By The Rev. Sherry Deets
3 Advent – December 15, 2013
We might call it a “Dorothy” moment. We pull the curtain back to find that the person we trusted, the one we depended on, the one who raised our hopes, has let us down. We endured the dangers and journey of the “yellow brick road” because we believed someone’s advice or teaching or wisdom. But then we find out we don’t really know someone we thought we knew. Dorothy pulled back the curtain to find a befuddled, helpless old man. We may experience more than disappointment. We may have our faith truly crushed by betrayal. Our Dorothy moment may come in the mug shot of a hero splashed across the newspaper. It may come in the realization of the weakness of someone we considered strong. It may come in the confession of the beloved pastor, hanging his head, announcing resignation surrounded by scandal. Just like in The Wizard of Oz, we don’t want to believe what we see or hear. “How could this happen?” we stammer to no one.
Imagine John’s cell was dark and dank. Prison cells usually are. He paced back and forth, fettered less by his chains than by his misgivings. Allowed at last to see one of his followers, he sends the man to carry a message — a single question, really — that will settle his doubts once and for all. All that was left now was to wait, wait and see whether he had spent his life in vain.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
To be fair, John’s failure of confidence shouldn’t really surprise us. He is, after all, in prison and, so far, what he predicted and longed for has just not arrived. For when John announced the coming of God’s kingdom and proclaimed Jesus as God’s anointed, he expected the world to change; now, some months (or even years?) later, things seem all too dreadfully the same. To put it another way, what John saw in Jesus was the summation and climax of all God’s promises to Israel; now, sitting alone in a prison cell, he is still waiting for that promise to be kept. John is, at best, concerned and far more likely, disappointed.
Aren’t we also still waiting for the consummation of the Christmas promise? I mean, isn’t it precisely what is so wonderful about Christmas — the promises of peace on earth and goodwill among all — that is also so difficult about Christmas, as the headlines and sometimes even our homes regularly make it clear that peace and goodwill are as scarce commodities today as they were just a few months or years or millennia ago?
And so try as we might to deny the darkness of the season and our spirits by adding candles to the wreathe or presents under the tree, all it takes is the loss of a friend or a job or a loved one to prick our good-cheer bubble and leave us in a funk as dark and dank as John’s prison cell. And when this happens we too are at best concerned and far more often disappointed. Disappointed with ourselves, with the world, and even and especially with God, which feels all the worse at Christmastime.
With all this in mind, I wonder how John received Jesus’ answer. Quite frankly, I doubt it was very satisfying. Jesus instructs John’s disciples to go and tell him what they have heard and seen. What kind of answer was that? What John most likely looked for — and, if truth be told, what most of the time we look for too — is a strong Messiah for a strong people, a Messiah who helps those who help themselves, a Messiah who knows how to stand up for himself, a Messiah, in short, that you can be proud of.
What he gets instead is Jesus. And measured against John’s hopes and expectations, Jesus probably falls disappointingly short of the mark. I mean, let’s face it. The people Jesus seems preoccupied with — the lame, the deaf, the poor, the ill, and the dead, for heaven’s sake — these folks aren’t exactly the movers and shakers of the world, rather they are those who are moved and shaken by every whim of the rich and powerful. These people weren’t going to change things. They’re the social outcasts and economic losers of John’s day, the kind of people who can barely fend for themselves let alone help anyone else.
Why in the world, then, does Jesus make such a fuss about these folks when John, apparently at the end of his rope, asks for some sign, just some little indication, that Jesus is the One for whom John was waiting? Well … maybe it’s that all these folks do share one thing in common with John the Baptist, and that is their need.
Think about it. There’s John, pacing and pondering in his cell, who suddenly, despite his earlier fame, despite his charismatic personality, despite all his followers, despite even his mighty faith, nonetheless finds himself in a position of absolute need. And in this way he discovers that he is in complete solidarity with all those in need, with the poor and lame and outcast and all others who can boast of nothing except their dependence on God’s own grace and mercy and protection.
And here, I think, we find a clue to the last part of Jesus’ answer to John as well, the part about not being offended by Jesus. For to the degree to which we claim to have made it on our own, to not need anything we cannot earn or make or horde for ourselves, to that degree we will undoubtedly take offense at Jesus, this one born in a stable, laid in a feeding trough, and, ultimately, hanged on a cross for us. But, at just the same time, to the degree to which we admit our need and identify with all those who depend on God, to that degree we discover in Jesus a God who is, once and for all, for us.
This, in short, is what we prepare for during this season, as in Christ, our Emmanuel, God draws near in the flesh and blood of that poor babe to take on our lot and our life so that we may know of God’s promise to be with us and for us forever.
At those moments, we know that whatever our misgivings, whatever our disappointments, God is not disappointed in us and comes to us anyway, eager to join us in our weakness, to hold onto us in our insecurity, and to comfort us in our fear. For God in Jesus came not for the strong and the proud but the weak and vulnerable. God in Jesus, came for us.
So there is John, a few weeks short of Christmas, still pacing, pounding the few steps around his short prison space, wondering and worrying whether Jesus is really the one, when all of a sudden there is a knock, an entrance, and the delivery of the long-awaited response to a heartfelt question. “John,” I imagine his disciple telling him, “Jesus told me to tell you that 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 him.”
I wonder if John got it. I wonder if we will….
“Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” I wonder if Jesus’ response is a way of saying don’t get tripped up on all this Messiah stuff. You might be pinning your hopes on someone dropping on to the scene to magically fix things and make everything all right. POOF. Well, if that is what you are counting on, stop counting. It does not work that way. You are in this too. You have a part to play in making these hopes real.
“Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Barbara Brown Taylor, a wonderful preacher interprets the passage this way. She writes, “People who were blind to the love loose in the world have received their sight; people who were paralyzed with fear are limber with hope; people who were deaf from want of good news are singing hymns. And best and most miraculous of all, tell John that this is not the work of one lonely Messiah but the work of God, carried out by all who believe, and there is no end in sight. Tell him I am the one, if you must, but tell him also that yes, he should look for another, and another, and another. Tell him to search every face for the face of God and not get tripped up on me, because what is happening here is bigger than any of us. What is coming to pass is as big as the Kingdom of God.”
In January of 2007, The Washington Post videotaped the reactions of commuters at a D.C. Metro (subway) stop to the music of a violinist. The overwhelming majority of the 1000+ commuters were too busy to stop. A few did, briefly, and some of those threw a couple of bills into the violin case of the street performer. No big deal, just an ordinary day on the Metro. Except it wasn’t an ordinary day. The violinist wasn’t just another street performer; he was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s finest concert violinists, playing his multi-million dollar Stradivarius. Three days earlier he had filled Boston’s Symphony Hall with people paying $100/seat to hear him play similar pieces. The question the Post author and many others since have asked is simple: Have we been trained to recognize beauty outside the contexts we expect to encounter beauty? Or, to put it another way, can we recognize great music anywhere outside of a concert hall? Or, to put it another way, can we recognize Christ in our midst?
Yes, Jesus is the One, but keep looking, there are many, many others. Search for the face of God in each other. Such is the Kingdom of God. Christ is birthed in us, again and again and again. Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.
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