Isaiah 35.1-10 – Magnificat – James 5.7-10 – Matthew 11.2-11
‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’
Well, we are now halfway through advent. This third Sunday, is known as “Gaudete” or “Rejoice” Sunday, because of the first Latin word of the traditional introit of the day – Gaudete in domino semper – Rejoice in the Lord always. We feel joy because the celebration of the birth of Jesus is now in sight. Only two more weeks to wait.
So, with the church around the world, we celebrate this milestone by lighting the pink candle on our advent wreath, and wearing pink vestments to mark that joy.
However, the gospel reading set for this morning speaks less of joy than we might anticipate, and instead more about the darkness that also surrounds this season.
In the gospel reading, we find John the Baptist languishing in prison. He thought he had recognised Jesus as the one announced by the prophets, and had heard what Jesus was doing in Galilee. And John was confused, and not very happy.
When he sends words from his prison to find out what is going on, and check whether Jesus is really the expected Messiah, it is not simply to confirm what he already thought he knew.
In a previous encounter, John had met Jesus by the River Jordan at the time when he – like countless other men and women – had been queuing up for the baptism of repentance John was offering.
Indeed, John was drawing the crowds for his call to reflect on their lives, open their hearts, change their ways and let go of all those things that separated them from God, before symbolically washing away their sins in the river that brings precious life to that part of the world.
When Jesus joins the crowds to be baptised, John recognises him as the Messiah, God’s anointed, the Son of God, a fact confirmed by a voice from above that said: ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’
But John, now languishing in prison for calling Herod to account over his relationship with his sister-in-law, is now not so sure.
Because if Jesus is who he thought he was, then why is he giving sight back to the blind, allowing the lame to walk, healing the lepers, the deaf, even the dead. Why is he bringing good news when John thought that the Messiah was supposed to bring judgement?
And John is perhaps even wondering why he himself has not been freed and is still in prison.
It is all rather bewildering in the mind of the one whom Jesus describes as the greatest amongst prophets, and who yet cannot quite comprehend the purposes of God in Jesus.
And John’s perplexity is matched by others who were following John and have now switched allegiance to Jesus, the one they believed to be continuing his work.
Like them, we too have our own expectations of God and have probably experienced being disappointed by God.
We believe that God is invincible and all-powerful and expect that God would use his divine powers to call out oppressors and abusers, wipe out injustice and racism, stop all wars, solve world hunger, heal world pandemics, preserve biodiversity and sustain our planet, and reward our faithfulness with material and spiritual blessings.
Like John the Baptist, we may wish that Jesus, sent to save us, would not act like us finite, ordinary human beings.
But of course, that is the point of the incarnation. Jesus did not come with great pump and circumstance or great wealth. And the way he saves the world is through soft power – sacrificial and loving service, bringing restoration, healing and wholeness. He has come to bring the last key in the divine circle, the key that supports the whole edifice, and that key is love.
Jesus embodies the unconditional love of God for his creation and for all humanity. And this can be difficult for those caught up in their image of a judgmental and vindictive God, and who seek to use that skewed image to bring their own judgement on those with whom they disagree.
This Advent, as we get ready to welcome Christ anew, we are given another opportunity to get it right. As Jesus answers John in the words of the prophet Isaiah, he gives him some clues about what he’s up to:
“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 anyone who takes no offense at me.”
This is how we know that the Messiah is among us, how we know that God is present.
John expected that Jesus would come with an ax to cut down the trees that are not bearing fruit, separate the wheat and store it in the barn and burn the chaff.
Instead of this, Jesus tells him to break free from his narrow expectation of the destructive and angry God that he expected the Messiah to be, and open up to the God who heals, who teaches to transform people, who desires not the death of sinners but that all might repent, who shows love, mercy, and compassion.
In short, the gospel invites us to open our eyes and our ears to the signs of God in the hidden, unexpected, and unpopular, amid our anguish, disappointments, and doubts.
Then, perhaps, we can be a sign to the world that what Jesus said is true. We can be Jesus’ answer to John’s question.
We can be the blind whose eyes were opened, the lame whose legs can walk again, the lepers who have been cleansed, the deaf whose ears have started hearing, the dead who have been raised, and the poor who have received good news.
The gospel does not tell us how John reacted to the response he received from Jesus. But we know that Jesus welcomed his questions and his doubts and still praised John as “more than a prophet” in front of the crowds. Neither should we be ashamed or afraid to voice our questions, name our doubts, and share our stories of disappointments.
Because we grow when we doubt and open ourselves to other possibilities. It is when we share our stories of darkness that we begin our journey toward the light.
I was particularly reminded of this when a small group from the Cathedral was on Iona this summer. In the many activities we undertook, there were two sessions of reflection on environmental sustainability and the current plight of the earth, put in the context of early Celtic saints. This concluded in an exercise in writing our own psalms.
The time of sharing was hard as people read texts of both praise for the earth and sorrow at what was happening, and as grandparents often with tears talked about their anxiety at the state of the planet which we were handing over to their grandchildren.
And yet, we still came away with a sense of hope.
Here in Montreal, we look at the proceedings at the COP-15, and hope that those in power in the world may make the right decisions and take the right steps to protect our future, to save so many species from extinction, to maintain what was meant to be a paradise for the delight of humanity, not a place to be exploited through the greed of a few.
Yet we also know that the process of healing the planet will take self-sacrificing steps from all of us, steps that may reduce our individual and collective comfort in a society in which we take that for granted. Steps that prioritise the healing of the planet. Steps that will be necessary for the sake of the world.
As we know, John’s life ended up being cut short when he was beheaded.
Like many prophets before him, he died, standing up for the truth and serving as light in the darkness.
A stark reminder that even the good news of God’s love does not provide easy resolution. Instead, our faith brings us hope, joy, resolve, fulfillment, healing and peace, even in the midst of our pain, suffering, fear, doubt, disappointments, and loss.
And that God, in his infinite power, loves you for who you are, and will always be there for you as you are there for others. Amen.