Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Sermon For The Third Sunday of Advent

This Sunday I am at The Southwick Community Episcopal Church, the newest parish in our diocese. Grateful to be there on the third Sunday of Advent

The connection between these two texts we heard read today, the first from the Old Covenant and the gospel reading from the New Covenant, seems pretty unmistakable. And at first, it seems so nice and tidy. First, we heard from the prophet, Isaiah.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble (tottering) knees!
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
"Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you."
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.  (Isaiah 35:3-6)

With these words still ringing in our ears, we next hear it all happening in the ministry of Jesus.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered 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 takes no offense at me."                                                (Matthew 11:2-6)

Anybody who reads the Old Testament knows that when Messiah comes there will be peace on earth and good will to all people. The lion will lie down with the lamb. Swords will be beaten into plowshares and nation shall not lift up sword against nation. We won’t need Secretaries of Defense of Homeland Security; just Agriculture and HUD. The peaceable kingdom we’ve been talking about for three weeks now in this Advent season will be made known when the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. Alleluia!

But here is the thing: it’s not that simple. Not in the first century and not today. John the baptizer pointed to the one coming after him who would do all these things, the one whose shoes who said he wasn’t fit to tie. But now John has been arrested and he’s sitting in a jail cell. They weren’t yet calling it death row, but you all remember how it ends for John, yes?

So John’s question is not only a legitimate one that lingers but for him it’s pretty existential: are you the one, Jesus or should we wait for another?

If there was peace on earth, we’d know, right? But we not only haven’t gotten to “good will for all,” trust me when I say this- we can’t even get to peace in our congregations. I’m sure the vestry here always holds hands and sings kumbaya but the work of being the Church is hard, and messy – and what’s true in our congregations is even more so in our neighborhoods and our towns and cities and across this Commonwealth and nation and around the world. Lions still eat lambs for lunch and most days it doesn’t feel like the light shines in the darkness. If anything it may feel, as the prophet Bob Dylan once put it, that ”it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting’ there.”

So John asks (and we ask!) what are you up to, Jesus? Are you the one? I think this question takes us to the very heart of Advent: we follow Jesus, and we wait. But we don’t wait passively, we are called to lean in. We wait for the New Jerusalem and the new Washington and the new Boston and the new Springfield and the new Southwick.

The Rev. Taylor Albright, Rector at SCEC
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 our so-called secular society. We can’t blame “the culture” on that one; we do it to ourselves. We turn this holiday season into fuzzy sentimentality: the spiritual equivalent of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. 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 baptizer in today’s gospel reading, notice that he isn’t talking in the future tense like Isaiah was. He is now speaking 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. Present tense.

Jesus is a great teacher and healer. He’s 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. I imagine as he sits in that prison cell that John was as confused as anyone and maybe even a little bit angry because while no one can argue that Jesus is doing good ministry, it’s not clear that it’s making any difference in a macro-cosmic sense. The world looks pretty much the same as it always has and so John is asking: “when are the prisoners really going to go free? Because sitting in this prison cell, I’d propose that now would be a good time!”

Lots of creativity at SCEC...
So how do you know? If you are a good Jew or a good Christian—if you live in the first century or the twenty-first—if you are sitting in a prison cell or sitting in a congregation on the third Sunday of Advent? How do you know when it is God at work in the world and that Messiah is already in our midst?

“Go tell John what you see and what you hear,” Jesus responds. It is such classic, vintage Jesus. Notice that he doesn’t directly answer the question. Jesus almost never does! He just encourages people to use their eyes and ears. But the problem with that is always the same: when you look, what do you see? Is that glass you are looking at half-full or half-empty? When you listen to the evening news: is the world being made new or is it coming unglued? It’s not just about whether we are constitutionally more optimists or pessimists as far as I can tell, although perhaps that’s some part of it.  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 is it a crisis? Is it something that will help us to grow or will it be our undoing? Is God in the midst of it all or is God absent? 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 that literally, Sometimes we 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.

Go tell John what you see and hear.  Sometimes people whose lives seem (at least from where I stand) to be 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 we can have very little and feel like our cup overflows. What you see depends on how you look and where you are looking. What you hear depends a great deal on who you are listening to.

Even so, we who have eyes are called to look and we who have ears are called to hear. So what are you seeing this December? We are coming up on that ancient celebration of the winter solstice, four days before we celebrate the nativity of our Lord. The days are still getting shorter this week; it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there! But ten days from now we turn a corner and we get through this long New England winter trusting that the days are getting just a little bit lighter each day. And we might begin to pray, “it’s not light yet, but it’s getting there.” And then the big follow up: how do we allow our light to shine toward that end? How do we look and listen to those places where God is already at work, and inviting us in?

What are you seeing this December? Do you see weak hands and tottering knees being strengthened? Because where you see those things happening, there God is at work. There we see signs of Messiah’s presence. Where we see joy and peace and light shining in the darkness we need to be able to name those things as sure signs of God’s presence in our midst. That doesn’t mean there isn’t still pain in the world, Lord knows. Or that we serve the Reign of God by living in denial. But where love and charity are—there God is. Ubi caritas et amour, deus ibi est. That’s at the heart of both the Old and New Covenants. If you see forgiveness where it is not even deserved, there you see God.  If you see hope and healing and new life, there God is. And where we do not yet see these things, do we dare to ask, “Lord, how can I be an instrument of your peace?”

So what do are you seeing this Advent? I believe that the great challenge for most of us in December is that we are sometimes moving at warp speed and at warp speed it is hard to see anything but a blur. It’s harder to notice the little things. And sometimes in our desire to make Christmas perfect, we will miss what is right before our very eyes, imperfect but nevertheless real and beautiful. But often little, like a mustard seed. Or a little baby in a makeshift homeless shelter.

I think we have to be intentional about looking for signs of God’s presence in the world and we have to practice. And I think we come to places of worship like this place so that we can put ourselves in places where we can get glimpses at least of new life and new possibilities that God sets before us. And that becomes food for the journey. It sustains us and trains us to know better where to look with eyes that see, and how to listen with ears that hear. And our faith is strengthened because we see signs of God’s presence where we never before even thought to look.

You all know this of course, but every Advent gives us a chance to remember, and to turn again. It gives us a chance to answer the question of what we do see and hear and to embrace the promise that it’s not light yet, but it’s getting there.

Do not be afraid. 

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