December 11, 2016 Advent 3
On this 3rd Sunday of Advent, we are called to rejoice. The celebrant’s chasuble has a hint of pink to brighten up the blue of Advent. Rejoice!
Yet today’s gospel has a man in jail, John the Baptist, awaiting an unknown future. Not exactly something that would normally lead a person to rejoice. Maybe that is good for us to hear as well because not all of us are necessarily feeling like rejoicing, even though there is this hint of pink, and despite hearing Joy to the world piped through the stores since November 1. For some, this time of year with its shorter and shorter days, is difficult. For others, they may be going through difficult times of grief, the loss of a loved one, the loss of health, or the loss of a job, or maybe even the loss of confidence in life. Maybe that is you.
Rejoicing may just be hard for you.
Let’s look then at this gospel passage to see how it might speak to us, whether we feel like rejoicing or not.
John the Baptist’s story, we might remember, began with an angel telling his father, Zechariah, that his elderly and barren wife Elizabeth would conceive a son. That I would say is an impressive start to life.
When Mary who is pregnant, goes to visit her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, the child, John the Baptist, leaps in his mother’s womb, since Mary is carrying the Messiah.
John becomes a famous preacher in the wilderness, calling people to repentance, preparing the way for the Messiah, who, he is sure, will come and burn away the bad in society.
Jesus goes to be baptized by John who tells him that it is rather Jesus that should be baptizing him.
And now, John is in jail. He had been arrested because he challenged King Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law. You don’t challenge a despot and expect to get away with it. He didn’t. We know the outcome.
At a royal banquet, Salome, Herod’s wife’s daughter, dances before him and all his guests. He is so impressed, he promises her anything. At her mother’s request, she asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. She got it.
But at this point, he is still in a dark jail, waiting and wondering.
He asks his disciples to go and ask Jesus if he is the One they have been waiting for, the long-awaited messiah. The One who will make all things right.
What happened to the other confident John the Baptist, the one who knew Jesus to be the One?
Those of us who have been around for awhile know how circumstances can knock our certainties from under our feet.
How does Jesus respond to the John’s question, via his disciples? What hit me this week, first of all, was Jesus’ understanding, his compassion towards John. If you read what he says to the messengers, he simply describes what he has been doing, then ends with And blessed is anyone who does not take offense at me.
That is the first thing I would like us to draw from this passage. It is OK when we go through periods of doubt, uncertainty. When we question, what the heck is going on. Jesus understood John, Jesus understands us.
I remember still clearly a period in my life, some 20 years ago, when I moved to Alberta with my family, so the mother of my children, my wife at the time, could start a tenured track position at a local university. I had been a pastor of a nice congregation in South Western Ontario. I was in conference leadership. I was respected, and loved. That meant a lot to me.
I was 40 & I lost it all. In Alberta, I was an Easterner, a French Canadian, and educated. That gave me 0 credibility in the Church in the West. It took a few years for things to change. In the meantime, a pretty dark place in my faith journey began. I was left questioning, what about this Jesus that I loved, and this Church that I had been serving with all my heart and energy? Was I wrong? Like John the Baptist, I cried out.
Through that dark place, as I cried out, as I questioned, I never felt judged by God.
John’s questioning from his dark cell and Jesus’s response to him, remind us that it is ok if we find ourselves in those dark places, when we don’t feel like rejoicing, when we are questioning. Jesus understands. It is OK.
Going back to the passage what more can we find? Jesus goes on with an answer for John. Tell him 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.
John had an idea of what kind of messiah he was announcing. He now had doubts about Jesus. There were all kinds of expectations in first century Israel about the long-expected Messiah. Jesus’s answer is telling John this is what I am about. This the type of Messiah I am. This how God wants to make things right in the world.
In our day and age, there still are all kinds of expectations in society of how God wants to set things right. I just came back from a week of holidays and I was waiting in an airport in the States, as I was hearing Donald Trump giving a speech on the TV behind me, my mind wandered to the Islamic terrorists who had their truth as they boarded their planes on September 11, 2001. They believed that was what God wanted.
