3 Advent – December 11, 2016
So, today we hear that John the Baptist is in prison. 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 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.
Now, 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; because 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 wreath 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. 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 that you can be proud of.
What he gets instead is Jesus.
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,” we 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 is 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. 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 is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and well-known 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.”
Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners and one of the true prophets of hope in today’s world, has a wonderful way of illustrating this. Politicians, he says, are all of a kind. A politician holds up his finger in the wind, checks which way the wind is blowing, and then votes that way. It generally doesn’t help, Wallis says, to change the politicians because those who replace them do exactly the same thing. They too make their decisions according to the wind. And so, “We need to change the wind!” The wind will change the politicians.
How does it work? Wallis uses the example of the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was not brought down by guns or violence or even by changing the politicians, but by changing the wind. How? In the face of racial injustice, people of faith began to pray together and, as a sign of their hope that one day the evil of apartheid would be overcome, they lit candles and placed them in their windows so that their neighbors, the government, and the whole world would see their belief. And their government did see. They passed a law making it illegal, a politically subversive act, to light a candle and put it in your window. It was seen as a crime, as serious as owning and flaunting a gun. The irony of this was not missed by the children. At the height of the struggle against apartheid, the children of Soweto had a joke: “Our government,” they said, “is afraid of lit candles!”
It had reason to be. Eventually those burning candles, and the prayer and hope behind them, changed the wind in South Africa. Morally shamed by its own people, the government conceded that apartheid was wrong and dismantled it without a war, brought down by lit candles backed by hope and prayer.(Ron Rolheiser, “ADVENT HOPE,” 11/28/04) But those candles did not light themselves. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Among the Jews who celebrate Passover, there is a tradition of saving a seat at their Seder feast for Elijah, the prophet who is supposed to bring the news that the Messiah has finally come, and the one to whom Jesus compared John. At a poignant moment in the service, the door is flung open for Elijah and everyone falls silent with anticipation. For thousands of years that door has been opened, and for thousands of years all that has entered has been the wind.
One Hasidic story tells of a pious Jew who asked his rabbi, “For about forty years I have opened the door for Elijah every Seder night, waiting for him to come, but he never does. What is the reason?”
The rabbi answered, “In your neighborhood there lives a very poor family with many children. Call on the man and propose to him that you and your family celebrate the next Passover at his house, and for this purpose provide him and his whole family with everything necessary for the eight days of Passover. Then on the Seder night Elijah will certainly come.”
The man did as the rabbi told him, but after Passover he came back and claimed that again he had waited in vain to see Elijah. The rabbi answered, “I know very well that Elijah came on the Seder night to the house of your poor neighbor. But of course you could not see him.” And the rabbi held a mirror before the face of the man and said, “Look, this was Elijah’s face that night.”(Barbara Brown Taylor)
Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else? Are you the one? Are you the one? Amen.