Advent 3 – December 15, 2019
Matthew 11:2 – 11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then 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,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Today we meet John the Baptist, locked up behind bars. In prison. Last week we met him out in the wilderness pointing the way towards Jesus. He was so certain last week. This week finds him, and us, in different circumstances. Last week John was making bold statements. Today he’s asking a question. “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus’s answer isn’t direct. We should be used to this kind of response from Jesus. Rarely does he answer a question directly. His response? “How do you recognize the actions of Messiah? What do you see? What do you hear?” John wasn’t in a place where he could see or hear Jesus. Not directly. He’d been arrested and found himself in jail.
We may not have literally found ourselves in a jail cell. But there are all kinds of ways that we find ourselves locked away from experiencing the work of the Messiah.
It was about five years into my first marriage when I found that I was pregnant. We weren’t ready to start a family and yet, here we were, expecting a baby. I was riding a roller coaster of emotions at that point. Financially we weren’t in a place where I would be able to live into my dream of being a stay-at-home mother. The job I had didn’t earn enough to pay for child care. It felt like I was caught between a rock and a hard place.
About a month after I became pregnant I finally came to grips with carrying a baby and I was happy. Then I lost the baby. Again, I found myself on the emotional roller coaster. People kept telling me that it was probably for the best. We weren’t trying anyways so maybe the baby wasn’t healthy. We weren’t trying anyways, so why be upset at all?
My first husband and I decided that maybe this was a sign and we decided to start a family after I physically healed from that miscarriage. Three long and disappointing years later, still there was no baby. I decided that I wasn’t meant to have children so I began to imagine my life differently. Who was I meant to be if it wasn’t a stay-at-home mother?
The next month it happened. I got pregnant again. No roller coaster of emotions this time around. I was so excited and so happy. About two months in, right around the same time that I lost the first baby, I began to spot. I called the doctor right away and was scheduled for an immediate ultra sound. This was Canada and immediate anything in the field of health care was pretty rare so I knew this wasn’t good.
God and I had an “interesting” conversation that day. Locked away in my bedroom I screamed at God, all of my anger and grief from losing that first baby and facing the possibility of losing another, flew out of my mouth and down my cheeks as I cried my way through my venting. “If you never wanted me to have a baby, why, why did you let me get pregnant again?”
Locked away in the prison of grief and rage, I was unsure of what Messiah looked like. If Jesus himself had stood there in that room, I’m pretty certain that I might ask the same question that John the Baptist had posed all those many years ago. John, sitting on the cold rock of the prison cell, the dampness creeping into his joints and muscles, wondering how he could ever have thought that Jesus was the Messiah with such certainty, was now doubting. “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for?” John’s question, especially given where he found himself, feels like such a natural, normal, human thing. Are you the one, Jesus?
Today we are over 2,000 years removed from direct face-to-face proof of Jesus’s existence. Today it can be difficult to identify where we see and hear the work of Messiah taking place. Even at this time of year, where everything is supposed to be joyful. In reality, this time of year is hard for a lot of people.
Hallmark and the media present such a perfect picture of this time of year. Family gathers and everything is rosy. Children are all perfect. The gifts under the tree are abundant and just what we wanted. The meal comes together without a hitch, everything ready at the same time with no mess, no fuss. Dreaming of the perfect holiday, we may find ourselves locked away behind the bars of unreasonable expectation.
I wonder if this year, maybe more than many years in recent memory, the world is feeling locked behind any number of different prison doors. What I’ve noticed is that Christmas lights were being put up way earlier than in years past. And in many yards, I see an abundance of lights. Not just a line across the gutters on the rooftop. Lights upon lights upon lights upon lights. And lots more yard decorations that brighten up the darkness of night.
John was looking for the light of the Messiah, hoping his darkness would be brightened. He had a particular expectation of what Messiah would look like and would accomplish. At the River Jordan he was certain that Jesus was the one. But now, sitting under lock and key and perhaps being dismayed or disillusioned with the work that Jesus was doing, he was doubting.
If my wonderings about the early presence and abundance of Christmas lights is correct, the world is desperately seeking the kind of light that not only brightens the darkness but banishes it altogether! That’s the kind of brightness that Jesus, the Messiah brings. In the presence of Jesus, everything changes. The blind see. The deaf hear. The lame walk. The lepers and cleansed. The dead find new life. The poor receive good news. The brightness that Messiah brings, transforms the world.
How can we tell? We look for those places where transformation is already taking place. We look for those places where our prison doors burst open to reveal something new.
Viktor Frankl was a concentration camp prisoner during World War II. In a reflection he wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes prisoners moving through the huts that were jail cells in the concentration camps. They weren’t many, but they were there.
The prisoner who moved through the darkness of those huts offering compassion and comfort. What do you hear? I hear one prisoner choosing to pierce the darkness and evil that hung in the concentration camps with a light that brought hope to those who had lost hope.
The prisoner who carried his last piece of bread, offering it to others whose grumbling bellies cried out for more. What do you see? I see one prisoner shattering the darkness and pushing aside the neglect of the captors to offer a morsel of love to those who had been forgotten.
Frankl sums up his experience this way: “They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
One person. One person choosing to act differently. One individual making a difference. One person. One person that points the way to a new way. Light that pierces every darkness that one human being can inflict on another. One response that says that darkness won’t win. One person pointing to the reality of the gift of Jesus. The one who not only brought light into a dark and hurting world, but the one who makes it possible for that light to continue to shine, even today.
You see, you and I, we carry that light. You and I, we have the ability to choose a different path. And when we do, we begin to see the presence of God in a whole new way. We begin to see and to hear what Jesus continues to do in the world.
Years after I stood locked away behind my prison door of anger and disbelief at the possibility of losing another baby, I’ve come to realize that Jesus was indeed in that room. Allowing me, maybe even encouraging me, to express my anger, my pain, my doubts. Jesus was there wiping away the tears that fell down my cheeks in rivers that threatened never to stop.
And because Jesus was there in that room with me, I was able to stand in a different room a good many years later. As I completed my seminary training, I took a Clinical Pastoral Education unit and found myself on call and responding to a full term still birth of a beautiful baby boy. Yesterday this young woman had felt her baby moving in her womb. Today, nothing. No movement. She was induced to give birth knowing that the baby she carried had died.
The room was filled with sadness and hopelessness. This baby had so much potential and the family had spent time preparing to welcome this wee bundle of joy. Now all of that was gone as this wee baby was delivered still born. I can’t even imagine what this poor young mother had to have experienced, knowing that there would be no cry of new life at the end of the pain of giving birth. Her mother and step-father, anxious to become grandparents, would not be sharing pictures of a tiny new member of their family.
Jesus was there in that room. Not bringing life to this baby boy. But comforting his mother, his grandmother and his grandfather. Helping them to know that they weren’t going through this ordeal alone. I believe that Jesus was there loving them and shedding tears of grief right along with them.
John asks a question that many of us have dared to utter in the dark places of our lives, even if that cry has only echoed in our hearts. “Jesus, are you the one?” Jesus’s response echoes through the ages. “What do you see? What do you hear?” When we look around, we see glimpses of change all around us. Transformation that brings hope. Transformation that points to the love of Christ.
As we move through this season of Advent, where do you see the light of Christ, the Messiah? Where do you hear the word of hope that Jesus brings?