A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

by Louise Browner Blanchard, Rector

The Third Sunday of Advent

Matthew 11:2-11

 “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Today, that’s the question a very different John the Baptist from the one we saw last week asks the disciples to ask Jesus. A week ago, huge crowds from Jerusalem and throughout Judea were converging on him in the wilderness, clamoring for him to baptize them in the River Jordan. He was full of bravado: dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, and exhorting those who came to see him to repent. He was a prophet, fully aware of the power that he wielded. He also knew what he was talking about: someone more powerful than he was coming. 

John had recognized that that more powerful person was Jesus since before either of them was born. It was John the Baptist who leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when a pregnant Mary visited, John who fulfilled the prophecy to “prepare the way of the Lord,” John who saw the heavens open and the Spirit of God descend on the newly baptized Jesus, and John who heard the voice of God declare, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

But now John’s not so sure. He’s alone in a prison cell, far more subdued than the confident wild man who confronted us last week. His outspokenness had eventually offended Herod, the Roman-appointed king of Judea, who imprisoned him. The time in prison has taken its toll, and the John we see today is vulnerable and in distress. He’s heard about the growth of Jesus’s ministry—the preaching and the healing, the disciples—but here he sits alone in jail, facing the likelihood of his death by gruesome execution. Is this what the coming of the Messiah means for him? Is this what it means to “prepare the way of the Lord”? It’s not surprising that John feels forgotten, even forsaken. He can’t help but ask for some reassurance: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

It’s a question that comes up for most of us sooner or later. We’re doing the best we can, living as faithfully as we know how. Some of us may do so better than others, or at least appear to, but the truth is that we want to be good children, siblings, spouses, parents, and friends. Most of us make the world a better place. We want to help those less fortunate than we and contribute to the betterment of society. We want to embrace the notion that the best is yet to come. For many of us, our faith helps us make sense of how to do that, both in the ways that it prescribes a path for living and in the ways that it offers comfort along the way. 

That is, until it doesn’t. We may escape the imprisonment that John the Baptist endured, but more of us than we can imagine will endure the less visible imprisonment of abuse, addiction, depression, and despair. And sooner or later, all of our worlds are invaded by disease and death, accidents and disasters that simply don’t make sense. The world can be a very scary place. At some point, even the most faithful among us find ourselves doubting and questioning, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

It’s as good a question as any to ask on this third Sunday of Advent. Traditionally, this Sunday is known as Gaudete Sunday, gaudete being Latin for rejoice. It marks the turning point of the season, when we focus less on preparing ourselves to be worthy of the incarnate Christ, and rejoice more in the promise that he will come again. Often such rejoicing requires some intention on our part: we don’t just receive joy; we have to cultivate it, to look for it, to practice it.

It’s one of the reasons that we celebrate Advent, this season of light, during the darkest time of the year—to practice seeing light in the darkness. The collect with which we start the season begins “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light…” We practice casting way and putting on by looking for the light in these dark days, in the faint light of dawn and the vivid paint colors of dusk. We practice by lighting a new candle each Sunday of Advent and turning on candles in the windows and lights on the trees. We practice by reminding ourselves that we are looking for how God is at work in the world now toward the fulfillment of God’s greater promise for all time. 

In answer to John’s question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus reminds the disciples to show John some light, to tell him what they hear and see: that in the midst of the darkness of Herod’s reign, 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. In the midst of the darkness of Herod’s reign, Jesus and the disciples invite John to see that God is at work in the world.

Advent reminds us to do the same. It is easy to be sure that Jesus is the one when everything is going well, and blessings seem abundantly clear. It is much harder when darkness descends. So practice. Practice being and seeing the light, for yourself and for those who can’t see through the darkness themselves. Jesus indeed is the one who is to come. Rejoice!