Sunday, December 11, 2016

Defying Expectations: Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year A

Preached at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Town and Country, Missouri,
December 11, 10 am

Isaiah 35:1-10
Canticle 15
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Last week, I was unable to be here with you because I was in a car wreck last Saturday, and Pamela urged me to stay home. The wreck came as a total surprise. I had pulled up at a four-way stop, and two cars perpendicular to me pulled up at the same time just a second later. So, knowing that four-way stops are always trouble, I waved the other two cars through. All the stops but mine were then empty, which is just how I like my four-way stops—I don’t know about you. Imagine my shock, then, when as I was in the middle of the intersection I heard a huge bang and then had something white loom up in front of my eyes and the next thing I know I was spinning. And it was some GOOD, thrilling spinning, let me tell you. People pay hundreds of dollars at Disney World for such spinning.

I entered that intersection expecting to get through it and go on my merry way. It is an understatement to say that I most certainly and without a doubt did NOT get what I expected.

There are many people in our readings today who also did not get what they expected. The vision Isaiah gives us this week shows a desert blooming, the weak being strengthened, the disabled made whole, waters gushing forth in the driest of places.
This will be the vision that greets the eyes of the faithful ones, the followers of the Way of God. Instead of desolation, they will see fertility and abundance and beauty. They will see a land of promise. And they will rejoice, and all will live together in wholeness as a community at peace.

It’s the same vision of healing and restoration that Jesus uses to define and describe his ministry in our gospel: “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 Jesus comes by this radical vision of real peace and wholeness honestly. It was given to him by his Father in Heaven. It was proclaimed by his Mother here on Earth in her brave hymn of praise and rebellion known as the Magnificat, which has been prayed and sung and whispered throughout the ages. 

Biblical scholar and Anglican bishop N. T. Wright calls the Magnificat
the gospel before the gospel,
a fierce bright shout of triumph
thirty weeks before Bethlehem,
thirty years before Calvary and Easter.” 

Mary’s vision and Jesus’s vision align, and that’s no accident. It’s a reminder of what the gospel really means and what it tells us about living into God’s vision for us.

It’s a gospel which has always confounded any who try to twist it based on their own expectations. Last week we saw John proclaiming the coming of the Lord. So much anticipation was imbedded in that gospel, which is of course so perfect for Advent. When indeed Jesus did appear, Jesus was not exactly what John had been expecting. 

Isn’t that so often the case? We dream about something wonderful happening in our lives, and then reality ends up being still so random. Not worse, but different than our expectations. John had been expecting Messiah to be obvious to him. He expected Messiah to establish a certain way of justice that would reorder society the way John thought it should be.

And that’s not what he got. Instead, like Charlie Brown trick-or-treating and only getting rocks, in Matthew 4:12, John was arrested. The prophet rots in jail for seven chapters, and now, in chapter 11, he is forced to send some of his followers to attempt to ascertain whether Jesus is indeed the Messiah. 

Sitting in his jail cell, John has doubts. To find the source of his disquiet, simply look at his words of prophecy. He has been foretelling doom, and judgment, and punishment. This is not the Messiah John has been expecting. John was expecting someone who would emphasize repentance more, even though Jesus certainly did plenty of that.
John was expecting vengeance!
John was expecting a leader who would be a strong man.
John was expecting some retribution at broods of vipers!

Many people, even today, especially today, expect to see that kind of God and that kind of leadership operating in the world right now. The problem with having a leader or God who is a “strong man” is that the only way he becomes a “strong man” is by taking away agency from everyone else and gathering all the power to himself and maybe his buddies. 

Jesus IS a strong man- make no mistake. As God incarnate, he COULD treat us as infants and take care of everything. But Jesus’s strength as God, clothed in humanity, is rooted in love, not fear. Jesus’s message is about healing us, strengthening us, empowering us for the work he is going to send US into the world to do in his name. 

Jesus didn’t come to patronize us or treat us as infants, but to lead us back into the full vision of humanity that was planted in us by God in creation: a vision of wholeness, integrity, justice, and peace that our Jewish brethren sum up in one small word: “shalom.” And Jesus shows us who he is by what he does in the name of mercy and healing, not by what he says in condemnation or by threats.

So John sends some of his followers to ask Jesus straight up: “Are you the One we have been waiting for, or is there another?” There is a little bit of a forlorn quality in the question. John seems to be wondering, “Have I been wasting my time? Have I been wrong about what my role is?”

Notice how Jesus answers John here, too. Jesus is NOT about Jesus. Jesus does not say, “Yes, I am he! I have healed the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf! I have raised the dead! I have brought hope to the poor!” Jesus lets the actions speak for themselves. He emphasizes the healing, not the credit that is due. He puts the focus on the kingdom, healed and established on foundations of wholeness, rather than his status. He echoes the prophecies we heard in our section of Isaiah today. He fulfills the promises his mother shouted out with defiant joy in her canticle today.

So what we see here is that John has not gotten the Messiah he wanted or expected. And yet, here is his cousin, Jesus, and he is NOT some warrior king. He is not about restoring the former glory of Israel by having it rise to new military or political or economic power.

What Jesus IS about is moving among those who have been outcast. This God, we see, emphasizes mercy over retribution, in contrast to the God that many people today still seem to expect—a God of retribution and smiting, a sender of earthquakes and famines to punish millions.

Jesus reminds us that his ministry will surprise us, and will lead us in ways we did not expect and heal us in ways we may not even deserve. “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” he says. Blessed are those who embrace and follow Jesus for who Jesus is, radical enough for the best of us, instead of trying to make Jesus fit their preconceived notions of who Messiah will be. 

John asks who Jesus is. Now in the second half of our reading Jesus asks the crowds if they understand who John is. A “reed shaken in the wind” would have been someone who sought to appeal to popular opinion, who would have said what was pleasing to the crowd. That certainly wasn’t John—and in the end, it isn’t Jesus, either, then or now. Was John a smoothly groomed, tanned, manicured huckster in a bespoke suit, preaching an easy message in some plush setting? Not even close. But even John lost sight of the fact that the inbreaking of God’s kingdom into the world would completely upend all the power structures he despised-- by NOT playing into them and the inherent violence that is the foundation of human systems of empire and domination.

John is a prophet—but more than a prophet. He is the last great prophet of the old age, who is pointing to the new age. He is the transition between the Old Testament, which depended upon prophets to explain the ways of God, and the New Testament, which has the Messiah, who is a prophet and God incarnate. Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven—among those who have faith in Jesus as the Christ—are greater than John at this moment, not because John is doubting, but because John is trying to impose his own expectation upon Jesus. Jesus’s ministry is making John uncomfortable, because it is not what he expected.

Advent kind of does the same number on us. We are anticipating Christmas, with a cute chubby baby lying in a manger, and instead we get this fully grown holy man speaking riddles and challenges as well as hope. 

We can see one thing, though. Jesus is his MOTHER’S son, as well as the Son of God. “My soul proclaims the GREATNESS of the Lord, and my spirit REJOICES in God my Savior!” she cries out. “God has lifted up the lowly, starting with me, and has placed his strong arm before me!” she sings. And Jesus himself, in his words and actions, proclaims the very same thing.

Jesus was NOT the one that John was expecting. And John certainly wasn’t the only one confounded. Jesus often confounded those who encountered him—and still does, today more than ever! Look around at all the different gospel visions we see proclaimed today in the name of Christ! 

We don’t own Jesus—Jesus owns us.

That’s why we identify ourselves through his title as Christ. Now the next question to logically proceed is this: Who, then are we, and what are we to do?

Nothing less than carry Jesus and his gospel of healing, mercy, and fierce compassion into the world. We, like Mary, are called to be Christ-bearers, to be disciples, not just fans. We are called to a way of life that saves us right now, not in some distant future, through our own lives bearing testimony to the JOY that is God’s kingdom. As Caryll Houselander reminds us in her book of devotions to Mary called The Reed of God, Mary is not just human, she is humanity. She is us. Houselander writes, “The one thing she did and does is the one thing that we all have to do, namely to bear Christ into the world. Christ must be born from every soul, formed in every life.”

And that means making Jesus’s path our own, and remembering that he seeks to live within us right now. As Christians, we are called to be the body of Christ and to literally embody Christ. The operating instructions are right before us: in this season of darkness, our business is to shine that light of healing, of compassion, of love even in the face of hate, into the world.

Given that this third Sunday in Advent is called “Gaudete” or “Joy” Sunday, what could be more joyful than to be reminded that God generously defies our expectations again and again? Throughout scripture God calls us to turn away from systems of behavior based on scarcity and anxiety. The reading from Isaiah reminds us that God does not intend for us to live that way, nor to try to impose that anxiety and fear upon others. If we see the face of God in each and every fellow being, how can we hope that others will “lose” so that we will “win?” That kind of losing and winning denies the inherent goodness and dignity of EVERY human being that we repeated a couple of weeks ago at the baptism we celebrated together. 

If it sounds crazy to hope for such a world, that’s because maybe it is. That’s why our presiding bishop calls us “crazy Christians.” We are called not to give in to being ground down by the expectations and limitations of this world, but to work to establish the kingdom of heaven on Earth. And that involves defying expectations and challenging injustice and impoverishments of all kinds in the name of mercy and the Love who came and is coming into the world as Jesus Christ our Savior.


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