You thought you understood the plan. You were born a few months before your cousin. Although salvation history and God will focus His attention on Him, you have been blessed with a sacred role. You have heard the stories since you can remember from your mother, your father, members of the family, and maybe even your aunt. For inscrutable reasons known only the Lord, He has chosen you to be a prophet. It is a significant event in the life of Israel. Not since Malachi has the Lord chosen to speak through a prophet. But Elisabeth, your mother, prayed and prayed for a son. When the angel appeared to announce to her your role, even your father did not believe. Zechariah, for his disbelief, was punished by the angel. Until your birth, he was silenced. He could not defend his wife. He could not fulfill his priestly duties. He could not even affirm his wife’s instruction to name you John. The in-laws and his family were shocked that Elisabeth wanted a name from outside the family. But, having met the angel and having experienced the curse of silence and the gift of you, your father Zechariah was not about to fail to listen to God’s instructions again.
Little in your life has caused you to doubt. Your parents dedicated you to the service of the Lord. You have eaten wild honey and locusts. You wear camels hair, a material not known for its softness. And God has given you this fiery sermon. You have been given a message of repentance. And, boy, people have flocked to hear your sermons. Over and over again you have preached about the need for repentance. And concluding many of your sermons, people have come forward to be baptized into water for repentance. Why, even your cousin, the One whom your mother and aunt claim was fathered by God, has come to you to be baptized. And though you have heard the stories of His ministry for some time now, it was then that your service of Him was confirmed. You had offered to let Him baptize you, but He insisted that you baptize Him. And you did. For your obedience, you were blessed to an amazing sight. As you lifted Him back up, the heavens opened up, a spirit like a dove descended, and a voice thundered “This is My Son, the Beloved. In Him I am well pleased.”
Is it any small wonder that you have had little doubt in your life? Your family has raised you consecrated to God. The people of Israel have confirmed your role as a prophet. And you have been privileged to behold the Lord anointing your cousin as the Beloved, His Chosen One! Even the king has feared you. When he decided upon an impermissible marriage, you spoke against it. You reminded the king and the people of Israel that such a marriage was a sin! And, though the king was powerful, he could not bring himself to kill you, so afraid was he of the people, the people who know you are a prophet.
But time has dragged on. How long have you been in prison for speaking God’s will to the king and to the people? Six months? Nine months? A full year? If your cousin really is the Messiah, what is taking so long? Where is the army to cast off the Romans? If cousin Jesus really is who mom and dad and aunt Mary have said he is, why does He not at least lift His hand to free you? Maybe He is not the One for whom you were to prepare the way. Maybe your family misinterpreted God’s instructions. Perhaps He can settle your doubts and fears. Maybe your disciples can give you some comfort and restore your faith.
That is the setting for our Gospel lesson today. John the Baptist is imprisoned and has sent his disciples to make sure his life’s work has not been in vain. Doubt has crept into his cell with him. How does Jesus respond to John’s question? Is He disappointed? Does He chide John for a lack of faith? No, Jesus asks the disciples what they have seen, what they have heard, and what they have learned. The sick are healed. The lame walk. The deaf hear. The dead are raised to life. And the poor are given hope. Jesus points out these questions not to dodge an answer, but to give one. In our Isaiah reading, we are given a prophesy about events that will surround the coming of God’s Anointed. Jesus has come to fulfill that prophesy and not to become the warrior king that society expected and desired. No doubt John expected to be the herald of a mighty figure who would cast off the yoke of Roman oppression. Yet, here he was, sitting in jail, accomplishing nothing for the glory of God. Jesus does not answer John with a simple yes or no. Nor, however, does He condemn John for his doubts. He simply reminds John’s disciples of the prophesy, of His works, and allows John and his disciples to make up their own minds.
For those of us sitting here two thousand years later, the reading might seem a bit out of place. We are supposed to be getting ready for Christmas--you know, the Babe lying in a manger, Silent Night, and all that. Yet here we are less than two weeks prior to the anniversary of that wondrous event reading how John the Baptist had doubts. It seems out of place and strange. Why do we read this passage?
We are, of course, in the season of Advent. You and I are called this season to remind ourselves that we live in that time between Jesus’ first appearing and His Second Coming. At any moment, He could return and catch many of our fellow human beings unprepared. It is certainly understandable that we need to remind ourselves intentionally that He will return again. Watching society’s counter-gospel certainly makes one wonder if the Silent Night and Epiphany experience are real. We are bombarded with messages of purchasing the right present for our loved ones. Parents must buy the “hot toy,” if they want to make their kids truly happy. Husbands and boyfriends must find that perfect piece of jewelry for their wives or girlfriends. Bev Kritter talked about one of the advertisements which highlighted this counter-gospel of society: I shop; therefore, I am.
Society certainly embraces that idea. Did you realize that those American families carrying credit card debt on average carry a balance over $15,000. The number was significantly higher before this economic malaise took hold. Unfortunately, it is not as if Americans became frugal and started paying down their debt. Did you know that between December of 2009 and December of 2010, credit card companies wrote off an average of $2700 per family as bad debt? That is only one year. How long have we been in this malaise? At 18-24% interest, think of the money being paid that does not affect the balance owed. Jesus will teach us elsewhere that we cannot serve God and mammon. Think He was right? We are enslaved by our debts. Is it any small wonder that people today find the Gospel unbelievable? Is it any surprise that doubt can creep in on those of us with great faith?
Advent is that intentional season when we try to ignore what society wants us to know and to re-attune ourselves to God. You and I are conditioned by Madison Avenue types to value ourselves based on our possessions. We become slaves to the idea of the perfect dinner, the perfect gift, the perfect weather. Some of us try to outdo one another like Clark Griswold with our Christmas lights. We go to company parties and wear outlandish sweaters and engage in all kinds of behaviors. Why? Because we have forgotten the message of the season. Jesus could have come at the head of a battalion of angels. It was within His prerogative so to do. But such an appearance would have done nothing for us. Instead, He chose to be born of a woman who gave birth to Him in a stable rather than a palace. He was raised by Joseph to be a working man, a carpenter. From the humblest of beginnings, Jesus reminds us that He came the first time to serve, to dwell with us, to pitch His fleshy tent amongst us. That is the message of Christmas. Something unbelievably good has happened. God has become human! God has become one of us that He might redeem us!
It is a message we often forget because we ignore the signs. I was thinking last night how much the hymn “Do you hear what I hear?” encapsulates our goals for Advent. The song begins with the night wind asking the sheep if it sees what it sees. The star with its tale as big as a kite stands out. Until that moment the night wind asked the sheep if it noticed creation’s recognition of our Lord’s birth, however, the sheep was oblivious to its brilliance. The sheep has been concerned with green pastures and cool streams. It’s focus, if you will, has likely been on food and drink. It takes the night wind asking the question to get the sheep to see what was before its eyes--the Star!
From there the sheep goes to the shepherd boy. Do you hear what I hear? asks the sheep of the shepherd boy. A song, a song, high above the trees. With a voice as big as the sea. The senses of the sheep have been transformed. Not only does the sheep now see the sign in the heavens, but it hears the angel choir celebrating the birth of Jesus. The sheep asks the question, and the boy must refocus his attention. We can imagine the shepherd boy’s focus prior to now. Tend the sheep. Tend the sheep. I must find them pasture. I must find them water. I must protect them from wolves and thieves. We who live in 21st century America understand how work can make us oblivious to the important things in the world around us. In light of the sheep’s question, the shepherd boy must re-attune his ears to hear this noise that has been drowned out in the background of his work.
The shepherd boy, as the song goes, takes this wonderful news to the king. Do you know what I know? It is a threatening message, potentially, to the king. One has come to supplant him. Yet the shepherd boy, whose senses have now been re-attuned to the sights and sounds of God in the world around him, realizes the significance of the event. It is a euangelion of the highest order! The star in the heavens and the angel choir proclaim the birth of THE KING! The news is too joyous to contain, and all must hear it. And so the shepherd boy goes into the palace and describes our Savior’s condition. The One who deserved a palace and warmth and soft robes is shivering in the cold. The king, rather than taking offense at either the message or the shepherd boy’s enthusiasm, is excited for what the birth signifies.
Those of you trying to sing along in your heads know what comes next. The king goes and tells the people. Listen to what I say. The king takes the message and explains it to the people. In a way, the king in the song is the very antithesis of Herod or Augustus. The king in the song is much like the king was called to be by God in Deuteronomy. To steal from another source, the king in our song uses his power for good. He shares the good news of the birth of the Savior who will bring us goodness and light! It is wonderful news. It is amazing news! God’s Anointed has been born in a stable and will walk among us. Words cannot describe the joy it ought to bring. And the joy derives from the simplest of beginnings. The wind whispers to a sheep setting in motion this train of conversations. Our Lord chose to be born of a woman in a stable in a backwater province of the Roman Empire. But from those tiniest, seemingly insignificant seeds has come the offer of salvation and eternal life!
Brothers and sisters, you and I are part of that process of sharing. Advent for us is a time when we intentionally re-attune our senses to the world around us. We may be in the world, but we are not of the world. To you and to me has been given the ability to see and to hear and to understand the events in the world. Others may be worried about storms and wars and famines, but we know that they are birthing pangs, signs that our Lord’s return is drawing closer. Others may be consumed with finding the perfect gift or setting the perfect table or putting on an outward appearance that everything is under our control. We know better. We know beneath such facades are hurts and pains and feelings of unworthiness. Yes our Lord’s coming reminds us of the inestimable worth He places on each one of us and upon all of those whom we encounter in the world. He values each so much that the Babe whose birth we celebrate next week chose as a man to die for all our sins! He did not die for one group or another; He did not die to offer salvation to one group or another; He died once, for all, that all might share in His eternal inheritance!
