I was deeply influenced for this week’s sermon by a blog post from Debie Thomas, who serves as director of children and family ministries at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, CA. The last few paragraphs of my sermon are direct quotes from her fine work. I strongly urge you to read her blog post in full, at:
2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7As 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? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Dear people of God, of Emmanuel God-with-us: grace and peace to you this day from our loving Creator, through the Prince of Peace. Amen.
Are you the one?
Or – should we wait for someone else?
These are the questions John’s followers bring to Jesus, on behalf of the one to whom they’ve been listening. The one who has been speaking pretty frankly about the coming Messiah. The Messiah who they expected to be the one to start the revolution and lead them all to rise up against the Romans and establish God’s kingdom, once and for all.
And on this Third Sunday of Advent, we find this gospel of John’s despair and disappointment paired with Mary’s Magnificat, her song of praise to God and defiance of the oppressor empire. Traditionally this Sunday was called “Gaudete” Sunday, “Gaudete” meaning “joy.”
Which of course begs the question, what is joyful about John’s despondent question, coming from his awful situation in prison?
We can see the joy in the first lesson, no problem there. Being from Southern California, I’ve actually witnessed the desert blossom, and it’s a magnificent sight.
But the gospel? Where is the joy?
John is in prison, having called out King Herod’s immoral behavior. Hmmm. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? If you call out someone in power for their immoral behavior, you find yourself out of a job – or worse.
And so I think we can understand that John might be pretty disillusioned at this point. He is in chains and in crisis; as far as he can tell, Jesus the Messiah – his COUSIN – has changed nothing. All those things John said in the wilderness about Jesus – choice words about wielding axes, bringing fire, renewing the world – John’s not seeing it.
And so all he’s got left now, in his valley of despair, is to cry out are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another? In other words: “Jesus, I’ve staked my entire life on you. Has it all been for nothing?”
Have you ever had an experience in your life where you found yourself saying that?
I was a child during the civil rights movement and the antiwar protests during Vietnam. When I was in high school, the feminist movement was in full swing. My parents had taught me two things from an early age: one, all people are created equal and I was expected to treat them equally, and two, I could be anything I wanted to be. It was a shock as I grew up to find out that theirs was a minority point of view.
I marched for passage of the ERA, I marched for women’s rights. I boycotted grapes to support the passage of fair labor laws for migrant farm workers. I protested for LGBTQ equal rights, and lobbied for the NIH and CDC to recognize AIDS and get working on a cure, or at least a treatment protocol. I supported the Sierra Club and Greenpeace as they drew attention to the ways humanity was destroying creation.
And all along the way, I knew that the laws of this country, the way our democratic republic is formulated, would give me an opportunity to be heard. Organizing for change is a time-honored aspect of American life.
But these days I find myself saying “has it all been for nothing?” a lot more than I ever expected.
The civil rights of so many are being eroded. Our environment is in more peril, and more deeply, than just a few years ago. My time at Legacy-Emanuel in Portland brought me face-to-face with the degree to which society has failed its most vulnerable members.
Has it all been for nothing?
It’s a disturbing trajectory, isn’t it? What happened to that darkness to light thing? John too has gone from heavenly light, when the Spirit descended at Jesus’ baptism, to jail cell darkness.
For a time I attended a Calvary Chapel in high school. They had words for this kind of darkness, words that I now understand as judgmental. Words like FAITHLESS and BACKSLIDDEN.
But in our gospel, Jesus doesn’t respond like that. Jesus knows that despair is an understandable response to life’s worst cruelties, and so responds to John’s pained question with composure, gentleness, and calm.
“Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus tells the disciples who bring him John’s question.
In other words, 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.
Because who Jesus is, isn’t a one-time pronouncement. It’s not a slick ad line, or a clever slogan you can plaster on a billboard. No, he is far more impossible to pin down that that. I saw Jesus repeatedly in the people that showed up at the emergency department at Legacy Emanuel – the plain, poor, ordinary folks who are trying to eke out a living on the streets or in low-income jobs. We glimpse Jesus’ reality in the shadows where these people try to find shelter.
Because Jesus calls us to see and hear all the stories of the kingdom — and that includes John’s story, too. “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” Jesus says. Offense runs away. Offense quits. Offense erects a wall and hides behind it because reality is harsher and more complicated than we expected it would be. Yes, some stories are terrible, period. They break hearts and end badly. People flail and people die – and yet, this, too, is what the life of faith looks like. A life of faith gets to a place where it doesn’t take offense. It doesn’t flee. It walks alongside.
What has it been like for you, in the valleys of your life? Have you ever been able to find a so-called “Christian story” that makes sense of what you’re going through? I wonder if you’ve had an experience like mine, where many of the “sermon illustration” stories I’ve come across get the ends tied up a little too neatly, almost like a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie. They move to closure and some kind of triumph so quickly that I feel like they’re almost dismissing my pain. That they’re waving off all that I’m going through. And in the times when I’m not the one suffering, but a friend is, such stories dull my capacity to practice genuine compassion, empathy, and longsuffering.
And so I wonder. We all wonder – what kind of meaning and purpose IS there in suffering? I mean, John did everything right and look what happened to him.
It’s in times like these that we realize that the so-called “prosperity gospel” doesn’t hold up when things go bad, whether it’s your fault or not.
But what if the point of John’s story is to actually indict every form of transactional Christianity that promises us things like safety, prosperity, and blessings in exchange for good behavior? What if our faith isn’t something that’s meant to dull our discomfort or blunt our sorrows, but rather give us the strength to live authentically in the face of it all?
Maybe we don’t need to slap purpose and meaning on all human experience in order to make sense of things, or prove our piety. Maybe God is more present in the dark abysses of the world’s pain than in those sanitized, high-production-value narratives.
Maybe we are invited to honor doubt, despair, and silence as reasonable reactions to a broken world. To create sacred space for grief, mourn freely, and rage against injustice. To let joy be joy, sorrow be sorrow, horror be horror. To feel deeply, because God does.
Feeling deeply. Isn’t this a season where we yearn and long for precisely that?
Mary certainly felt deeply when she proclaimed her Magnificat. And she had surely felt a host of other things, including fear and apprehension, about what this whole journey would mean for her. And ultimately she feels deep joy as she utters this radical manifesto of God’s bringing of equity and justice to God’s creation.
Here’s an ironic fact: John the Baptist is remembered by the Church as the patron saint of spiritual joy. Why?
Perhaps because he understood something flinty about the life of faith. After all, joy in a prison cell isn’t about sentimentality. Or about the pious suppression of our most painful crises and questions.
Perhaps John came to understand that joy is what happens when we dare to believe that our Messiah disillusions us for nothing less than our salvation, stripping away every expectation we cling to, so that we can know God for who God truly is. Maybe he realized that God’s work is bigger than the difficult circumstances of his own life, calling him to a selfless joy for the liberation of others. Maybe John’s joy was otherworldly in the most literal sense, because he understood that our stories extend beyond death, and find completion only in the presence of God himself.
“Are you the one who is coming?” John asked in despair and yearning.
“You decide,” Jesus answered in love. “The blind see, the deaf hear. The lame dance.”
We didn’t hear John’s answer then. But can we hear his answer now? It is filled with confidence, and it is a resounding YES. Jesus is the one who has come, and is coming, and will never stop coming to meet us where we are. We have not hoped in vain. Christ will forever turn our despair into joy. Amen.