Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
It's a simple yes or no question, right? Are you the one who is to come?
John the Baptizer had invested a lot in Jesus. He had invested his whole life, really. I mean, what options are left for you after you've spent years wearing camel skin and eating locusts and running around the wildnerness shouting, "Prepare the way of the Lord! Prepare the way of the one who is to come!" The one had better be coming, or 'fool' is the nicest things they'll call you, and you'll likely never work again.
Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
Not so very long ago, John was standing face to face with Jesus, waist deep in the Jordan River, and in that moment he knew instinctively that Jesus was indeed the one. I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? he asked Jesus in awe. But Jesus would have it no other way - how John must have trembled as he immersed the head of the Messiah in the swirling water.
After the baptism, with renewed passion, John the Baptizer surely continued to stir up the people, calling them to repent, for the kingdom of heaven, he knew, was very near. We heard John's favorite speech in last week's reading from the gospel: One who is more powerful than I is coming after me....His winnowing fork is in his had, and he will clear the threshing floor and will gather wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
John, along with many others, was desperately waiting for the one who was to come, the one who would come in the name of God and save Israel once again from darkness. John knew the story of the Passover, when God stirred up great power and freed the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. He knew the story of the Exodus, when God stirred up great power and led the people through the desert, providing food out of thin air and water when the rivers ran dry. He knew the stories of Joshua and the long succession of judges, when God time and again stirred up great power to protect he Hebrew people as they finally settled into the Promised Land.
John Knew the passage we heard this morning from Isaiah, words written to stir up hope in the people of Israel after their cities had fallen to invading armies and they had been forced out of the land God had given them, forced to leave behind the pile of stones that had once been the holy temple, the House of God. From the darkness of exile, they wondered if God would come for them, to rescue them, to restore them, to bring the home. Come, O Lord, and save us. Isaiah, holding on for all he was worth to his conviction that God does come, wrote some of the most stirring words that have ever been said. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water....A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way. For a second time in history, the formidable desert that separated the people of Israel from the Promised Land would give way to their passing, and God would bring them home.
But by the time of John the Baptizer, darkness was returning to Israel in the form of another invader: Rome. Judaism was permitted in the Roman empire, but the privileges grudglingly afforded Jews on account of their religious convictions made them unpopular with Roman citizens and leaders alike. Recalling the stories of God's power to save, many Jews called upon their brothers and sisters to repent of their sins and hang on for all they were worth to their conviction that God does come. They looked fervently for a messiah, one anointed by God to deliver God's people, to defeat God's enemies, and to inaugurate the kingdom of God.
John perhaps got a little carried away when he challenged King Herod to repent of some particularly notorious sins. It got him arrested and thrown in prison, and there in the darkness, John began to doubt. Where was the one who was to burn the chaff on the threshing floor? Where was the one who was to take an axe to the trees that bore no fruit? Where was the one who was to come with great might to speedily help and deliver God's people? At one point he had thought it might be Jesus....he had been so certain....
Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? Yes or no, Jesus. Did I pick right? Have I wasted my faith and my breath and my life? Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
Would that Jesus would say, why yes, I am the one. I'm God and I'm here to save the world. You picked right. Excellent job.
But we know that Jesus was never in the habit of giving yes or no answers. He answered questions with parables, with questions of his own, and with statements like the one he offered John's disciples: Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. Now you tell me, John, am I the one who is to come, who has come, who will save God's people?
Jesus knew that John would hear echoes of Isaiah speaking to those living in darkness in another time, awaiting the light. When God comes to save, Isaiah had told them, Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
Hear and see what is happening, John. All of you, hear and see what is happening, Jesus says. Hear and see how lives are being changed. Aren't I the one who is to come? Haven't you heard? Haven't you seen? Strengthen your hearts, for the kingdom of God is here.
It would have made sense for the Messiah to be a great warrior, riding in to do battle with darkness, to separate the wheat from the chaff, to tear down all those who stand in the way of God's mighty kingdom. Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.
But it turns out that God's speedy help and deliverance have not to do with vengeance but with mercy. Not with judgment but with compassion.
From the darkness of prison, John was so busy looking for the one who was to come that he didn't realize the anointed one, the messiah, was already there. The answer to his anxious question had been there all along, stirring up God's power to bring light in dark places, to bring life in dead places. The kingdom of God is not about wiping out but building up, not keeping out but bringing in.
We have only to look at the life of Jesus Christ to know that he is, indeed, the one who is to come, the one who has come, the one who will come again, and the one who is still in the world through us, his body, the Church. The answer is in how Jesus lived each day, how he loved each person, and how he calls us to live and to love the same way.
And yet we are still waiting for the day when sorrow and sighing shall flee away, when the last shadow's of hatred, fear, violence, suspicion, and judgment disappear into light. It is not hard to sympathize with John as we sit in our own dark prisons, wondering if perhaps we, too, got it all wrong. We wait and we wait and we wait, and nothing happens.
Today's readings, deep into the season of Advent, of expectation of the one who is so soon to come....today's readings remind us that waiting for the kingdom of God is not about anticipation of the future but attention to the present. What do we hear and see right now, this moment? We are called to bring our gaze down from what might be to what is, that in our desperate hope for a blaze of glory we won't miss the first sparks going up.
Waiting is about living fully in the present, with all that life as the body of Christ calls us to do and be. If we proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ, if wee seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, if we strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being....if we do these things each and every day, then we will find there is already a Holy Way beneath our feet. If we do these things each and every day, then others will find there are blossoms in the deserts and springs of water on thirsty ground.
Jesus is the one who is to come. Are we the ones who are to follow, or shall he wait for another? It's not just a yes or no questions. What does he hear and see in our lives?
He would see that St. Paul's recently raised over $1600 for Love's Kitchen. Good news for the poor. He would see that one of our youth spent Thanksgiving morning at Love's Kitchen preparing a meal. Food to those who hunger. Jesus would see that many at St. Paul's are Christmas shopping for Wesley House families, that some are spending their own money rather than outreach committee funds. Caring for the stranger. He would see that many here have been on the annual Honduras medical mission. The blind receive their sight, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised. Jesus would see that many or our young people have put in hours and hours of service work, and that they bring new friends to youth group or bible study each week. Their lives are a witness - they go and tell what they see and hear. Jesus would see that we are joining with parents and godparents today in welcoming a new life into the household of God, the Body of Christ, and he would hear us say again the words of our baptismal covenant: I will, with God's help.
Jesus is the one who is to come. Are we the ones who are to follow, or shall he wait for another? May we pattern our lives this Advent, this Christmas, and beyond, so that Jesus may hear and see our yes. Amen.