to wonder where their next meal is going to come from.

These are just a few of the expectations I have for Jesus, the one we call, “Savior, Lamb of God, and Prince of Peace.”  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 against hope 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 my whole life, 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 who he is for them.

We might at this point start to wonder if we have seen or heard any of the things Jesus mentions in his answer to whether or not he is the one the world has been waiting for.  Perhaps more subtle than we would like is the quite faith of millions of people who have had their lives touched or transformed by Jesus.

One example I’d like to lift up for us today is a man named John Newton.  John lived in the 18th century and was from England.  He spent a number of years on ships and tried to desert one of the ships he was on one time.  He got caught and suffered 8 dozen lashes of the whip.  He continued sailing on ships and found himself on a slave ship and saw even more atrocities.  In May of 1748 he was on a ship in a severe storm and believed he would die.  He started to pray and the ship eventually made it safe to land.  It was the beginning of his life of faith.  We know him as the man who wrote “Amazing Grace.”

“Amazing grace!—how sweet the sound—that saved a wretch like me!  I once was lost, but now and found; was blind, but now I see.”

Johns speaks of his own blindness turning to sight because of Jesus in his life.

Often times we want something that is so obvious and then somehow we’ll believe, but usually it doesn’t work that way.  How God works in our lives can be more subtle like a baby in a manager, or the steady presence of community, and persistent love.  There is an example of this in our own community.  The following is a poem written this week by a person in this congregation.

Our Story

defeated,

depleted,

the pain in life, being repeated.

family parted,

brokenhearted,

never finishing what we started.

outdated,

overrated,

remembering all the things we hated.

befriended,

badly ended,

all this pain never intended.

dignified,

now unified,

helping to make the pain subside.

feet on the ground,

no longer bound,

once was lost, but now…am found.

This is a witness in our own community of how faith can and does give hope.

In the season of Advent we are reminded again and again of the hope we have in Christ.  He is the One who has been, who is, and who is to come.

In our reading from James, we hear of the patience we need to wait for the early and the late rains.  Right now we are in between them.  The early rain has come and we can see the new life poking up through the soil, but it is not yet harvest time.  We need to wait for the late rains for the full harvest.

Like John the Baptist, like John Newton and like the author of the poem, we walk this Advent journey in the grace of God.

Verse 3 of Amazing Grace:  “Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come; ‘tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”