Sermon for Third Sunday of Advent, Sunday, December 15 2019, 10:30 am
Gerlyn Henry, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 1:47-55; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
I’ve been thinking about what it must have been like in the early days of John, the Baptizer.
Actually, and this isn’t the main point of the sermon, but I’ve been thinking about the similarities between the early days of John the Baptizer, and the early days of Nelson Mandela.
I’m no expert on Mandela, but it seems like the two men share some similarities in the early parts of their public lives. Both passionate, charismatic, rigid, righteous, both okay with upsetting the social order, okay with causing trouble. Both pointing the way to a new and better future.
What’s interesting to me is that we know how Mandela’s life changed, how his mission evolved, how his message expanded, but we don’t get to know that about John the Baptizer. He didn’t get the opportunity to age. What would he have done in the second half of his life?
Would his personality have softened, his message expanded, or would he have remained as pure, defiant, and rigid as he was when he first walked out of the wilderness? It seems more than just a little tragic that, thanks to Herod, we’ll never know.
Still, it must have been cool to be John.
Think about it: John the Baptizer, Judea’s first rock star in centuries. He comes blowing in out of the wilderness, all attitude and righteousness, sort of an old guitar: 3 chords, and the truth kind of charisma. We all know what that truth is: you brood of vipers, the messiah is coming. Repent and be baptized.
He says he’s been out on the road all this time, playing little clubs here and there in the wilderness, waiting until he’s ready for the big event – the baptizing in the Jordan, after which in his mind, everything changes and we all live into the kingdom of God.
Nobody was more charismatic than John. He managed to point to the future while staying very rooted in the present. Even when it was all over, Jesus told the crowds,
“I’ve got disciples. I’ve got friends. But there – there walked a prophet.”
For that one shining season, John got to stand tall and tell the truth to anybody who crossed his path – and he made us like it. He called us a brood of vipers, right to our face.
He said, “The Messiah is coming, people.
Do you want to know how to be ready?
- This is pretty complicated, so pay attention.
- “If you have two coats, give one to somebody who doesn’t.”
- But all that righteousness carries a price.
John’s act starts to wear a little thin and when he calls out Herod, he learns that crowds of spectators are not the same thing as legions of soldiers.
John is not a rock star in all his glory when we meet him this morning.
Nobody listens to John, the prisoner, and all that time spent pointing the way is starting to seem, to John, like a sad, joke.
And John the prisoner, stripped of his influence, stripped of his dignity, sits in his cell, and he sends a message to Jesus, with just one question: “Are you really the Messiah? Or are we to wait for another?”
That sounds like a theological question. I don’t think it is.
I think what John is really asking is a personal question: Was it all for nothing? Is this how my life ends?
John needs to know because if God is the King of Creation and Jesus is the Messiah, then John can face death without regret. If God is really God, then John is right to say that the rule of God demands that if you have 2 coats you must give one away to someone who has no coat.
But if John’s wrong, then the 1 man, 1 coat principle only applies if you can convince enough people to vote for it.
We face the same question, though we rarely face a death sentence by our answer.
If God is King, then standing up here, then kneeling right there, then giving our money and our time as an act of devotion makes us loving servants.
But if God is not King, then that makes us a nice social club, useful to a point but frankly a little silly, eating bread and drinking wine like it’s anything more than bread…and wine.
If God is not King then Christian duty and devotion are simply diversions to be tolerated by the powerful as long as it doesn’t interfere with anything that matters.
Back to John.
Jesus does not answer John’s disciples by asking “Who’s your King?”. Instead, Jesus says, ask this – “What do you 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.
- Are lives changed by following Jesus?
- Do his people strive to love deeper, to be kinder to one another?
- Do we as the church hold the hands of the dying?
* Do we serve the hungry?
* Do we become healers?
- Are we spending our time living in the kingdom of God? Are we looking to see the ways that God is manifesting Godself in the world?
Maybe what we’re called to do most of all is to have a narrative of hope in the face of all that the world can show us.
Kindness can’t prove the existence of God or the Messiahship of Jesus.
There is no proof. What we get is belief.
And the way we hold onto that belief is to hold onto a narrative of hope when the world tries to convince you it’s all a lie.
We are called to go out into the world and see the truth of it, all the joy and love, all the despair and hate, and seeing every bit of it, proclaim the greatness of the Lord.
We are to look at the world exactly as it really is, and still proclaim God’s redeeming act through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If we get caught in the precursor to Jesus’ manifestation, we will miss the manifestation. If we stop looking when we notice in our world, the poor, the widowed, the dead, the imprisoned, we will struggle to see how the Good News of Jesus Christ that releases the captive, raises the dead and takes care of the poor and widowed. In that gap between seeing the world and responding to the world, lies both doubt and hope.
There’s a famous photograph, now kind of an old photograph, of a young HIV/AIDS activist named David Kirby dying in the early nineties.
The photo shows him as he takes his last breaths, surrounded by his grieving parents and his little sister, and his dying face kind of looks like the face of Christ on our stained glass window.
Ever since I first saw that photograph, I have seen it as a picture of great suffering, of Christ suffering with this young man. But maybe there’s something about this narrative of hope that has changed me.
I realize now I see the photograph a little differently.
I see in the face of David Kirby the face of Christ. I see, right there with the grieving parents and little sister, the face of Christ.
David still died, but he didn’t die alone. Christ was with him.
His parents still grieved, but they didn’t grieve alone.
Christ was right there with them.
John the baptizer was a great prophet.
Jesus said no one born of woman was greater than John the Baptist, but Jesus also said that even the least person who is living in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John.
John the Baptizer was right. Jesus was living into the message that John preached.
May WE, in this Advent season, look forward to the kingdom of heaven by living in it, right here and right now.