Now that might be extreme but in our own North American society, there are those who would espoused also a rigid faith, one that is exclusive of others, whether it is because of race, sexual orientation or beliefs.
I read recently an article on a study that showed that growing mainline churches, not evangelical ones, but mainline ones, are the ones that are conservative and more black and white theologically. Now that spoke to me, because as a minister who has a calling to reach out to our society with the good news of Jesus Christ, I want to be sure I am sensitive to the needs of the people.
My problem is, I am not ready to go back into the past to a faith that is black and white, with confession of faiths that spelt out all the truths that we are to believe.
I believe Jesus’s answer to John is still our guiding light. It is not the words we say but the deeds we do that are important. This is what God wants. 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 this is how we measure the various voices around us that want us to believe they know what God wants, what is the right thing to do.
With what they are saying and doing, are the blind receiving their sight? Are the lame walking? Are the lepers cleansed? Do the deaf hear? Are the dead raised? Do the poor hear good news?
In other words, does it make this world a better place for all people, especially the weaker and more vulnerable?
Today’s gospel, remind us that it is OK if we find ourselves questioning, having doubts, just plain going through hard times. God does not judge us or condemn us.
The Gospel passage also tells us how we are to measure all messages that come our way telling us what is the best for society. Do they fit what Jesus gave as his credentials?
Finally, my last point goes with out saying. Jesus’ answer to John saying this is what I am about, is also the clue to what we are to be about, as individual followers of Jesus, and as a gathered community seeking to follow Jesus.
The blind are to receive their sight, the lame are to walk, the lepers are to be cleansed, the deaf are to hear, the dead are to be raised, and the poor are to have good news brought to them.
Now that is not always easy.
I want to close with a story of one woman, Jenee Woodard, a woman who has found a way to live out her faith in a difficult situation. You may never have heard of her, but she may have had an impact on you without you knowing her. You see Jenee is the creator of a web site called The text this week. It is a site that is used by ministers from churches that use the lectionary. Since we do here, it is very probable that you have heard sermons where ministers have drawn from her work as they researched the texts.
Every week, she gathers commentaries on the text for that Sunday, links to exegesis from others preachers, to images, to movies. This is an incredible resource for ministers as they prepare their messages. Her site gathers 2 million hits a month.
Now what makes Jenee’s story interesting is that this 54 year old mom of two, trained for and worked in a variety of ministry settings. When she was younger, she discovered that seminary and pastoring were not her niche. She bombed at both. She would rather just as soon be studying. She could only handle people for a short time. Then she would lose it. Not exactly a good trait for a minister.
So Jenee planned to pursue an academic career and was writing applications to graduate school when her daughter Jaie, was born, and then 4 years later, Phil. When Phil was two years old he was diagnosed with autism. That meant dropping the doctorate, dealing 24/7 with Phil’s autism and figuring out how she could still develop a ministry.
So in 1998, when the internet was still young, she created her site and has been working at it ever since.
Jenee says she is still uncomfortable around many people, and is often overwhelmed much of the time by her son’s needs and her own work and life. So with that reality, she mainly just works quietly on Textweek at home, helping pastors get ready for Sunday.
Jenee knows as a follower of Jesus, she is called to live out his message of liberation and healing. She has also had though her moments of doubt, anger and frustration. Given her own limitations and her situation, she continues to work at her own calling the best way she can, helping others to preach the Good news of Jesus.
My friends on the journey, we never know what life will bring us. As John the Baptist, we may find ourselves in a dark cell and questioning. It is OK, Jesus did not judge John for it, nor does God judge us.
Faced with all the voices around us that want to convince us their way is the right way, Jesus gives us the criteria to use to discern. Does it make this world a better place for all people, especially the weaker and more vulnerable?
Finally, Jesus’ words to John also guide us to know how we are to live. Regardless of our situation, even our limitations, may we continue to seek to make this world a better place, because that is the vision of God.
For all these things, we can rejoice.