Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Third Sunday in Advent

The Holy Gospel is written in the 11th Chapter of Saint Matthew, beginning at the 2nd Verse.
At that time: Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, and said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.


To a large extent, Advent is a season of promise and a season of hope. Our preparation for Christmas, when we remember the birth of Christ as man, is also a preparation for the fulfillment of the promise that Christ will come again in power and glory. There is much in our world that suggests otherwise. First of all, it’s been 2,000 years and Christ has yet to return. Second, the world itself can be a pretty grimy place, with war, disease and corruption seemingly everywhere. If there was ever a challenge for Christians, it is remaining hopeful and optimistic in the face of so much evidence which seems to lead, not to hope, but despair. It is this question of hope and despair that our Gospel addresses on this Third Sunday in Advent.

Our Gospel from Saint Matthew begins in a pretty hopeless place, King Herod’s dungeon. In the gloom of the prison sits St. John the Baptist, arrested at the whim of Herod. The Baptist is no fool and he knows that the odds are quite good that he will die in that jail, that he will die very soon, and that it will not be pleasant. In the depths of his prison cell, he sends two of his disciples to Jesus with a simple, but powerful, question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect another?” This question has puzzled scholars for some time and there are several different interpretations concerning John’s motive for asking the question and the nature of the question itself.

As to the motive, some scholars say that John only asked the question to help clarify Jesus’ mission in the minds of John’s disciples. After all, John was Jesus’ first cousin and other biblical narratives tell us that John even lept in the womb at the presence of Christ. So John obviously had no doubts either about Jesus’ messiahsip or what form Jesus’ messiahship would take. Therefore, the question had to be asked in order to help John’s disciples transfer their allegiance from John to Jesus.

Another explanation goes this way: John the Baptist was in the dungeon both physically and spiritually. He had dedicated his life to the proclamation of the coming of the Messiah. But what Messiah had he proclaimed? Most Jews, and the Baptist may have been no different, expected a Messiah to come who would be a political ruler, overthrowing the Romans and restoring the primacy of Israel. Was that the Messiah to come and, if so, what about Jesus? Didn’t John witness the sky open up at Jesus’ Baptism, didn’t he hear the voice, “This is my Son, my beloved. In whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” Well, if those were the words of God and Jesus was indeed the Messiah, then John needed to know in the darkness of his prison cell whether or not his life had been a mistake, because Jesus did not seem to be living in a way that would bring him to the pinnacle of this world’s power. In asking the question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect another,” John is placing himself squarely between hope and despair: The hope that Jesus was truly the one who is to come or the hard truth that he was not and that John’s life which would end soon with the executioner’s blade might have been lived for nothing.

So the disciples of John go to Jesus and they ask him the question: “Are you the one who is to come, or do we expect another?” And the Lord, who knows John’s pain and confusion, who knows that he lives on the edge of hope, tells them, “Go and tell John the things which you have heard and seen. Tell John that the blind have received their sight. Tell John that the lame are walking, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel, the Good News of God, preached to them.” And in that message, Jesus restores John’s hope. He tells John that his Lordship was not one that would find its center within the corridors of political power or at the front of mighty armies. Rather, Jesus’ Lordship was over the human heart. As the human heart is touched by Jesus, miraculous things begin to happen, life emerges from death, health from sickness, and what was once muddled is now clear. Jesus message that comforted the Baptist in his final hours was this: “I am the Lord and you, cousin John, have been my messenger. You have proclaimed my coming as the Messiah who came to suffer and to serve and in suffering and service, to win the souls of all men and women who live in their own darkness, their own dungeons of sin and death.”

Jesus’ message did not save John from the executioner, but it gave him the comfort of Christian hope. You know, hope is a funny thing and it’s a term that is often misunderstood, but for a Christian, it is an absolutely vital concept. Our hope is in the promise of Christ that if we will follow him, we will live with him forever. As we live our lives as Christians, this hope that comes from Christ actually becomes manifest itself in different ways. It can be observed by others in a variety of ways. In some cases the hope of Christ comes in the dramatic forms of physical healing, in others it takes the form of the resolution of estrangement. Sometimes, the evidence of Christian hope can be found in serendipitous coincidences, like the telephone call from the friend who said just what you needed to hear. But in each case, the evidence of Christian hope can be found in the fruits of the believer’s life. If a Christian truly has the hope of Christ, the evidence will be present in their life, because Jesus transforms the lives of all that he touches.

As we come to the midpoint of our Advent celebration, let’s pause and give thanks to God for the hope that he has given us in Jesus Christ. Let’s ask God to see the gift of his Son in the birth of a babe in Bethlehem. Let us pray, as Christmas approaches, that as God came to earth to dwell with us so many years ago, so he will come again in great glory to fulfill the hope that he has given us.

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