December 15, 2019 – Advent 3A
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
Speaking God’s truth to powerful people doesn’t always work out well for the preacher. Just ask Joan of Arc or Oscar Romero or Martin Luther King Jr. or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or ask John the Baptist, who, as Suzanne reminded us last week, had traded the luxurious life of a temple priest for the hard-pan existence of a wilderness prophet. Having left the courts of power to which his birth entitled him, John pursued ministry on the margins of society and chose as his pulpit a perch that allowed him to lambast those in positions of political or religious authority.
He defiantly preached the nearness of God’s judgment and the new order that would come with it, refusing to soften his words when speaking to those whose power that coming order would overturn. In today’s gospel lesson, we learn that John had already been arrested and thrown into jail, and, in Matthew 14, we learn what he had said to get himself in trouble. Herod, the ruler of that region, had divorced his first wife in order to marry Herodias, his half-brother’s first wife, and John the Baptist refused to keep quiet about it. Ignoring those who warned him not to preach about politics, the Baptizer spoke of the unlawful marriage as exactly the kind of corruption among the so-called leaders of God’s people that God’s anointed one was coming to clean up. Not surprisingly, Herod was furious, so he had John arrested and held in prison. He wanted to have him executed, but he knew how popular the prophet was and was afraid of how bad it would look if he killed his most vocal critic.
I wonder what John thought about the whole situation—that his faithfulness, his commitment to proclaiming the unadulterated word of God, was the reason he was in prison. He had given his whole life to the work of showing people the straight and simple way into God’s reign. He had sacrificed a life of comfort in order to prepare the way for God’s anointed one to come and do God’s work, and what did he have to show for it? Here he was in prison, while Jesus, the one whom everyone spoke of as the anointed one, was out and about, having dinner with Pharisees and keeping company with sinners and prostitutes. I wonder what all those people who had gone out to the River Jordan to be baptized by John thought about the fact that the one to whom John had been pointing hadn’t yet found a way to get the forerunner out of prison. And, as the days went on and any sign that the prophet might escape Herod’s wrath waned, I wonder whether John himself started to wonder what sort of Messiah he had been pointing to.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John’s disciples asked Jesus on the prophet’s behalf. It was a reasonable question. The Hebrew scriptures and Jewish tradition contain many different and at times conflicting examples of what God’s anointed one would be like. Some passages anticipate a priestly figure who would come and purify the people’s flawed worship as if with a refiner’s fire. Others envision a prophet like Moses who would come and lead God’s people into a new era of covenant life. Some predict a warrior who would defeat the enemies of God’s people or a king who would rule God’s people with justice and righteousness. Like many who lived in Roman-occupied Palestine in that day, John and his disciples wanted to know whether Jesus was the kind of the anointed one who would come and defeat the oppressive empire and set God’s captives free. But, when they asked Jesus whether he really was the one they had been looking for or whether they should wait for another, Jesus said to them, “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. And blessed is anyone who does not stumble because of me.”
That’s how Jesus defines his ministry as God’s anointed one. What do you think? Is that the one you’ve been waiting for, or are you searching for something else? What kind of messiah do you want Jesus to be? What kind of savior do you think he is? It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that Jesus has come to fix all of our problems—yours and mine. But, as much as the redemption of the whole world includes every one of us, God’s plan of salvation is a lot bigger than the needs represented among us.
The language Jesus uses to describe his ministry is an echo of Isaiah 35, a chapter in which the prophet envisions not only the healing of those who are sick and the comforting of those who mourn but the renewal and restoration of all who need help getting into God’s reign. When the blind can see, the lame can walk, and the ritually outcast are cleansed, when the deaf can hear, the dead are raised, and even the forgotten poor become recipients of God’s good news, then can all people travel the highway that leads from the desolate wilderness into the everlasting joy of God’s reign. The work of God’s anointed one is nothing less than ushering all people into the joy and gladness of God’s never-ending rule. Of course that means you and me, but it’s also a lot bigger than us.
Jesus tells us that that shouldn’t surprise us. “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” he asked the crowd. “A reed shaken by the wind…? Someone dressed in soft robes?” John the Baptist preached a message of hope that is more refreshing than a walk in the wilderness and more permanent than a leader who wears royal robes. The one who preaches about the coming of God’s judgment and God’s imminent reign shares a vision of a new kind of authority, but he isn’t pointing us to the kind of king who lives in a palace. And it’s a good thing because we’re searching for more than that. God’s people head out into the wilderness because they’re looking for the kind of change they can’t get from their political or religious leaders—their President or their priest. We’re looking for more than an answer to today’s problems—a solution to the crisis of the moment. We’re looking for the full and unending life that God has in store for us and for the whole world.
Jesus could have led a rebellion that attacked the prison where John was being held and set him free. He could have rallied the entire Jewish nation and led an insurrection against Roman occupation of the land promised to their ancestors. He could have called down legions of angel-warriors and established a new kingdom here on the earth. But he didn’t do any of that because the reign of God that Jesus began is bigger than a prison break or a political victory or a world-wide government. Instead, Jesus spent time with outcasts, welcomed sinners, and made space at the banquet table for the estranged. Like John the Baptist, he spoke truth to the powers of his day and was executed because of it. But his death at the hand of earthly powers was overcome by God’s resurrection power, and through that death and resurrection God inaugurated a reign of divine power, which includes all of us and so much more.
Is this the one we have been waiting for, or should we look for someone else? Is Jesus’ vision for the renewal of the world the salvation you’ve been hoping for, or has your focus been narrower than that? Go tell the world what you have seen and heard: in Jesus Christ, “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.” Through Christ, all people can dance and sing and rejoice their way into God’s new and everlasting reign. That is good news of the savior we’ve all been waiting for.