Advent is that time when we re-attune ourselves to God’s working in the world around us. And we have all been given eyes to see His work, ears to hear tales of His mercy and grace, and hearts to understand His purposes. Some might scoff at us for our faith, but they are more to be pitied and served. Sitting here, when have you seen God at work in the world around you as clear and as brightly as the Star was that blessed night. How many of us have seen a blessing of loaves and fishes at Community Meal? How many times have we taken food for 40-50 individuals only to have 80 or 90 or more show up? How do you explain the seconds those nights apart from God’s grace and provision? How many of us have experienced a provision ourselves? I know, none of us have ever had bank errors in our favors or forgotten rebates appear just as a seemingly insurmountable bill forced its way into our lives, have we? How many of us have experienced a healing? How many of us have been given a vision? How many of us have seen God raise the dead? And how many of us, although we have not experienced one or more of these ourselves have heard the stories of others?
The world might want to reject His offer of grace, but God is in the midst of always reaching out to the world through us. The signs are always there to be seen or heard. The understanding is always there to be gleaned or revealed. But the world is like the Ethiopian Eunuch; it needs people like us to explain the significance of the sights and sounds and purposes of His grace and mercy. You and I are heralds of His offer of salvation. You and I are harbingers of the simple truth that all this around us is in the process of passing away.
Were we to stop there, the magnitude of the task and the realization of His love might leave us breathless. Fortunately for us, God did not stop there. Two more lessons are taught us this day. Jesus reminds John’s disciples and all of us that anyone who does not take offense at Him is blessed. It seems an interesting warning, does it not? Why would he send that back to John and reveal it to us? Peeking ahead, you and I know the story. Lots of people will take offense at Jesus and His Gospel. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Roman politicians, and even the Roman soldiers will all take offense at Him and His message. Many will conspire to see that Silent Night baby crucified, dead, and buried at the end of Holy Week. John certainly had reason to doubt, but He also had reason to begin to lose faith in the message. Jesus reminds us and all who hear Him that He knows our hearts and understands us even better than we understand ourselves. When John’s disciples tempted his ego, John reminded them that he had to decrease in order that the Anointed might increase. John, the first prophet to speak on behalf of the Lord in almost four centuries, has to set aside his ego to fulfill God’s purposes. And Jesus reminds John in prison and us that we are blessed when we take no offense at Him.
The last lesson involves our rank in the kingdom of God. Jesus asks the people why they went to see John. He was not a politician bending with public opinion. He was not a wealthy celebrity living in a beautiful house with all the trappings. Quite the contrary. John was a prophet, but more than a prophet. John was trusted with the role that every other Old Testament prophet desired. To him was given the honor and privilege of announcing the coming of the Messiah. To him was entrusted the responsibility of teaching the people of God that God’s purposes for them were finally and fully being accomplished on their behalf because they could not save themselves. John’s position, like Jesus, was foretold by the prophets. The day for which Sarah & Abraham longed, the fulfillment of God’s covenant with them, is at hand! And John gets to shout it to the world. Of all those in former times, John the Baptist is the greatest. No one born of a woman was greater than he.
But notice the end. Even John the Baptist, for all the honor and privilege bestowed upon him, is lesser than everyone in the kingdom of heaven. Think on that for just a second--you rank higher than John the Baptist. “Why?” you might ask. To you and to me have been given the honor and privilege and perspective of understanding that God’s purposes have been fulfilled in Christ. The patriarchs and matriarchs of old simply trusted in God, and He credited it to them as righteousness. John, for all his proximity to Jesus, did not understand how God would or could redeem suffering. No doubt he was confused as Herod had him beheaded because he did not live to see or hear of the Cross and Resurrection. You and I, though, have the benefit of hindsight. You and I can look back on the Cross and the Resurrection and understand how God’s purposes were fulfilled in Jesus. That He was God’s Anointed and that His words were true we know because God raised Him on that third day! Armed with that knowledge, empowered by the Holy Spirit, you and I can go into the world proclaiming the hope of the nations everywhere with certainty. You and I, unlike John, can point to God’s fulfilling purposes in the ministry of Jesus. Unlike John, we know that even our death cannot separate us from the love and power and mercy of our Lord. We know He has accomplished all things for our good! And so, we are able to be more effective ministers of His will. You and I are in now wise less important in the kingdom of God because we lived half a world away and two millennia removed from His earthly ministry. Instead, we rank higher even than John, but tempered by the fact that so does everyone who joined the kingdom of believers after His Resurrection.
Brothers and sisters, we are three weeks into this Advent season. How is your Advent going? Are you chasing after the perfect gift? Are you planning the perfect meal? Are you so consumed with the trappings of the season that you have forgotten its significance? Do you hear what He is saying? Do you see what He has shown? Do you know what He has revealed? To you has been entrusted the knowledge of the way into the kingdom of God, the person of Jesus Christ. Now, sure in that knowledge and confident in His power, how will you help others find Him in this season and the rest of the year!