Advent, take three

Third Sunday of Advent – December 15, 2019 – Matthew 11:2-11 – Trinity, Winchester

John clearly has his doubts about Jesus. Even from prison he sends his disciples to ask, “Are you the Messiah, or should we wait for another?” In other words, “Tell us, Jesus, is there someone else coming whose sandals you are not fit to untie?” 

The question is, where does John’s doubt come from? [1] Wasn’t he the one who told us that Jesus was the real deal in the first place? 

Wasn’t he the one who told the crowds, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Wasn’t he the one who said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Surely this is the same John. Why does he doubt now?

Perhaps his doubts arise from present circumstance. He who was once a prisoner of hope, is now a prisoner of Herod. Time spent locked away may have taken a toll on his prophetic spirit. 

Or perhaps his doubts are caused, ironically, by his knowledge of Bible. John knows well that the prophets say that the Messiah will bring a fiery brand of judgement and uproot disobedient nations. 

John doesn’t see Jesus of Nazareth living up to those expectations. [2] Jesus is not destroying delinquent nations. Instead, Jesus is walking around preaching to poor people. What a letdown, right? Maybe he’s not the one after all.

John’s doubts reveal that he doesn’t quite understand the scandalous nature of Jesus’ ministry. At least, not yet. Fortunately, Jesus clears things up. He says to 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.”

These words not only describe Jesus’ ministry, they point us to the very nature of God. [3] God is not a God of wrath and judgement in the conventional sense.

God’s judgement is mediated through loving acts of grace. These people don’t have enough food. Feed them. These people can’t stay warm. Clothe them. These people are sick. Heal them. These people wander in darkness. Tell them the Gospel Truth.

Talk about uprooting the nations and exercising judgment! Jesus’ ministry embodies a radical opposition to the status quo. The difference is, it doesn’t demand our attention in the way we are accustomed to.

We like shiny objects and elaborate productions, but that’s not the way Jesus works. If you ask me, John takes all that stuff about fire and destruction too literally. Sure, God is a destroyer, but not because he lays waste to erring nations. God is a destroyer because he destroys death and brings about life.

Jesus embodies the role of the Messiah because he heals the sick, restores the weak, and saves the lost. The fire he kindles is not the fire of fury, but the Spirit of God, which burns away the remnants of sin and death.

We hear echos of this Messianic role in today’s Collect. “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us . . . let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.”

This is not a prayer to a God who punishes brutally. This is a prayer to a God who saves mightily. That divine might may not always look like we expect to, but nevertheless it is present in the One who tells us to turn the other cheek instead of hitting back.

Proof that the Kingdom of God has arrived does not come in the grandiose actions of a savior du jour, but in the constant presence of the savior of eternity.

That said, it’s hard to recognize God’s presence in the world, and that makes it easy to doubt God’s power. We have heard the voices of God’s prophets drowned out by gunfire. We have known patriarchs to edit our history books before they go to print. We have tasted the bitterness of hasty words that rinse the flavor of grace from our mouths.

We have even willingly chosen to ignore God’s work in the world, patting our pockets and saying, “I’m sorry, Sir, I don’t have any cash on me today.”

Whether we overlook it, or whether we refuse to see it, Jesus is among us, quietly embodying salvation. Jesus is among us, reciting the names of the dead as they are welcomed into heaven. Jesus is among us, recording the history of the oppressed in permanent ink. Jesus is among, forgiving our trespasses and helping us muster up the courage to forgive those who trespass against us.

For the most part this is quiet, behind-the-scenes work. We so crave attention-grabbing theatrics that we tend to ignore the real nation-uprooting, judgment-exercising, status-quo-challenging work of God happening all around us. When we don’t see it, we assume it isn’t there. Like John, we begin to wonder who we’re really waiting for, all the while forgetting that Jesus has already come, not with trumpet fanfare, but with an infant’s cry in the still, dark silence of the night. 

 

Notes:

[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (WJK: Louisville, 1997), 125.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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