Advent 2 December 8, 2019
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Last Sunday I offered up to God four laments. I pointed out my concern over the decline in church attendance, not only in our church but in churches in general. I voiced my worries over all the boundary violations emerging in churches. I called out our politicians and the corruption and hypocrisy unfolding in Washington. Finally, I spoke about the need of vulnerable children the world over, our own communities included. I ended each lament with these words, “What are you waiting for, God? O Come, O Come, Immanuel.” I wonder if you could hear the fear in my voice last Sunday? Advent is a season of waiting – waiting for God to break through into our present reality just as he did that long ago first Christmas night. But we’ve been waiting for so long, somehow it reaches a point where we get tired of waiting. We look around and see all that’s wrong with our world and fear creeps in. Is God here? Does God care? In the face of such overwhelming violence, mayhem, evil, do we worship a God who for reasons unknown to us, chooses to simply sit on His hands and do nothing? These are scary questions to ask. But I think we all ask them, when we sit in the dark wishing, praying for the reassurance of light. “God, what are you waiting for?”
What are we waiting for? A superhero Marvel God to come flying out of the sky at the perfect moment and rescue us when danger threatens? A larger than life emergent king who commands our allegiance and topples all obstacles in his path? A cosmic, earth shattering arrival of Greatness we can’t even put to words? What are we waiting for with our sights set so high?
Our longing joins forces with John the Baptist’s in our text for today. John was a doer. Since childhood he had trained for his role as the forerunner. John had been out there in the wilderness for years, drawing in new followers. He’d made countercultural lifestyle choices that aligned with his ethics, camel’s hair and locusts come to mind. He’d been preparing the Way with baptisms and fiery speeches that aroused the ire of those in power. He’d been predicting a new king coming, a kingdom just at hand. His sights were set high.
Then he lands in prison where he is forced to wait. This bundle of passion and energy sits and waits…and waits. And everything he’s predicted Jesus will do, with the ax at the root of the tree and the winnowing fork in hand to burn chaff with unquenchable fire…well, Jesus keeps not getting around to doing these things so high on John’s agenda. Trickled droplets of fear begin pooling in John’s heart and hard questions begin to surface. “What are you waiting for, Jesus? Are you the one I’ve spent my whole life prophesying about? Are you the one I’m going to be dying for any day now? Or did I get this all wrong?” And so John sends some of his disciples to go ask Jesus this most heart rending question. “Are you the one who was to come, or should we be expecting someone else?”
Now Jesus loves his cousin, John, very much, so he doesn’t make John wait on his answer…doesn’t forget his cousin waiting in prison with doubts in his heart. He sends those same disciples right back to John with his response – a response John perhaps wasn’t expecting. It might not quite be what we had in mind either. Jesus isn’t knocking on the doors of the rich and mighty. He isn’t going to the influence brokers of society or appealing to the movers and shakers. Rather Jesus is going to the powerless. To the people we try so hard not to see. Jesus is going to the ones “who don’t really matter.” Jesus says, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” John has asked a hard question here and gotten a hard answer he may not know what to do with.
Jesus then turns his attention to the crowds gathered to hear him speak. And beginning with a series of questions all his own, this is what he says about John. “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what 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: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
John the Baptist, a man among men. Ahead of his time. A wise man who sees much and understands more. An individual worthy of our respect and our praise. Yet even John can only grasp onto the tiniest sliver of insight and light. “He who is least in the kingdom of heaven is still greater than John.”
We set our sights so high and Jesus comes slipping in beneath our gaze. Jesus’ response to John, however, is right in line with the words of one of the greatest prophets our world has ever known – Isaiah. In today’s Old Testament text, Isaiah is speaking words of comfort and encouragement to the Israelites in exile in Babylon. He is painting a picture with words, promising them better days lie ahead. But Isaiah’s gaze isn’t pointing quite so high, it’s a much humbler perspective. According to Isaiah, in that time coming when God will redeem creation, the first part of this created order that will receive the good news is not humanity, but the natural world. And not the lush green forests or ocean vistas or mountaintop panoramas. No, the desert and the parched land will be glad and the wilderness will rejoice. These dry and deprived places will actually receive the same splendor and glory of the fertile and beautiful sites of Lebanon, Carmel and Sharon.
Next, Isaiah speaks to those who are struggling with fear and uncertainty. “Let your feeble hands grasp hold of these words. Don’t let your knees knock anymore. Take heart. Do not fear. Your God will come with vengeance and retribution. He will come to save you.”
At this point in the text, if we were writing it, we might continue on, “See, your king is coming, powerful and triumphant.” That’s not what Isaiah says at all. He says, this is how you will know God has arrived. “The eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. The lame will leap like deer, and the mute tongue will shout for joy.” Does this bear any resemblance to Jesus’ reply to John?
Fear has a funny way of tying us up in knots and rendering us helpless. Paralyzed, we look for someone else to break in and save the day, to rescue us from ourselves. We look for someone else to do it for us. We ask God, “What are you waiting for?” Is it possible God is asking us the same question? Could it be that the offering we’re bringing each Sunday is our small token and confessional attempt to answer God’s question of us? God asks us, “What are you waiting for?” We respond – “I’m sorry God. I don’t know what I’m waiting for. Please help me. Give me the courage I need to get out in your world, lower my eyes in humility and see You and Your Spirit’s movement among the hurting and handicapped, the forgotten and frail. Help me find opportunities to share your good news with those who most need to hear it. Accept my offering of a blanket or a hoodie today as my symbolic pledge to quit waiting on you to do what I should have been doing all along. I’m still waiting God. But I’m waiting with you and working with you. Keep opening me to your light, to your grace, to your salvation.”
On Christmas Day we celebrate God’s advent in this world in the form of a needy child, a helpless baby. When will we learn to look lower? We’re waiting at the wrong corner for the wrong god, apparently. And as we wait, God is also waiting. Waiting for us to drop our preoccupation with might, with power, with material goods, with prestige, with wealth and influence. God is waiting for us to stoop a little lower and meet him at the manger in the little village of Bethlehem.
Fear binds us. Is it possible, however, that in fear we also find the answer? Rather than fear all the forces of darkness over which we have no control, maybe we direct our fear a little differently. Fear of God is the beginning of setting our sights in a new way. Fear of God is always a movement lower, an obedient humility.
Our response hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is a song with lowered gaze. A humble celebration of a king who comes in gentleness and in need and sets his sights upon the overlooked and lowly and thus is the Savior who redeems us all. Here is a short reflection I wrote based on the lyrics to this familiar hymn.
Quiet town of Bethlehem, where nothing and no one of note happens by. You sleep in small-town obscurity where dreams are tiny too. So how is it in a dark alley on an anonymous night in the middle of nowhere Bethlehem, your light breaks through and meets us in all the hopes and fears we’ve shouldered for eternity? There under slumbering stars, as we burrow under the covers of night, your Christ child is born to Mary and angels stand guard in the stillness. With the silence of dawn, the heavens sing to God our King that peace has come to earth. Only with meek ear bowed down to confess will this wondrous gift be known, will this blessing of heart be received. Here into our fears, into our darkness, come, Lord Jesus. Be born inside us little one. With contrite and humble heart, Immanuel, we wait for you. We wait with you.