December 16, 2007

Third Sunday of Advent

“Are You The One?”
Isaiah 35: 1-10
Luke 1: 47-55
James 5: 7-10
Matthew 11: 2-11

He had been so sure. Even before the beginning. All his life, he had heard the story, told over and over again, of the meeting between their mothers. While he was still in his mother’s womb, he had recognized the one sent from God to be the Savior. He had grown up knowing the story of his own miraculous conception, as well as that of his cousin. His mother had sung to him the song she learned from Mary until it was as much a part of him as the beating of his own heart: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” He knew that his own life work was to prepare the way for the reality he first learned from Mary’s song: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

His part in this holy drama had seemed compelling and inevitable. He had been so sure of his own calling, and all that time in the desert only strengthened his conviction. When he came among the people and began to preach, his message was strong and unambiguous. “Repent,” he told them. “Turn your lives around, change your thinking.” And then when they wanted to know how to do that, the answer was shaped by those words he had learned from his mother. “If you have two coats, share with someone who has none. If you have enough to eat, share with those who are hungry. Live honest lives. Lift up the lowly.”

And the people came in droves to hear him. Who knows what motivated them. Maybe they were curious, interested in seeing this odd man with his wild eyes and primitive clothing. Maybe they were hungry for his message of transformation. Maybe they just wanted to see what was going on. Whatever the reason, they came.

And then one day, his cousin came, too. He baptized him just the way he had baptized all the rest of them, except it wasn’t the same at all. Because he knew that the Spirit was present somehow, and that in the moment when the water slipped through his fingers, all the hopes and prayers of his own ministry were fulfilled. In that moment, he had no doubt that this was the one.

His conviction gave him the strength to speak out against the evils of his day. His faith made him fearless, and his fearlessness made him reckless. He challenged the ruler and his sinful lifestyle and found himself in prison because of it.

And in that place of dark confinement, suddenly he wasn’t so sure. He began to wonder and to question and maybe even to doubt. Had he spent his life for nothing? Had he been wrong all along? Herod still ruled; people were still oppressed; the rich got richer and the poor still suffered. And it seemed there was no judgment, no condemnation, no axe at the root of the tree, no winnowing fork separating the wheat from the chaff and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire. The world was much the way it always had been.

And the echo of that long ago song rose up in the darkness of his prison cell and mocked him until finally he could stand it no more and he sent word to his cousin: “Are you the one who is to come? Are you? Or are we supposed to wait for someone else? Did we get it wrong? Was it was all a big mistake? Are you the one?”

And this was the response: “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.”

Jesus had breathed life into the words of prophets long dead. He had reclaimed God’s holy intention for creation. The dry wastelands of life were blooming and beautiful. All was joy and gladness, no sorrow, no grief. The desert was transformed; it became a garden, like that garden in the beginning. Except … John was still in prison, Herod was still in power, the poor and the weak were still oppressed.

There is no record of John’s reaction to the message that came to him, but I wonder if it really answered his question. And I wonder, too, if we are not asking the same question: Are you the one?

Look around at our world: The beautiful words of Isaiah, the strong and clear words of Mary, the healing, saving words of Jesus seem just that – words, not reality. Here is the reality. The homeless roam the streets. Children go to bed hungry, in our town, not just far away. Millions are disabled by diseases that are easily treated or even prevented. Poverty cripples the dreams of bright young minds. And the rich get richer and the poor still suffer. And maybe we were sure at one time that what we or the church were doing made sense, but our helplessness in the face of the world’s wrongs stirs up our own doubt. Are you the one?

Here we are, waiting for Christmas, but in truth we are waiting for more than that. We are waiting for the complete fulfillment of all those ancient words. We are waiting for the waste places of our world to become beautiful, lush and lovely. We are waiting for an end to illness and disease and disability. We are waiting for an end to our own inability to speak, to act, to change.

The world is a mess, and it is easy to despair when we look around us. But here is the work of Advent: Look deeper. Try to see beneath the surface. Go to the desert and look for the life that lies there. Hidden in the sand are the seeds of the crocus. Under the parched surface, there are pools of water. In the midst of death and dryness, there is life, just waiting to flower.

Our faith is like that, too. It is marked by the “already” and the “not yet.” Everything that is meant to be is already present, but it is not yet fully realized. All the goodness that God would want us to have is already given, but we have not fully embraced it. The power to restore creation already exists, but we have not yet let it loose.

And the work of Advent is opening our eyes to see what is already there. The work of Advent is preparing the way for what is to come and is already here. The work of Advent is strengthening the weak hands, making firm the feeble knees. It is saying to those who are of a fearful heart: Be strong, do not fear. Your God is here and your God will come to save you.”

And the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing for joy. Waters will break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. And a highway shall be there and it shall be called the Holy Way. And it will be the way of the Lord, and we will walk it with him.

May it be so, even as it already is. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith