Isaiah 35, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11
The lectionary texts for the third Sunday in advent are strange texts; if we presume that advent is all about the coming of a baby to Bethlehem long ago. The advent season, however, is also a time to cast our minds into the future, and to cause us to think of the return of Christ.
Our first reading is from Isaiah 35.
In the darkest days of Judah’s life, when faced with Babylonian captivity, Isaiah speak of the days that shall follow that terrible tragedy. He promises days of hope; days of joy; days when life will be peaceful and prosperous.
His closing lines are:
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Isaiah stands with most of the other prophets, who also tell of coming disaster, but also announce hope beyond that crisis. Gloom and doom are to be followed with joy and peace.
The song of Mary in Luke chapter 1 resonates with that very theme.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
Zechariah (Luke 1:67-73ff) is exhilarated by the very same conviction
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of oldthat we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Our Gospel reading, from Matthew 11, is also a strange one for Advent.
John has been arrested and imprisoned. What a strange turn of events for a child of such promise! Hear what is said about John at the beginning of his life.
But the angel said to Zechariah, “Do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. …. even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Luke 1:67, 76-79
Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy…And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
All of his life John was reminded that he will be great, and God will use him to redeem Israel. And then comes the day when Jesus is baptized by him and the Kingdom of God is inaugurated. Great days: days filled with hope and high expectation.
But now, he has been arrested and is in prison, and will soon die, beheaded by Herod on a whim. (Matthew 14).
And while in prison, John grows impatient and disappointed. The dream is shattered. Despair settles in.
What has John heard that discourages him? Year one of Jesus’ active ministry is often called the “year of obscurity”. Maybe he has heard next to nothing. Jesus is away in the Galilee, wandering from town to town teaching the common folk. Where is the warrior King who comes in the power of God? John thinks, maybe I was mistaken. Did I induct the wrong guy? So he sends some of his followers to seek out Jesus and ask him “Are you the One? Or should we be looking for someone else?”
John has long been living with some misunderstanding. When John in his preaching describes the work of the expected Messiah, he uses the language of violence. His sermon begins with the words “You brood of vipers! Who has warned you to flee from the coming wrath.” In his mind the axe is already laid at the root of the tree, ready to cut it down, to be thrown into the fire and consumed. The Messiah will not baptize with water, he says, but with unquenchable fire that will burn up the chaff. (Luke 3:4-17)
John is presuming that Jesus has come to bring an end to all that is evil. He expects him to be a militant messiah, not a school teacher, not a physician.
Jesus thinks the world of John. Admired him enormously. Hear his words again:
“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.”
None greater … But… The least in the Kingdom is “greater” than John. What does that mean? We are not entirely sure, except that the New Testament reminds us over and over again, that all the prophets looked forward to the day that is only now dawning, but were not able to perceive the full nature of what God would do in the fulness of time. They had not sat at the feet of Jesus to hear how he revised both the law and the prophets. They had not encountered the death and resurrection of Jesus, that would change how God would be seen for the rest of Christian history.
John is mistaken about how the Messiah will save the world. But Jesus offers some words to nudge John back to hope.
“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 the one who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus words to John resonate with Isaiah 35. Hear the list Isaiah gives us:
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy”.
Jesus & John have very different perspectives
John may have been impatient. He expected immediate results. Wind, fire, and earthquake. But not a still small voice. He expected, a warrior King who came conquering, not an itinerant teacher.
But Jesus is prepared to work slow motion. For 30 years he has done nothing it seems. Then there will be 2 or 3 years when he does little, except heal a few, raise a few, deliver a few, and teach a few. BUT… He has come to plant a Kingdom, not to be a King. Have you noticed in his teachings his use of agricultural images:
- He speaks of a sower who went out to sow,
- He talks about a mustard seed that is so small,
- He describes the kingdom of God as grain that grows first the blade, and then the ear, and then the full corn in the ear.
- And t hen to top it all off he speaks of wheat and weed that will grow together until the end of all things.
For Jesus has come to make a start, but not an end. He is content to start with a dozen disciples, with seventy more some weeks later. He has come to start something that will start small and yet will grow down the years and decades and centuries and millennia. It will be a very human movement, while very much divine. It will stumble and fail, and recover and rebuild.
So where and when will it all end? No one knows: the “signs of the Time” are not signs of the end, but signs of what will take place during the long interim between when he speaks his words, and the end of the world.
Here is what he says as recorded by Matthew (24:3-14)
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famine and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
“Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.
This good news is to be announced to all nations. And we are chosen to be his co-workers., working alongside of him, and by his Holy Spirit, to change the world one life at a time.
So what is advent all about? The church prepares itself to celebrate his coming in Bethlehem, but also prepares itself for the full realization of his kingdom and the return of Christ. But we remind ourselves during advent, that we live between the comings of Christ. We remind ourselves of the starting point in Bethlehem, and in his life, his teachings, and his death and resurrection – and then, turn our eyes to the immediate future, but not with pessimism or impatience, but in hope and faith with love towards all.
Hear the exhortation of James (5:7-10)
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient.
Advent is for waiting expectantly; longing for the full realization. It sees the ideal, and is unwilling to settle for less, but while we wait, we work nudging ourselves and our community in the right direction of his great dream for us.
This message was delivered on the day of the funeral for Nelson Mandela. He launched something dramatic and nation-changing through his life, his sufferings, and through his leadership. He began a revolution. The right seeds were sown. The right example set. And some of us hope that he will he accomplish more in his death than in his life, like Samson.
But the critics are gathering. South Africa still has terrible problems! Right. But Mandela and his co-workers made a great beginning, and others are left to spread forgiveness and reconciliation across South Africa, and some of us hope, to all Africa, and all nations, including even the USA and Canada. May it be so!