At the beginning of Advent, I told you how, when I was a small girl waiting for someone special to come for a visit, you could usually find me in the living room with my nose pressed up against the glass, watching and waiting for our company to come. That was my ‘pose’ or ‘post’, of expectant anticipation and longing, you might say.
I likened that experience of waiting to our experience of Advent today. During this season, as our days become shorter and the darkness of night overtakes the landscape by slightly larger increments each day, we are joined by Christians of all time and places awaiting the advent of Jesus. And it is seeming to take forever.
We live in this weird in-between time, with Christmas just a couple of weeks away now, therefore commanding our attention and preparation and demanding our focus. There are presents to buy and wrapping to be done; the Christmas cards need to get out; there is baking to do.
We need to clean the house and prepare for company; finalize Christmas menus and food shopping; the checks need to go out for the end-of-the year charitable giving; there are final touches on decorating to take care of. Meanwhile we need to make sure the last winterizing chores are completed around the house since obviously, it is getting colder. All of these preparations and chores take up our days and impose on our nights.
At the same time, we hear in church that we need to prepare ourselves because Christ is coming again, at some indeterminate time in the future. And we know that, one way or the other, today’s Christmas preparations will only get us through this holiday season. But Jesus is coming again to deliver the mother-load of healing and righteousness we so badly need, bringing justice and joy for all eternity, and we need to be ready. And while we have heard John the Baptist and the scriptures insist that this is something for which we need to prepare, the waiting is hard, and maintaining the anticipation even harder.
We prep for the Christmas celebration, while keeping alive the hopeful expectation that when he comes again, the peace for which the world yearns and the Christmas carolers sing will finally be realized. When Jesus comes again, we pray that justice will truly reign upon earth as well as in the kingdom of peace and joy. But if we’ve been waiting in the same pose as that of my childhood vigil, then I dare say our noses have probably become quite cold by now.
I wonder if that is what is happening to John the Baptist in our gospel today. Last week’s gospel told us the story of John’s wilderness preaching and baptism-in-the Jordan River activities. In that passage, early in the gospel of Matthew, John is full of bravado and confidence, outrage and fearlessness. He firmly calls for repentance and for his followers to prepare themselves, and prepare the way, for the coming of the Son of Man. He lambasts the establishment for their treatment of the poor and rebukes the hypocrisy of the religious elite.
But as we fast forward a few months in the life of the Baptist, today we encounter him again. This time John the Baptist appears as a confused, discouraged, doubting prisoner. The John of this text has been transformed from assertive prophet to a questioning, longing inmate.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” he asks.
The less confident John is doubting, perhaps fearing. Although we hear these stories back to back in our worship services this year, some time has actually passed between them, and during that interlude John has endured untold suffering and isolation during his imprisonment, and they have taken their toll on his well of hope and self-assurance.
John, the bold, confident prophet, preached from the wilderness while people from throughout the region came to hear him speak about the coming of the Messiah, and to confess their sins and be baptized seems to be gone. And he has been replaced with this John who, from deep in his dank, dark prison cell, he sends this message. He wants to believe that he was right about Jesus, he wants to know that his efforts, and his faith are not in vain. But it is hard. It is hard to be patient. It is hard to keep hoping in the face of the dark isolation in a prison cell. It is hard not to doubt when your nose is getting cold, and a firm impression has formed on it because you have been waiting so darned long, nose pressed to the window.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
This might be our question as well. From our own prisons, from our own isolation, from our own well of fear and doubt, we wonder if Jesus is ever coming back again. Are we right to hope? Are we right to believe? Are we right to keep waiting for the Advent of Jesus once again?
The question John asked is at the heart of a lot of the unrest and discontent in our world today. There are those who claim to be spiritual but not religious-many of them want to believe, but find it hard. What if they get it wrong? They find the story of God becoming human, being born to the unwed teenage mother Mary, too hard to swallow. And to believe he will come yet again? Impossible!
