Sunday, December 15, 2013

"Is the World About to Turn?": A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church for Third Sunday of Advent

The third Sunday of Advent has traditionally been known as “Gaudete Sunday,” from the Latin word for joy.  That’s why we lit the pink candle today.  Yet, as I meditated on the scripture passages for this Sunday, I kept thinking about how painful a season this can be for many people--  people who are lonely, people who are grieving the loss of a loved one,  people who are struggling with illness and wondering where God is in the midst of it all…  people who are depressed,  people who are trying to maintain their sobriety during a season of parties… people who are too poor to be a part of the festival of extravagance the merchants would have us believe is what Christmas is all about. 
            We remember that yesterday was the 1-year anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut.  We mourn the loss of the children who died there and the principal and guidance counselor and teachers who gave their lives, and know that the lives of their loved ones will never be the same.
            We try to make sense of what happened, but then there’s another shooting in Colorado last Friday, not very far from the massacre that took place at Columbine High School.   And we’re reminded that in the year since the school shooting at Sandy Hook, at least 194 children more children have been killed with guns.  Such senseless loss of all those precious lives!
            There’s so much wrong in our world, and in the midst of all of it, a lot of people may be wondering:  where’s the good news?
            I think when we look around our world,  it exposes our brokenness as human beings and as a society and reminds us how much we need a Savior.  We live in a broken world.  We’re still waiting for the kingdom of God, and we yearn for it.  We wait and hope for what we can’t yet see.

            In the gospel lesson we just heard, we hear John beginning to doubt his own message.   This is the same John who recognized Jesus from his mother's womb, leaping with joy when her cousin Mary came to visit.  John the prophet, who lived in the desert eating locusts and honey, preaching to anyone who would listen: "Prepare the way of the Lord!"   John the Baptizer, who knew Jesus the moment he laid eyes on him at the river Jordan and baptized him and was there when heaven opened and the spirit of God descended on Jesus like a dove.    What's happened to him—this man of faith-- that he should suddenly doubt Jesus' identity?    
            "Are you the one who is to come...  or shall we look for another?  John had envisioned a mighty and powerful Messiah, come to sweep away all the wickedness of the world and destroy evil.  Jesus will set the world straight, and justice and righteousness will rule the day.  The oppressed will be liberated and the hungry will be fed.  Those who resist, those who don't believe,  those who continue to sin--  they'll be separated from the righteous like chaff from the wheat.  They'll be swept away and cast into the "unquenchable fire."
            That's what John expected and proclaimed.  That's what drew crowds to hear his message and be baptized.  Then Jesus arrived on the scene.  John stepped aside...  and essentially said,  "Go for it, Jesus!  Bring in the Kingdom!  Wipe out the old age, and bring in the new!"  And nothing happened.

