A sermon, based on Matthew 11.2-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2019
John the Baptist, with clarity and ferocity, proclaimed the coming of the Messiah:
“Bear fruit worthy of repentance…for the ax is at the root of the trees. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire…One who is mightier than I is coming…His winnowing fork is in his hand. He will clear the threshing floor, gathering the wheat into the granary, burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.”(1)
Jesus, whose advent John announced, arrives, but without the expected judgment. John, in prison for disturbing the peace, hungers for the fulfillment of his prophecy. He longs to hear word that the ax has swung, the winnowing fork has swept. A word that never comes. Sadly, the world continues on its weary, wicked way as though nothing has happened or would happen.
I share John’s disappointment, his despair whenever I imagine how life could be or, arrogantly, I confess, ought to be. Or whenever I have raised my voice in prayer; with words, bringing my dreams to light. Or whenever I have given my hand to efforts to bring my dreams to life. And all for naught, for I behold my vision evaporating in the heat of the world’s stubborn resistance to change.
At moments like this, I sympathize with John. At moments like this, I am John! For, at moments like these, in times past, I’d cry out to God “Why?” or “What are you doing? or “Where are you?” or “Are you?” Yet every time I gave God another chance to prove that God is God, in charge of the world, God always declined to fulfill my will!
Today, I no longer wishfully, wistfully theologize about a god of my imagining. Yet, after 2000 years of Christianity, given abundant signs of humanly sinful, sin-fueled suffering, I still share John’s soulful lamentation: “Jesus, are you the one or must we look for another?”
Usually, I raise this question in curiosity. For John, in prison awaiting execution, it was a matter of life and death: “Jesus, are you truly the Messiah or has my ministry been misguided and my life, a lie?”
Now, there remain times when John’s cry is an issue of critical concern. Whenever the hungry again plead for bread and the homeless for a bed and an uncaring world shrugs, “There’s no room in the inn!” Whenever a prayer for peace again is drowned out by the deafening sound of war. Whenever the call of the oppressed for freedom again is reduced to a whisper under the weight of bondage. Whenever visions of love again are vanquished and dreams of justice again denied. Whenever and wherever, we, with John, might cry: “Jesus, are you the Messiah or have we been fools to follow you?”
Nevertheless, John’s despairing question harbored this one hope. That Jesus would answer. And he did. Not saying, “Tell John I am the Messiah!” but rather, “Tell John what you hear and see. The disabled, diseased, deaf, dead are made whole.”
Yes, the world goes on its weary, wicked way. Jesus never promised anything else. ‘Til Judgment Day, there will be sin and suffering, hunger and homelessness, war and strife. Yet when and where we, who follow Jesus, do what he did – feed the hungry, cloth the naked, pray and work for freedom and peace – there and then Jesus advents, he comes with hope and healing.
John was God’s messenger proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. Yet he could not perceive that Jesus, as Messiah, rules with the force of love, governs with the judgment of justice, that his power is revealed in service and sacrifice, not violence. Therefore, “the least in the kingdom of heaven,” the least of Jesus’ followers, those who behold, however imperfectly, who Jesus is and do, however partially, what Jesus does, even we, are greater than John.
(1) Matthew 3.8, 10, 11b, 12. From the gospel passage appointed for the 2nd Sunday of Advent.
St. John the Baptist Preaching (c.1665), Mattia Preti (1613-1699)
The Baptist in Prison, Giusto de’ Menabuoi (1320-1391)