11 Dec 2016
“Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isa. 35:10) In the name …
I’ve mentioned several times from this pulpit that when reading the Bible it is the difficult passages that are often the most historically accurate passages. This is not something I invented; this is how current biblical studies work. No writer is going to make up something that is hard to explain or that doesn’t fit neatly into the basic story-line. Every word of the New Testament was written after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and that hindsight colours the biblical account. So those hard to explain passages, the ones that don’t yell out the usual Jesus themes, are the ones that go right back to the earliest history of Jesus. And one of these gems is in today’s Gospel. We all know the stories of John the Baptist and Jesus. John is absolutely sure of who Jesus is according to the familiar tradition of the church. There can be no doubt when the heavens part and God’s voice declares Jesus to be His Son. So after John witnesses this, how do we explain what happens in today’s reading? John is imprisoned and the end of his life is not far off. He sends some of his own disciples, people who are still following him instead of Jesus, he send them to Jesus and he tells them to ask, “‘Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?’” (Matt. 11:3)
This again reinforces the theme that in Jesus God has surprised us one and all. Jesus was not who John had expected the Messiah to be. Remember last Sunday’s reading? John is out in the wilderness preaching: “‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’” (Matt. 3:7) These are the words of an angry prophet sharing the words of a vengeful God. Then comes Jesus born in humble circumstance and preaching a gospel message of love, compassion and forgiveness. John simply couldn’t figure Him out, and thus the reason for his question: “Are you the one?” There’s that Advent theme again that ours is a God of surprises.
But here’s the kicker. After John’s disciples leave, Jesus explains John to the crowds, and says of him: “‘This is the one about whom it is written, “I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”’” (Matt 11:10) And John had just asked, “Are you the one?” Today’s Advent candle is the candle of joy. That’s why the third candle is the rose candle. The penitential colour of purple is lightened by the theme of approaching joy as we get ever closer to the surprise of Bethlehem. But what’s so joyous about a man of God, near death, wondering if Jesus is the one he has been waiting for or if he should look for another? There’s no certainty of belief to latch onto at the end of life. There’s no assurance for John that his ministry was at all successful. He has to be wondering if he got everything wrong in his life. How is this part of the message of Advent joy?
Before I take this further, let me tell you about last Sunday afternoon. I attended the celebration-gathering of South Deerfield Congregational Church. They will be closing their doors sadly in January and this was their celebration of nearly 200 years of life. The parishioners were encouraged to share their stories. And one woman mentioned how she loved Rev. Will Sencabaugh’s Humour Sundays, which he usually held around April Fools Day. She retold one of his jokes because it had so surprised and stunned her coming out of her minister’s mouth in the Sanctuary. It was cute, but I’m not brave enough to repeat it from up here. After she retold the joke all these years later, and after all of us laughed, Rev. Will chimed in that she probably didn’t remember any of the messages in his sermons, but somehow she still remembered this joke he once told six years earlier. We just never know how what we say or what we do will live-on after it’s out of our control.
Now back to John the Baptist. The message of joy that I hear in the confusion of John is the message that even when we don’t see or envision the good we are doing or the impression we’re making, that God can still be working through us. I find much joy in the idea that God can use any of us and all of us for His greater good even if we don’t realize how, even if we don’t realize now. Things don’t always have to go as we expect for the God of surprises to be acting through us. John was anticipating an angry God and instead he got Jesus. I don’t have the time to go into now, but there’s a real possibility that John prepared the way for Jesus by exposing Jesus to this message of any angry God and having Jesus realize that’s not my God. John pulls away from society and preaches of the fire to come, and maybe Jesus listened and realized this wasn’t His God, and maybe this is why Jesus did the opposite of John and sought out everyone, the sinners, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the diseased, the despised, the ordinary, and told them all about a God of love. Maybe John prepared the way for Jesus, but in a way John would never have expected.
I love this God of surprises and that’s why I love this season of Advent, of preparing in our lives for the unexpected coming of God into our world. There’s much joy to be found in the promise that we don’t know everything about God, His world plans or even His plans for us. This leaves the door open for God to continually surprise us and challenge us. Confusion is possible and I hope we’re beginning to see that it is even inevitable, but this just means we need to take the next step toward God and keep looking. May this be our Advent prayer of continuing joyful surprise, in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo