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Advent 3 December 11, 2016 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for December 11, 2016 / Advent III
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
I was baptized into the life of the Holy Trinity and that colorful circus we call the Body of Christ on June 24, the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, his birth celebrated at the summer solstice when daylight has reached its greatest duration and then begins its slow diminishment toward December 21, the winter solstice. “He must increase,” says John the Baptist in reference to Christ the light, “but I must decrease” (John 3:30). And decrease he did.
The gospel reading for this day locates John in prison because he offended Herod Antipas, the Roman-appointed ruler – the “strong man” of the Galilee – Jesus’ home territory. Herod, who professed to be an observant Jew, had divorced his first wife so that he could marry Herodias, the wife of his half-brother. After he publicly condemned the marriage as a violation of biblical law, John found himself in prison. The gospels suggest that prior to his public outcry and subsequent incarceration, he baptized Jesus in the Jordan.
And yet, and yet he is not sure about Jesus’ identity. From his prison cell, he asks of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Some if not many contemporary Christians might be quick to answer John’s question with a clear, “Yes, he is the one to come and he is the Messiah.” But that claim begs the question, what kind of messiah? And, indeed, the answer Jesus gives is, itself, somewhat ambiguous. He might have had in mind the images narrated in the reading from Isaiah: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and the mute sing for joy, that is, the anointed agent of God is among all those who struggle with limitations and there restores and opens up life to greater flourishing. Or, was he thinking about one of the psalms of David or Solomon in which the anointed one of God, the messiah, is invested with regal, religious, and military powers, the strong man, the one who will make Israel great again by vanquishing her foes as he rules over the people? Let’s tell the truth: that second view has had moments of incredible popularity in the history of Christianity, for many seem to desire a “strong man” as their leader, a projection of the testosterone-suffused male ego.
“Are you the one to come” – as a servant among the struggling and the vulnerable or as the powerful monarch who rules over others?
Throughout the northern hemisphere, it is a time of increasing darkness: many of us arise and then return home without sunlight, the many twinkling lights in and on our homes a gentle protest against the cold and wintry sky. It remains a time of considerable uncertainty as the nation observes, on a daily basis, the significant transition from one vision of national life and priorities to another vision. And, as the daylight decreases, the voices of white supremacy and hate speech, voices frequently claiming to be Christian, have emerged with remarkable vigor across Europe and North America – all of them clamoring for a strong man or strong woman who will, at last, set things right for one pale slice of humanity.
At the same time, in this place, it is the beginning of the third week of Advent. On the great wheel of God’s time, three lights burn brightly. As a young boy, I thought the Advent candles in our church and home were simply the way in which Christians waited for the arrival of Christmas. But such is not the case anymore. In times of uncertainty and social change, in times when such change provokes fear and anxiety, the temptation can be great to yearn for someone who will rule over the people with regal, religious, and military power. The yearning for a messiah is ever among us. To the “strong man,” the ruler, the supremacist who will take care of enemies real or imagined, a few candles burning in a church mean absolutely nothing. For us, however, they may hold another attraction. They may well be for us signs of the growth of God’s light present in the committed servant who brings sight to the blind, strength to the weak, healing to the wounded, good news to the poor. They may well serve for us as protest against the darkness of hate speech, of claims to supremacy, of the degradation of God’s children and God’s creation.
When asked if the proper stance for Christians in Advent is to wait for God to act in this world, Desmond Tutu, the beloved Anglican archbishop of South Africa, said this: “God is prepared to jeopardize the success of God’s project and presence on earth rather than dispense with our collaboration. The God who created all, sustains all, and is revealed to all in the life of Jesus, waits for uswaits for us – to be collaborators, to be partners with God’s work in this world.”
Dear sisters and brothers, you and I were anointed in Holy Baptism and then given a burning candle so that we might know who we are and what our purpose is – as bearers of God’s own light in this world, as collaborators with Christ who invites us to share our treasure great or small with the hungry, to strengthen the weak, to lift up those who are bowed down, to care for the stranger, to sustain the widow and the forgotten child. All around us this month we hear the false promise: “If you purchase more and more, you will find happiness, if only for a few hours on Christmas morning.” But here we know differently, do we not?