Some have simply lost patience in the waiting or are not quite sure they ever believed that Jesus “was the one” for whom they are waiting. Many question whether it’s possible that God and Jesus are real and active in the world, because they look around and they see this world as such a messed-up place. And, they have never encountered a person who has shared with them the personal witness of who God is and how God is present and working in their lives.
Many good Christian people experience doubt and fear because of their own suffering and isolation. Is Jesus the one, or should we be looking or another?
Or, “should we stop believing that there will ever be a god or a messiah or anyone else who will ever save us from our affliction”?
Like many of the people of John’s time, our struggle comes as a result of waiting, it comes as a result of this long indeterminate period of discontent and isolation; it comes as the result of repeated or prolonged assaults on our personhood and the discrimination and prejudice we experience.
So, even if we are not literally behind bars, many of us are looking out from the windows of our own prisons, whatever they might be: perhaps the prison of physical or mental illness, addiction, depression or grief. Broken dreams, broken promises, and broken relationships imprison many of us. Or, perhaps our imprisonment comes in the form of our own experience of waiting, and the things we endure while we wait.
But into the void in our world created by suffering and doubt, Jesus speaks. Note that he doesn’t respond to John’s question with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. Rather, Jesus points to the evidence all around us of how God is present in the midst of our waiting, our suffering and our own dying: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk. Jesus bring healing, and Jesus accompanies us through the journey. Sometimes he leads us and sometimes he carries us.
Through this text, Jesus invites us to look at the world around us and see the myriad ways God is engaged and active in the world. Jesus invites us to believe in him and to see that God is already all around us, working out healing and mercy and peace through the works and witness of others.
What are our expectations for God’s activity in the world? For what we anticipate will affect what we see. My favorite example of how our vision is shaped by our expectation occurred in January 2007. Perhaps you’ve seen or read about this experiment into just how expectation shapes perception.
A videotape was taken of harried commuters in the Washington Metro, as they rushed past a young man wearing a baseball cap, jeans, and a jacket, even though he masterfully played the violin amidst the hustle and bustle of the metro. Most people took no notice of him. Over a thousand people must have passed by him in the twenty minutes of the videotape.
It turns out the musician was none other than Joshua Bell, world-renowned violinist whom people had paid $100 a ticket to hear play at the Symphony Hall in Boston just a few evenings before.
In his Post article about this experiment Gene Weingarten questioned whether we are capable of identifying beauty outside the contexts in which we anticipate encountering it? Can we recognize a genius performer, if that individual appears somewhere other than a concert hall?
Perhaps a similar question is appropriate for on this Third Sunday of Advent. Are we capable of identifying God’s activity outside the contexts of the stained-glass windows and the organ music we tend to associate with the divine? Can we recognize God at work even if our encounter of him looks unlike anything we have ever imagined?
Are we capable of seeing God at work in lunches that are packed for the hungry, in Christmas presents that are purchased for the families and seniors adopted for a Christmas gifting program, indeed, are we able to perceive God’s presence in the recipients themselves? Are we capable of seeing God in the first responders, nurses, doctors, dietary aids and others who will work through the holidays, caring for those who cannot care for themselves or are in need of special assistance?
Do we see God at work in the youth and others who will sing carols to brighten the holidays for some who feel imprisoned by bodies that are no longer dependable enough for excursions into the outside world and are therefore homebound or reside in assisted living facilities?
We can see God at work in relationships being built between neighbors of varying backgrounds and faiths here in Easton through several bridge-building programs in our city, as well as through the work of TACL and the interfaith hunger coalition and Talbot Interfaith Shelter?
As we wait, Advent calls us to make room in our hearts and within our hectic pursuits for the coming of Christ, the Savior.
Advent teaches us to live with patient expectation, to give witness to the healing and presence of God at work in our world. God begins as a tiny Child, born in humble surroundings, and then God works slowly, surely, all the way to the cross and into resurrection life, and beckons us to follow.
Our task is to be watchful, to not lose hope, to see what God is doing all around us. Let us cling to this hope, now and always. AMEN.