A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 11, 2016 (III Advent, Year A)
What a difference a week makes! Last Sunday we encountered a very different John the Baptist. We met him on the banks of the Jordan River and he was loud and large and very much in charge as he brought his message of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to the crowds that had gathered to witness this spectacle of religious fervor. He was self-assured as he claimed his Forerunner status by pointing away from himself and towards the one who was to come — the Messiah, the one who’s sandal he felt unworthy to untie, the one who would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire.
We encounter a very different John this morning. Gone are the crowds and the river and the self-confidence. He’s been unceremoniously tossed into prison and his booming voice has been reduced to a whisper as he asks Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
So often bluster masks insecurity or uncertainty. That’s certainly the case with playground bullies. The book on bullies is the moment you stand up to them, they back down, revealing cracks in the facade. That so much of a bully’s persona is built on inner turmoil posing as outer intimidation.
And, not to psychoanalyze John the Baptist, but I don’t think that’s the case here. John is not a religious bully intent on getting his way. He’s not pointing to himself, after all. He’s simply passionate about his message and his calling as the one who prepares the way of the Lord. So this moment of questioning doesn’t make John’s ministry any less authentic. If anything it makes this traditional Advent figure even more real for us. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” There’s a spiritual vulnerability here to which most of us can relate.
At least if we’re honest with ourselves. Because we spend an awful lot of time and energy tamping down our own spiritual uncertainty. It’s easy to mask our doubts about the entire Christmas story, including the theological crux of God entering the world in human form, with all the rushing around we do this time of year. The lists, the sales, the cards, the parties, the general din of December that keeps beating at an increasingly-fevered pitch like a stress-inducing holiday soundtrack.
We may despise and denounce this seasonal anxiety and yet we also seemingly can’t do without it. We complain about the stress of it all, but we don’t actually do anything to stop it. Which is why the season of Advent is so important both to our spiritual and emotional health. It allows us to cut through the noise and focus on what really matters. And what really matters is the spiritual preparation that allows us to welcome the Christ-child into our hearts anew at Christmas.
Now, part of this time of Advent is spent in expectation — we expect the arrival of Jesus at a manger in Bethlehem; we expect to come to church during Advent to hear about John the Baptist and Mary and readings from the prophet Isaiah; we expect to be slightly frazzled as the shopping days until Christmas dwindle; we expect there will be presents under the tree on Christmas Day.
Expectations, of course, don’t always exactly line up with reality. The time of John the Baptist was also ripe with expectation. It was less about expecting packages from Amazon and more about the expectations of what kind of reign the arrival of God’s Messiah would usher in. Different groups had different expectations. Some were met, others were left unfulfilled. But everyone who anticipated a savior had different hopes and dreams and expectations.
For some, it was the expectation of a military messiah who would arrive on a white steed and drive out the Roman oppressors. For those choked by the yoke of political, economic, and societal oppression, there was tremendous hope wrapped up in such a savior. Things were bad now, but once the messiah arrived, well, things would instantly change. We’d finally be in charge and the roles would be reversed. We’d be on top and those who did us wrong would pay the price.
It’s understandable, frankly. If you were treated as a second class citizen for so long, you, too would revel in the idea of radical retribution.
And there was certainly some of this in John the Baptist’s approach. As the one who boldly proclaimed the arrival of the Messiah, we heard him announce that while he was baptizing with water, the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. For those expecting a certain type of savior, you can see John’s words only affirming their unfolding vision of an avenging savior arriving from on high with a flaming sword ready to do battle with the forces of evil.
And what we get instead is a vulnerable infant lying in a feeding trough. So we begin to see that our expectations don’t always meet with God’s reality; that human expectations are so often subverted by divine reality.
And this morning we encounter not a John the Baptist full of bluster and evangelical fervor but a hesitant, imprisoned, vulnerable, confused shell of a man. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” In other words, has my whole life’s work been in vain?
This is the Baptist’s Doubting Thomas moment. He seeks assurance and verification about Jesus’ true identity. He’s pretty sure, but just needs to hear it from the Messiah’s mouth. And again, Jesus shifts the expectations. As his humble birth would indicate, his reign is a different kind of kingdom than many expected. His is a rule not based on weapons but mercy; not based on the sword but peace; not based on an iron fist but the gentle hand of God.
And Jesus sends word back to John that echoes with the prophetic voice of Isaiah. “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.” Yes, the kingdom of God is at hand; no, these may not be the signs you or anyone else were expecting. But these are the signs and wonders of a seismic shift in perspective and expectation. This kingdom is about lifting up the lowly and proclaiming hope to the poor and offering wholeness and salvation to all God’s people rather than a select few. It is about love and justice and peace and things broken being made whole.
And even now our Advent expectations and hopes are placed on the ultimate fulfillment of these kingdom promises. Even amid the waiting for Christmas that is the hallmark of this season, we are not waiting for another. Like John the Baptist, we have met the one who is to come and his name is Jesus. His yoke may be gentle but we still must intentionally reach for it and place it upon our shoulders as a mantle of relationship. Only then will our human expectations meet divine reality. Only then will the long-expected promise be fulfilled.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2016