Sermon for Advent 3, Sunday, December 11 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Is 35:1-10; Lk 1:47-55; Jas 5:7-10; Mt 11:2-11
Last week’s gospel showed us John the Baptist at the height of his prophetic conviction, on the banks of the Jordan, preaching fire and wrath to the leaders of his time. Today we see John in prison, helpless, no longer a force in the world but only a mortal man in the hands of imperial power, probably knowing that his own death is near; and we see John wondering if he has been wrong, if it has all been wasted, if all that fire has burned out into futility.
For the one he had named as greater than himself, the one he had named as the Messiah, is not coming with wrath, is not, at least apparently, hurling down the hierarchies of oppression. He is wandering around the backwater towns, touching lepers and unclean women, raising the dead daughters and servants of the powerful, consorting with tax collectors and sinners, and it is all extremely unspectacular, and often politically ambiguous, and in all ways not much like cleansing with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John would not, in his lifetime, see this Messiah hand himself over to death at the hands of the empire and the Temple, but he had seen or heard enough that he was uncertain.
We cannot blame John for being confused. We all ought to be confused by the gospel sometimes, because the gospel is confusing, it is meant to be, it is a challenge to all human constructions, and while the constructions of prophetic justice seem to me to get much closer to the truth than some others, we are all confounded by the unimaginable reality of the incarnate Word of God, that creative, indiscriminate, demanding love.
But God’s word does not change, has not changed, not from the moment that word spoke meaning into the void at creation; and this is part of the message which Jesus directs John’s followers to take back to the prison cell. The work which he is doing is the work named in the prophetic tradition to which John belonged, named by Isaiah and the psalmist. Those broken in body or heart are offered healing; the poor, the outcast, the discards of society are offered good news. And this is the good news—that we are not forgotten. It may be delayed in coming, it may come strangely. But all the lost will be gathered in, there will be no more harm, the desert will blossom, life will spring up out of ruin and death. The word is still working in the world. The word is still telling this story.
And if we say that all the lost are brought home, this means as well those lost in the dreams of power and status and material comfort, bankers, oil executives, indifferent or hate-filled politicians. It means the centurion and the leader of the Temple, seeing their dead restored to them, seeing that life is uncontrollable and impossible and may even belong to them too, may reach into the dead lands of their souls and bring change and new growth. Limping and grieving, we are all meant to be brought home from our exile. It did not seem to for John, it does not seem so now. But the word goes on speaking.
Do not fear, says Isaiah. It is the constant instruction of the scriptures—do not be afraid. And I believe that Jesus intends for John to remember that as well, when he alludes to that passage. Do not be afraid, though it seems that all has fallen away, though the prison holds you, though death is near. Do not be afraid. God’s word is moving. The long arc of the universe is still bending.
Say it to the anxious prophet in his cell. Say it to each other, to yourselves. Do not be afraid.
It is not easy. For John is not the forerunner only of Christ’s birth, or Christ’s life; he is also the forerunner in death. He too will, and very soon in the narrative now, go unresisting to be murdered by corruption and power; he will go to death having spent his last days attempting to engage the venal imperial ruler in moral conversation. And he will do this with, as far as he knows, no promise at all of resurrection. He, a human being only, will go to his death as if this whole passionate, exhausting, dangerous life of ethical demand had been wholly wasted. The courage of John in this is very real, and it is recognized by Jesus—this man, if not wholly right, if always difficult, is not a reed blown in the wind, is not a glamorous celebrity or a comfortable artist of evasion, but a prophet and more than a prophet. The one who, in his imperfect human way, walks first the path which the Word will walk after him.
And the reversal Jesus predicts is really no more than a statement that John’s prophecies will be fulfilled, that justice will, somehow, someday, prevail; that in the kingdom of heaven John will no longer need to be exceptional or angry, will no longer need to resist, will be able to lay that burden and that courage down.
The courage of John, this persistent struggle in the face of doubt and failure, is something like the courage which may be demanded of us; the courage to endure, to know that we may not see in this life what our lives have meant, that we may not see in this life restoration. We observe Advent for about four weeks every year. But in some quite real sense, we are always living in Advent. We are waiting, waiting here in the hands of empire, uncertain, hopeful, not knowing if that hope will be answered. Trying to believe. Watching the horizon for the dawn, after the longest of nights.
Be patient, therefore, beloved. The spring will come, the early rain and the late rain. But the patience which James counsels is not the patience of inaction—the letter of James is all about doing, about faith expressed in work, and it is interesting that he shifts the metaphors of Isaiah, in which the desert flowers miraculously and apparently without the intervention of human hands, into the metaphor of agriculture, in which human labour must collaborate with weather and chance and the cycles of time in order for the crops to grow.
So we must possess our souls in patience, refusing to give in to dreams of wrath and revenge, learning to sit still; and at the same time get on with the work that must done—whether this means speaking unwelcome truths to power, and calling out the abuses of our society, or feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, giving the lonely and rejected a place where they are welcome, where there may be warmth and care, a cup of coffee, a piece of bread. Tending the desert until it may rejoice, learning the song, reaching out of whatever small strength we may have to offer that strength to others. To say, do not be afraid. Do not give up. It is a long time coming, but at least right now we are in this together.
This is the Sunday called Gaudete, “Rejoice.” And we do, we construct our rejoicing here. Because in small acts of kindness between strangers, we see the promise of the great transformation. Because we can still recognize, still find in each other, the love we have always longed for without knowing it. And we rejoice because we can find it in ourselves to heal and change, because we can love and fail and try again and again to get it right. We rejoice because even the children of wealth and privilege can be given the possibility of new life, and can stand up, and join that human community which struggles towards justice. Because life springs up, because there is hope in a tree.
Because God has come as love’s offering, and will come again as the rain, as the spring. And in all of our prisons, and in all of our many deaths, we will still reach out, towards the home we have never and always known, to which all our longing tends.