The Third Sunday of Advent

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Matthew 11:2-11

Picture, for a moment, John the Baptist in Herod’s dungeon. He stirs from sleep and kicks at a rat nibbling on the thong of his leather sandal. He takes a bite of stale bread, sips from a cup bad tasting water. Out of the shadows, he hears the murmuring of other inmates. Then, one of them nudges John—the new prisoner—and asks the inevitable question: Hey man, what’cha in for? Insurrection? Murder? Robbery?

John ponders the question more deeply than he thought he would, because he himself would like to know; and because he knows that telling a cell full of inmates that he is in prison for preaching, or better yet, because Herod couldn’t stand a good example haunting his way of life, ought to fetch quite a laugh. And suddenly, John gets the idea that he will be as hard to place in the prison hierarchy as he has been in traditional society.

Before, John had always felt assured about his life as an “action prophet,” who had both announced the word of the Lord and led a popular movement of repentance. He never had a question about his place in the scheme of things—as a preparer of the way. Never a doubt about his identity or purpose. But now the doubts, like the rats at his feet, begin to gnaw at his soul.

A lump forms in his throat, the same thunderous throat that had convicted hundreds in a single day to repent and be cleansed of sin in the River Jordan. He remains silent. The prisoners will get no answer.

The clear, clarion call he had received from God—and had obeyed in the desert—has now darkened in the stark numbness of imprisonment. This fiery prophet who had proclaimed with abandon and compelling certainty, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near” must now wonder, “What kingdom?” “How near is it, really?”

Whereas many before had thought of him as the returned Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah, now they must wonder who he really is . . . and so must John himself. His life and ministry had been radically put into question.
Where is God?
Have Herod and the Jerusalem establishment triumphed?
Has it all been in vain?
Was he just another pretender-prophet (a confused, delusional man) whose message (or delusion) had captured the imagination of the masses for a while, but had proven, in the long run, as empty as the Judean wilderness from which he had come?

Would it be too much to imagine that at this hour, John, in his cell, like Jesus on the cross, would have been quoting the psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This is not the picture of a supernatural faith hero, filled with stony resolve and tranquil with certainty, singing over and over the words of Blessed Assurance. In his predicament, John more nearly resembles Woody Allen in the movie Love and Death , who says, “If God would just speak to me–just once. If I could see a miracle. If I could just see a burning bush or the seas part. Or my uncle Sasha pick up the check!” John needs some validation. He needs blessed assurance that all of this has been about—that it is about—God’s business. God’s plan for the world.

But John is not so single-mindedly sure of God’s plan anymore (or his place in it, or Jesus’ for that matter.) If that were not the case, then why would he have told some of his disciples to go and find Jesus and ask him, “Are
you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And, in a very real sense, John asks this life-determining, life-validating question on behalf of us all. Are you, Jesus, the One or should we wait for another?

John the Baptist is thrust into what St. John of the Cross called “dis-illusionment,” the process of ridding oneself of illusions in order to experience the great awakening of which Jesus Christ is Lord.

Jesus was different from what John was expecting, no doubt, different from what John was hoping for in the Messiah. He had to rid himself of his own preconceptions and misconceptions and re-adjust his vision to fit the reality of what Jesus and the kingdom were about.

In his way, John in the bowels of Herod’s jail found the Advent hope that is in Jesus Christ. And that is why John stands as a symbol and prototype of Advent hope. He lives in the lightless world between what is and what is hoped for. He is a captive, and in the void of his captivity, he looks for a Deliverer.

So he sends his followers to find out if, indeed, Jesus is God’s deliverance–for himself and Israel. Even though he is more than a prophet—for among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist—he is not spared, any more than we are, the pangs of agonizing doubt, or the hunger for saving truth. Like the rest of us, he needs a Savior.

If Advent doesn’t remind each one of us of this same need, if Santa and “holiday cheer” provide a cultural egg nog to keep us from feeling our lostness and our need to be set free from the power of evil, then the spiritual significance of the Incarnation has been lost.We are lost, and we ask,

“Are you the one who is to come, or do we wait for another?” Jesus, through John’s disciples, sends his answer. Interestingly, he doesn’t tell John authoritatively and decisively, “I am the Messiah.” Instead, he invites John to consider what his messengers “see and hear.” Because it is only in the encounter with Jesus, and the experience of his power to release and restore, to free and to heal, that people come to deep, lasting faith.

Who experiences this ultimate Mystery? Is it the well-put-together? The self-satisfied? The fulfilled? Is it the competent and contented? No.
It is, like John, the overpowered, the overwhelmed. The undone, the disconnected, the downtrodden, the defeated.

More specifically, its recipients are the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, and the poor. They are the ones who because they are “poor in spirit,” can find and enter the kingdom of heaven through Jesus. They are the ones who “take no offense” at Jesus, which, for us in our day and our time, might well mean those who do not “lose” Jesus in the frenzy of the holiday rush, or resent him for his calling us to wait –to wait for his coming and resist the world’s rush to Christmas –to seek out and listen more closely for the angels voices than the chorus of cash registers echoing through the local mall.

Advent is a time for preparing and opening ourselves to receive the gifts of faith and hope. Of deliverance from our prisons of doubt, of freedom from chains that bind and walls that separate us from God and one another.

And so these Advent weeks, we wait. We continue to await the coming of the Messiah, again, but with the knowledge that the kingdom of God is at hand.

That is Christ’s message—to John and to us. Everyone who seeks it can find it. No special preparation is needed, no special belief in this or that. Only to turn from darkness to light, –only to start in that direction.

Sometimes we, like John the Baptist, will lose our way, maybe lose our vision of who Jesus is, but if we open our eyes to the reality of Christ, our vision becomes clear again.

Let us rejoice, as believers, that we can, by God’s grace, boldly affirm our faith—and, without compromise, clear away the things that hinder us in our spiritual growth.

Let us open our eyes and our ears. And let us with our lives proclaim the Good News of the kingdom of God—the coming of Christ our Messiah.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.