A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent

 Year A – 15 December 2013

 John Edward Miller, Rector

 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

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? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 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.’

Truly 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.”  Matthew 11:2-11

  The Collect

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

 It’s remarkable that Matthew’s gospel includes this question. John’s query is surprising because, according to the story, he had already gotten confirmation that Jesus was the Messiah – the anointed one. Matthew had made that explicit in an earlier scene, when Jesus presented himself to John for baptism. John balked when he saw him, and protested that the roles should be reversed. He said that Jesus should be the one doing the baptizing, not him. However, Jesus insisted that it was proper for John to do the honors for now, and the Baptist relented. Then after John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, “the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”[1] Unless Jesus alone saw and heard all of that drama, you’d think that for John the die was cast. This was it – the time he and everyone in Israel had been awaiting for centuries. Emmanuel had come.

For Matthew it was clear that Jesus was the Messiah. The whole purpose of his gospel account is to convince others that he was the long-awaited Redeemer. And yet he thought it important to record John’s moment of hesitation about the Messiah for people like us to read and understand two thousand years later. That makes it significant, and our quest this morning is to think about its meaning for us, as well as for those who were looking long ago for the advent of God’s Messiah.

This was the question’s context: John the Baptist was in prison awaiting his fate. Meanwhile word reached him that Jesus had launched his ministry, choosing twelve disciples, instructing them, and speaking publicly about the nearness of the kingdom of heaven. This news struck John deeply, so from his cell the imprisoned prophet considered the meaning of these events. He sent his own disciples to Jesus, asking the probing question: was he the one to come, or should he expect another to appear.

What a curious question. Why did John, who baptized Jesus and witnessed his anointing by the Spirit, send that inquiry? Was he having second thoughts? Was he worried about what he was hearing about Jesus’ message? Or was he just hedging his bets?

Jesus’ response to John’s question showed no irritation. Indeed there was little if any emotion in the Messiah’s reply. He would rest his case on the facts instead of his pride, saying, “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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” In other words, Jesus simply wanted John to know that God was at work in him and through him. He was God’s servant, caring for the outcasts, healing their wounds, and bringing the people to life. That was sufficient evidence for Jesus that his vocation was real. He hoped that John would embrace what he was doing, and rest in peace.

The text reminds us that John the Baptist was a prophet. His life was edgy to say the least. Existing on locusts and wild honey, and wearing a scratchy garment made of camel’s skin, he preached a message that made people’s hair stand on end. That’s because he was proclaiming that the end of age was imminent, and it was high time for the people to shape up, confess their sin, and prepare for the coming apocalypse. John walked the line, the thin edge, between time and eternity. He was certain that his mission was to be the vanguard for the approaching Messiah. He was used to looking every waking minute for the one to come. It was almost as if his vigilance about the end was endless. Even the presence of Jesus did not quell his heightened sense of anticipation.   

Our family pet, Walter the wonder dog, is 14 years old. But it’s difficult to see that because he’s so youthful and animated. I love returning home and having him greet me. Walter rushes up and does a little dance, wagging his tail and lifting his front paws off the floor. He then looks into my eyes, licks his chops, and pants, watching my every move. The reason why Walter is so excited about my homecoming is that he genuinely likes me. But more than that, he regards me as “food source number 1.” And by that I mean extra food, over and above his regular meal. I admit that I have fed him goodies from the dinner table. Mea culpa: I’m guilty. He’s such a great companion that I want to keep him happy. The problem is he has no sense of reaching his limit, or when dinner is over. Walter puts on a bit of a plaintive whimper, and reminds me of his presence by pawing my leg. I can show him my empty plate, and empty hands, and say, “All done,” but he maintains an eager look of hope. Walter believes. He expects more, always. And he’s usually right. I’m an easy touch, and he knows it. 

When people brought their children to Jesus so that he could lay hands upon them and pray, the disciples rebuked them for this intrusion on their master’s time. Jesus, however, knew better. He said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Mark’s version of the same scene adds that Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Then he took them up in his arms and blessed them.[2] The message is that children have a quality that makes them especially receptive to God’s presence and influence in their life. Many think that it is there innocence, but experience tells us that isn’t the case. If you’ve ever worked with a group of children, you will understand. William Golding wasn’t making it up when he wrote Lord of the Flies. What hinders us as adults is there from the beginning. Following too much the devices and desires of the heart, and offending against holy laws, is a trait that matures with age, but it is not acquired along the way. Self-interest is inherent to our kind, old or young.

 So what is it about children that Jesus praises? What quality gives them an advantage with respect to entering God’s kingdom? Well, I believe that it’s the same thing that my pal Walter has – namely, their expectancy.

Have you ever wondered why the children’s service of lessons and carols on Christmas Eve is so popular? Every year the attendance at the service is as large as Easter, and maybe that’s the point. Like Easter, the children’s service is flooded with hope. The children, whether they are portraying the holy family, serving as shepherds, sheep, magi, or choristers, are expectant. They trust that something wonderful is in store for them, and they are right. They are on the cusp of Christmas.

And, in a way, children always are. Perhaps it is their proximity to their own birth that makes the connection to the baby born in Bethlehem so immediate and fresh. Maybe it is their dependence on their mother and father that renders them so open, and ready to receive what Advent promises, and delivers. Whatever it is that prepares them to regard that holy night with expectancy, children’s faces radiate an awe that inspires the rest of us to believe what they believe is about to happen. That’s why there is standing room only at that cherished service. We hope that what they have is contagious, and lasting, because the world in which we live has sufficient harshness and pain to dampen hope and harden hearts.  

One of the strongest and most prevalent themes in Scripture is that God is gracious. That great truth is the foundation of our relationship with God and with one another. Grace is something that we can count on always, for God’s goodness and mercy is everlasting. Some of God’s creatures sense that truth more readily than others. Being open, remaining attentive, and trusting the power of grace enhances the ability to live into it. The Shakers made this very connection in the words of their lovely hymn, “Simple gifts,” which begins:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.[3]

 Their hope was that the uncomplicated life may be the access to the kingdom of heaven. Grace is the simplest and the most precious of God’s gifts. Even though it cannot be earned, or purchased, or merited, grace is God’s continuous offer to us. Advent eyes see its power at work.

John the Baptist had those eyes. Even in the darkness of his prison cell, he could see the dawning of God’s gracious light. John wasn’t dubious, he was expectant. He wasn’t looking past Jesus to find someone more suited to being the Messiah than he. John was anxious to get on with it. Jesus understood, and he loved the man who had prepared the way for the Messiah. John was looking into the future with expectancy. The report that he got from his disciples was that it had begun.

May the God of grace give us eyes to see, and to believe, that the one who was to come is with us – now and forever. Amen.

[1] Matthew 3:16b-17, Revised Standard Version.

[2] Jesus’ blessing of the children is found in Matthew 19:13-15 and Mark 10:13-16.

[3] ‘Simple gifts” was composed in 1848 by Elder Joseph at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine.