The Third Sunday in Advent, Year C - December 11, 2016

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

The Third Sunday of Advent

Year C

December 11, 2016

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor


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.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:2-11)


You have all heard the old saying, the darkness always comes before the dawn.  And yet, during these dark December days, it isn’t easy to take much consolation in that, as much as we know it to be true.  So we light candles, sing our songs, gather together - not just for the sheer joy of the season but to stave off the darkness nipping at our heels.

The story goes that John the Baptist was born on the summer solstice, the lightest day of the year. Six months older than Jesus, he’s quick enough to leap in his mother’s womb when Mary visits her, inspiring the song we sang this morning.  John is a figure of dynamism, judgment, and light, called from his birth to be the prophet of the most high, devoting his entire life to it. 

Yet as this morning’s Gospel passage opens, John finds himself alone in a dark prison cell, and things are not going well for him at all. Not only is he in jail, in trouble with King Herod, but nothing has happened the way he’d hoped.  The messiah was supposed to change things, fix them, so that the wicked no longer prospered and the righteous, like himself, would be rescued. “Prepare the way” John cried out when he saw Jesus at the river Jordan – “here is the one who will separate the wheat from the chaff!”

But far from rescuing John, Jesus was increasingly in trouble himself, and showed no signs of living up to John’s expectations.  While John ate locusts in the wilderness, Jesus was turning water into wine.  While John had spent his whole life warning people to repent and save their souls, Jesus came along and told them to leave the saving to God, calling them instead to love one another.   John had expected Jesus to wield an ax, striking away the rotten wood of the world, and instead Jesus pointed out all the new growth that John may not have been able see.  Not only did this confuse John, it disillusioned him.  “Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?”

It’s not too hard to understand what John was going through. The fact that you and I are sitting here in church this morning indicates that we, like John, have recognized in Jesus something that has convinced us that he is, somehow, the messiah, the holy one of God.  We are all, in different ways, preparing the way of the Lord, every week that we come here, praying our prayers, hearing the scriptures read, listening to what I have to say when I preach, what others say when we meet for our formation programs. We all are searching for ways to live in to our faith in Jesus. 

But along the way, we’ve acquired some definite ideas about what to expect, what Jesus will do, sooner or later, for us, as people.  Of course, those expectations aren’t always met…at times of anger, hurt, disappointment, or loss – who among us hasn’t asked the same question John the Baptist asks today?  Jesus, are you the one, or are we to wait for another?

Take, for instance, when you’re watching the news…which always begins with some report of a bombing in the Middle East or a tragedy like the warehouse fire in Oakland or a frustrating political maneuver, by one party or another.  If you are like me, you get to a point where you’ve just got to turn the T.V. off, sit in darkness and wonder….Jesus are you the one, or are we to wait for another?

One of the things that happens to those of us who work in professions of caregiving during this time of year, is that you get to live in the shadow of other peoples’ darkness.  It’s the season when depression soars, grief over the loss of loved ones becomes acute, the gremlins in our minds and in our family dynamics raise their unpleasant heads.  Add to that the phone calls from people in our local community struggling to make ends meet, who don’t just need money for Christmas presents, but food for the table, oil for their furnaces.  Sometimes, when I get off the phone after trying to figure out how to respond to such requests …I can’t help but think, “Jesus, are you the one, or are we to wait for another?”

Like the prophet Isaiah, I want to say with confidence, “Be Strong” Fear Not! Behold your God will come with a vengeance, … and save you!”  But it doesn’t seem to happen that way.  At least not yet.  Over and over again, we want Jesus to come with his ax, but he lays it down, sending us out instead into our lives with only words of love and assurance to carry the loads we bear.

And so we fill our grocery bags with food for the families at Peter Paul Development, collect hats and scarves for the kids at JEB Stuart, hand out our sack hunger bags to the homeless. We come together, here, to share our challenges and help each other figure out how to get through them.  These are the tasks we’ve been given to do, and we’ve promised to try.  Which is, I suppose, a matter of serving the God who is instead of the one we would have God be…something that was hard for poor, disillusioned John the Baptist and not much easier for us, today.

“Are you the one who is coming, or are we to wait for another?” asked John’s disciples.  And Jesus answered, “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.”

This is a radical answer, almost as radical as the question, without a single claim for the speaker.  There are no “I” statements here.  Did you notice?  The blind are seeing and the lame are walking.  But who is responsible?  Jesus refuses, apparently, to take credit for being the magic man, refuses to drop his humanity as if it were a disguise and single-handedly rescue the human race from the disasters in their lives.  Put on the spot, asked point blank to prove himself, Jesus offers no showy miracle.  Instead he says, “open your eyes, see for yourselves.”  “Make up your own minds about what’s been going on.”

In other words, “Tell John that everyone who is expected has already arrived.  Things may not be working out the way he wanted them to, but every now and then, in surprising places, marvelous things are happening.  People who were blind to the love loose in the world have received their sight; people who were paralyzed with fear are now nimble with hope; people who were deaf from lack of good news are now singing hymns.”

And best and most miraculous of all, this is not the work of an exalted king, but the work of God, carried out by all those who trust in God’s love, and there is no end in sight.  “Tell John that I am the one, if you must, but tell him also that yes, he should look for another, and another, and another.  Tell him to search in every face for the face of God, because what is happening here is bigger than any of us, as big as the Kingdom of God.”

Among the Jews who celebrate Passover, there is a tradition of saving a seat at the table for Elijah, the prophet who John the Baptist so clearly echoed, and who is supposed to bring the news that the messiah has finally come.  At a poignant moment in the Sedar service, the door is opened for Elijah and everyone sits silently in anticipation.  For thousands of years, that door has been opened....

One Hasidic story tells of a pious Jew who asked his rabbi, “For about forty years I’ve opened the door for Elijah every Seder night, waiting for him to come, but he never does.  What is the reason?

The Rabbi answered:  “In your neighborhood there lives a very poor family with many children.  Call on the man and propose to him that you and your family celebrate Passover at his house, and for this purpose provide him and his whole family with everything necessary for eight days of Passover.  Then on the Seder night Elijah will certainly come.”

The man did as the Rabbi told him, but after Passover he came back and claimed that again, he had waited in vain to see Elijah.  The rabbi answered, “I know very well that Elijah came on the Seder night to the house of your poor neighbor.  But of course you could not see him.”  And the rabbi held a mirror before the face of the man and said, “Look, this was Elijah’s face that night.”[1]

Are you the one who is coming, or are we to wait for another?



[1] As told in Barbara Brown Taylor’s Mixed Blessings (Cambridge:  Cowley Publications, 1986), 87

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