Prepare and participate.
Old Testament Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm Canticle 15 - Magnificat
Epistle James 5:7-10
Gospel Matthew 11:2-11
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord”
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last Sunday, John the Baptist arrived on the scene, larger than life, to herald the beginning of Jesus' adult ministry. He preached repentance, he urged preparedness, and he called out the religious elite ... "You brood of vipers!" John beamed with confidence in his mission and his message. By this morning’s gospel, the religious leaders have grown tired of him and the uncomfortable truths he tells, and he is in prison. He is quite the different prophet than last week. Tired, and with little to show for his efforts, John faces probable death, and wonders what has it all been for. John has heard what Jesus is up to, but wants to be clear. “Are you the one who is to come?”
Our question to John might be, “Why don’t you know?” In chapter 3, John seemed to immediately recognize Jesus as Messiah at his baptism. Didn’t he hear the voice from heaven proclaim, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased"? John sends his followers to question Jesus precisely because he has heard of all of Jesus’ deeds. What kind of proof does John need?
John’s question is of identity and purpose. His faith is not swayed, but he is looking for affirmation that he was preaching the right message, pointing to the chosen one, preparing the way of the Lord. John asks the questions many of us ask along our journey, especially in Advent. Are we doing what God would have us do? Are we making a difference? What or who are we really waiting for, and how long must we wait? Before John can rest from his labors, he must affirm his own identity as the precursor to the Savior. In order to know he has done what God has asked of him, he must confirm Jesus’ identity. Are you the Messiah? Are you for real?
Jesus answers, but not directly. We don't always hear straight answers from Jesus. As Jesus opens His arms in invitation and beckons us come, He expects us to take a step forward as well. In effect, Jesus answers, "I cannot answer for you. You have to decide on your own whether I am for real. Look at the evidence. What do you see?" Echoing Isaiah, Jesus recounts the deeds he has been performing, that many have witnessed; the blind can see, the deaf can hear, the lame now walk, and the lepers are cleansed, the poor are made rich with hope, and the dead are raised to life ... the world around Jesus is being made whole, as if God’s order is being restored to the chaos of the world.
Jesus identifies John the Baptist, the prophet, as the subject of an earlier prophecy; "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you." Here Jesus clearly alludes to himself as Messiah, and John as the prophesied precursor. This describes the difference between signs and symbols. We see many signs throughout scripture. A sign points to something, but a symbol participates in that to which it points. John the Baptist is a symbol, both pointing to Jesus and preparing the way of the Lord. John is a messenger, but not the message; deliverer, but not deliverance; saving, but not salvation. Jesus identifies John the Baptist as perhaps the greatest prophet of the former age, ushering in the Messiah, but belonging to a different age in the history of salvation. Jesus is the first born of God’s new creation, a new age. A wholly new period in the history of God's saving work has begun in the person of Jesus.
John the Baptist and Jesus are clearly joined in salvation history, though their messages couldn't be more different. John the Baptist shouted for repentance in the face of the wrath of God, the axe cutting down dead trees, and unquenchable fire separating the husks from the threshing floor. Jesus proclaims mercy, compassion, healing, and rejoicing. I wonder if John heard Jesus' answer, if he made the connection ... that the compassion and mercy for humanity that Jesus is offering is as much judgement as the terrible fire John envisioned? Did John see Jesus' message as an overturning of the complacent faith and values of those John called a "brood of vipers"? Perhaps. John understands himself as a servant and a messenger, but his final transformation is to let go of his own interpretation and embrace God's new world in Christ. John must believe that the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. Formerly the herald, John must now become a disciple.
In Advent, we are waiting, anticipating, and longing for Christ. Perhaps, like John the Baptist, we should also be asking questions. Who are we, why are we here, and who or what are we waiting for? Are we prepared for the moments when we come face to face with the Messiah in our lives? Are we ready to be transformed? Are we willing to be disciples? Will we say with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi prison only a few months before he was killed, "Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine."
We would all like to faithfully answer “yes” to all these questions. “Here I am Lord, send me.” “I will with God’s help.” But it not always easy. We are all too often self- concerned, self-indulgent, and self-righteous. And we have many questions. Jesus opens His arms in invitation and beckons us come. We must take a step forward, which means leaving behind our old selves to be resurrected into the life of Christ. Receiving God’s compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and joy also involves taking up our cross. Our transformation into disciples of Christ means being led into uncomfortable situations. Fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives may lead us where we never imagined we would go. It put John in prison and cost him his head. It led Jesus to death on a cross.
The season of Advent is the time when the Church chooses to keep alive the hope that God is not finished either with creation or with human history, that God is present in our lives and in the life of the world, to bring about the purposes that God intends. We are called to participate in God’s continuing salvation of humanity. We are to attend to the blind by showing them the image of God revealed in Christ. We are to proclaim the Gospel to those who cannot or will not hear it. We are to lift up the downtrodden, make whole the broken, include the outcast, and companion the lonely. To those who are aimlessly wandering like zombies, we are to share our life in Christ.
As we await the coming of Jesus with longing and anticipation, and look forward to the joyous adoration and celebration, let us be prepared for meeting God face to face, and recognizing Christ in the world. Let us point to and participate in God's saving activity, as we ourselves are being saved, and join in the work to proclaim and prepare the way of the Lord. AMEN.