A sermon on Third Sunday in Advent

This was shared by a member of  Rev. Bloch’s church in Port Townsend, WA

Isaiah 35:1-10 Elizabeth Bloch

Canticle 15 12/12/10

James 5:7-10 Advent 3

Matthew 11:2-11 Year A

Lighting Candles in the Dark

It was dark in John’s prison, all right, darker and darker in Herod’s fateful jail on the shores of the Dead Sea. And John the Baptist – for whom God’s fiery light had shone so fiercely bright in his desert days – by now, he could barely detect the light of even a feeble, guttered flame in these days of fear and fury with himself, with God, and with his heartbreaking cousin, Jesus.

It would only be a matter of days now before Herodias would find a way to convince her husband to bring John’s head to her on a silver platter. He was sure of that by now, and that he was sure he would have been proud, no fulfilled, to die for the Messiah he had expected, the one John thought he had preached and promised…

But from almost the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, everything had turned out so differently from what John had expected. I mean, there John had been surviving on locusts, isolated in the wilderness, denying body and soul any hint of fleshly comfort or contact with human corruption, and the next thing he hears: Jesus is changing water into wine at some wedding in Cana so that everyone, apparently, could carouse without limit! John had preached about righteous living day after day until his throat was raw, warning the people about what terrible consequences would surely be if they didn’t fix their wickedness, get rid of all the bad guys, and begin again with a clean slate of righteous people. Meanwhile, Jesus had been deliberately socializing with the unclean, with outcasts and flagrant sinners of every horrible kind.

Now John, in prison and in the worst kind of trouble, was hearing more and more disheartening news. Jesus, far from using his power and popularity to lead a clean sweep of all that had gone wrong with Israel – not to mention the possibility of freeing John from prison on his way to victory – Jesus seemed to be spending all his precious time and talent on a few ailing people who would certainly not be much help in bringing all Israel to revolutionary repentance. Stories of hemorrhaging women, and lepers, and demoniacs, healing one here, one there, just as he came upon them, it seemed. John couldn’t fathom it. He’d even heard a rumor about Jesus healing a Roman soldier’s slave one day. But that couldn’t have been, could it?

Finally, John just had to ask, even if Jesus’ answer was as terrible as John’s question sounded to him; even if it was the last thing he ever did. So he sent some of his old disciples – probably the same ones who had come to Jesus once before to challenge his far-from-strict spiritual practice – to ask him point blank: Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

Now, listen with me to Jesus’ answer. It holds within it so many answers to all of our John-the-Baptist-questions. John asked, Are you the one who is to come?

Jesus answered, Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Jesus makes absolutely no claims for himself. Every statement is in the passive voice. There is not one I statement in the whole list. No 1st person anywhere. John was definitely asking for a 1st person answer but Jesus would not answer the question John thought he was asking. He made absolutely no claim for himself.

This is the first of the two huge stumbling blocks, I believe, for John and for us – stumbling blocks that come between who we often think God should be and who God really is. Jesus says to John’s disciples: Don’t look at me. Look around you. See for yourself people right here – maybe right here at lunch on Wednesdays, maybe right here at our 2nd Saturday Potlucks – see for yourself people right here who really know what Isaiah’s prophecy was all about. Ask them what it feels like to leap like a deer when you couldn’t even walk before, to sing songs full of joy when you’d never been free enough to speak. Pay attention to them. Talk with them. They’re the ones with the answers you really need. As always, Jesus, our brother and our God, was not interested in wielding power but in giving power away – to us.

And that brings us to the second thing about the way God works that was so hard for John to swallow and is often just as hard for us. A huge, all-encompassing, clean sweep of the religious and political arena – with winnowing fork and fire and an axe to the roots – was simply not Jesus’ way. For Jesus, the healing, and raising from death to life, the care for the poor and the lost and the hungry happened pretty much one by one as he walked and talked and listened and touched and fed and set free…

Jesus’ answer was coming to John – and to all God’s dark and wounded world -one at a time, like lighting candles in the dark. One at a time, the way we light the candles on our Advent wreath, one more each week even as the days themselves are growing darker and darker. John, in the darkness of his prison, wanted a fireball God who would make a clean sweep of the whole mess of creation-gone-wrong. But Jesus, our one-at-a-time God, was lighting candles of healing and hope one by one, and always beginning with the stubbiest, least acceptable candles, as far outside the circle of notice and attraction as he could get.

And then, to cap it all off, Jesus lets us in on his amazing secret within that slowly growing and not very impressive circle of lighted candles in the dark. He says, Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

(Warning: word study ahead)

Makarios is the word we translate as blessed. It meant, in New Testament use, happy – only happy with great emotional force, joyful just about to bursting. Makarios is anyone who takes no offense at me. The word offense in Greek is skandalon, which to ancient Greeks meant stumbling block. Skandalizomai, to stumble. Makarios is anyone who does not stumble over who I really am.

Jesus was saying, as plainly as he could, that if we can make it beyond the stumbling block of loving the God who actually is, instead of the one we so often think should be, if we could love the God who gives power away to us to heal, and bring to life one at a time, beginning from the outside to light stubby little flickering candles in the Way of our God, then we would know joy just about to bursting right in the middle of the darkness.

Here is an Advent clue about how it all works: the joy of the angels dimmed the stars with their light when God began with a helpless infant, born in a stable, to an unwed mother, on the outside of town.

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