Spoiler alert: after Jesus is born, he’ll be baptized by his cousin, John, in the Jordan River. Not as an infant but at the beginning of his public ministry, somewhere around the age of thirty or so. After his baptism in the Jordan River, he begins to teach people about the Kingdom of God. He is a terrific preacher. He heals the sick, signs not only of who he is but of the presence of that Kingdom of God.
But things will eventually start to unravel. His ministry will last only about three years. First John, the one who baptized Jesus, is arrested and put into prison. You all remember how that ends, right? Certainly not with a stay of execution! And one can already see the writing on the wall for Jesus. He, too, will come into conflict with the religious and political authorities and be arrested and tried and executed. Good Friday is less than four months away.
So John’s question from prison in today’s gospel reading is a legitimate one, then and now. There isn’t yet peace in Jerusalem, let alone on earth. We can’t even find good will on Capitol Hill or Beacon Hill. And in the meantime, gun violence in this country is out of control. Whatever one’s politics may be—it feels beyond disheartening that in the midst of so much gun violence and a year after Newtown that it remains nearly impossible to even have a serious conversation about who can and cannot buy a gun, let alone to move beyond talk to action. Most nations continue to spend way more on swords than plowshares in their national budgets, and lions still eat lambs for lunch. So if Messiah is supposed to do all those things, then who, John asks, are you? And what are you up to, Jesus?
It is a fair question, and it takes us on this third Sunday of Advent to the very heart of our faith. We are still waiting expectantly. And that is what the Season of Advent is all about, Charlie Brown: not just waiting for the first coming of baby Jesus, but for the second coming of Christ the King: for new heavens, and a new earth: for the New Jerusalem, and the New Worcester and the New Denver and the New Newtown. Waiting for the New All Saints to emerge as a beacon of hope and a shining light in this city.
Waiting is hard, and it’s tempting in the meantime to ease our anxiety by spiritualizing the good news of Jesus Christ. This is not some temptation that comes from a so-called secular society and it cannot be fixed by forcing a store clerk to say “Merry Christmas.” We do it to ourselves. We turn this holiday season into fuzzy sentimentality. Or we postpone all our hope until the day when Christ comes again.
But here is the thing: the prophets imagine God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. And when Jesus sends word to John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading, notice that he isn’t talking in the future tense like Isaiah was. He speaks of what is happening: 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.
So Jesus is a great teacher, a healer, the kind of guy everybody wants to eat supper with because wherever he is, it’s a party and everyone keeps hoping he’ll do that thing again with the water and the wine. But how do we really know he is the One? That is John’s question today and it lingers in the air, even now. John has been out there proclaiming that the One who comes after him is going to usher in that reign of God—justice and peace and all the rest. I imagine as he sits in that prison cell that John was as confused as anyone and maybe even a little angry because the One whose sandals he knew he wasn’t fit to untie is out there doing good work to be sure—important ministry. But in a macro-cosmic sense the world looks pretty much the same as it always has. When are the prisoners really going to go free?
So how do you know? If you are a good Jew waiting for Messiah to come, or a good Christian waiting for Messiah to come again—if you live in the first century or the twenty-first—if you are sitting in a prison cell or in a church pew—how do you know when it is God at work?
“Go tell John what you see and what you hear,” Jesus says. It is such classic, vintage Jesus. Notice that he doesn’t directly answer the question. He never does! I read once that 80% of the time in the New Testament when asked a question, Jesus responds with a question. Here he does answer, but it’s a bit of an enigma wrapped in a riddle. Tell John what you see, and what you hear. The problem with that is that it depends on where you stand. Do you see what I see? When you listen to the news, do you hear what I hear? Is the world being made new or is it coming unglued? Is the light shining in the darkness or is it, as Bob Dylan once put it, well it’s not dark yet but it’s getting there?
This is about way more than whether we are constitutionally optimists or pessimists. It’s more than just “is that glass half-full or half-empty?” We can look at the same thing—each of us, from one day to the next and see it differently. Is it an opportunity or a crisis? Is it something that will help us grow or will it be our undoing? Is God in the midst of it all or an absentee landlord? One could ask all of these questions in a congregation that is going through a time of transition and people will see things differently, and do. Some may be feeling hope-full and some may be feeling hope-less and probably most vacillate between the two.
So much has to do with where we are and that can change from day-to-day. If we are overtired or depressed or angry or confused—sometimes we just plain cannot see. I mean literally, we sometimes just cannot see what is right before our eyes. The optic nerves are working fine and delivering messages to the brain but we are blind. And sometimes it’s like those images where if you blink you see it one way and if you blink again you see something else: is that an old lady or a young girl?
Go tell John what you see and hear. Sometimes people whose lives seem (at least from where I stand) to be so incredibly blessed still struggle with doubt and uncertainty about whether God loves them or even exists. And sometimes people whose lives seem (at least from where I stand) to be so incredibly sad are able to find faith and love and joy and hope in the smallest of life’s gifts. The externals don’t always dictate how we will view even our own lives—let alone the world around us. We can have it all and feel empty and sometimes that is exactly where we are in December. And we can have very little and feel like our cup overflows. And sometimes that happens to us in December as well. What you see depends on how you look and also where you look. What you hear depends a great deal on who you’re listening to.
So the first major winter storm comes—or at least what the media calls a major winter storm. I’m getting to be old enough that I am tempted to say that when I was a kid we just called it winter. My youngest cousin in Pennsylvania who has the youngest kids in the family posted on Facebook how her kids spent the whole day out in the snow yesterday and after dinner still wanted more: more snowballs and more snow forts and more sledding. Others of us look at it and instead of experiencing great joy we see a problem to be managed before life can return to normal. Whatever that is…
What are you seeing this December? Do you see weak hands and tottering knees being strengthened? Because where you see those things happening, Jesus says that we see God at work. There we see signs of Christ’s presence. And if once you were blind but now you see in amazingly different ways—isn’t that good news? No doubt we have to be intentional about looking for signs of God’s presence in the world. If we can find ways to put ourselves in places where we can get glimpses at least, of new life and new possibilities, then it becomes food for the journey. And as we learn where to look and how to look with eyes that see, our faith is truly strengthened because we see signs of God’s presence where we never before even thought to look.
Who knows, we might even find God in a stable, of all places?