            By this time, Jesus has preached the Sermon on the Mount.  He's healed people possessed by demons   and raised Jairus' daughter from the dead.  His ministry has taken root, and a crowd of believers around him is growing.
            But nothing was happening the way John had thought it would.  The Messiah was supposed to change things.  He was supposed to fix it so that the wicked no longer prospered,   and the righteous people, like himself, were saved. 
            Things weren't going well for John.  He was in prison.  Nothing was happening the way he'd envisioned it.  Jesus wasn't throwing anybody into unquenchable fire or wiping out sinners.  No.  He was visiting them in their homes, and even eating with them!
            So John finds himself not living in a new era-- but imprisoned in a very old world dungeon, with a lot of questions and doubts.   So he sends his disciples to Jesus to ask, "Are you the one who is to come?  Or are we to wait for another?" 
            John's question may be our question as well.  By simple virtue of our being here this morning—especially this Sunday traveling through unplowed streets and treacherous highways--  we make the statement that we-- like John--  have recognized the Messiah in Jesus.  In a variety of different ways, we're trying to prepare the way of the Lord.  Every week, we come here and confess our faith that Jesus is Lord.  Every week, we search for new, more effective ways to teach and preach and live that truth.  Along the way, we've acquired some definite ideas about our Lord.  As students of the Bible...  of tradition...  and of our own experience, we have certain expectations of Jesus and what he will do for us his people--  sooner or later.
            But—if we’re honest with ourselves-- who hasn't had doubts?  Who has never asked John’s question in times of  disappointment or anger or loss or confusion?  Jesus, are you the one?  Or shall we look for another?                         
            Who has never looked to other things for our joy and excitement and security-- haven't we gone off to look for another?
            It’s hard to wait.  It’s hard to be patient. We tune into the news, and sometimes it’s hard not to wonder, Jesus, are you the one? Or shall we look for another?  We’d like to hand Jesus the ax John talked about and see him chop down all the trees that don't bear good fruit.    But Jesus lays it down again, and sends us back into the wilderness of our lives, with words of love on our lips, to carry out his mission of compassion and peace and justice.  We pass out food to hungry people, and warm socks and hats and gloves to those need them,  and take cookies and carols and holiday cheer to a lonely shut-in.
            They seem like such little things--  these small acts of love.  They don't satisfy us in the way a little vengeance would--  a God with an ax.  But they are the tasks we have been given to do, while we wait.   And we have promised to try.
            Perhaps it amounts to serving the God who is--   instead of the one we would like God to be.  It was hard for John.  It's hard for us today.  "Are you the one who is to come?  Or shall we look for another?"
            Jesus answered John’s people,  "Go tell John what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight... and the lame walk.  Lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear.  The dead are raised up...   and the poor have good news preached to them.  And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me."
            It's a radical answer--  almost as radical as the question...   an answer delivered completely in the passive voice, without a single claim for Jesus.  There are no "I" statements here.  The blind are seeing and the lame are walking--   but who's responsible?  Jesus apparently refuses to take credit...  to take charge and singlehandedly rescue the human race from the circumstances of their lives.[1]
            "Go and tell John what you hear and see,"  Jesus says.  We might wish Jesus would work a showy miracle on the spot or give us a simple, pat answer.  "Lift up your eyes and see,"  he says.  "See for yourself.  Make up your own minds."
            What is Jesus saying?  It sounds as if he's saying,  "Go and tell John that everyone who is expected has already arrived.  Go tell him what you hear and see--  that things may not be working out the way he wanted them to...  but that every now and then, in surprising places, amazing things are happening.  People who were blind to the love loose in the world have received the sight to see it. 
            People who were paralyzed with fear-- are limber with hope.  People who were deaf from want of good news-- are hearing the good news.   And best and most miraculous of all, tell John that this is not the work of one lonely Messiah--  but the work of God, carried out by all who believe...  and that there is no end in sight to what God is doing in the world.
             I love the way Barbara Brown Taylor puts it:  “Tell him I am the one, if you must.  But tell him also that yes, he should look for another...  and another...  and another.  Tell him to search every face for the face of God and not to get tripped up on me because what's happening here is bigger than any one of us.  What is coming to pass is as big as the Kingdom of God."[2]

            During Advent, we're reminded that we wait for the second and final coming of Christ.  It’s a paradox:  Christ has come.  Christ is here.  Christ is yet to come.  But in the meantime, we're given the sight to see glimpses of God's Kingdom breaking in.  A very different kind of kingdom, a reign that comes, not by force, but by the birth of a child who came to life in a humble little stable.  The Kingdom of God was present in that common, yet extraordinary birth, as God was born as a helpless baby who came to live among us, full of grace and truth.  The mystery we celebrate at Christmas is the mystery of God-with-us...  Emmanuel.  
            When Jesus sent word back to John—“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”—he wasn’t just cataloguing his previous day’s to-do list.  Nor was he simply quoting Isaiah.[3] 
            Most importantly, Jesus was encouraging John to cultivate what Ted Wardlaw called  “eschatological eyesight”  to see past what is yet unfinished in our world in order to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God drawing near.[4]
            Wardlaw writes how, near the end of the twentieth century, some people in the Presbyterian denomination pulled out their calculators and assessed things from a certain angle and then went public with a startling prediction.  Influenced by all the literature about the decline of the mainline church, they predicted that if present trends continued, Presbyterians would become virtually non-existent sometime in the twenty-first century. 
            They put this prediction in what they thought was a particularly clever way.  They said that, if present trends continued, Presbyterians would become “the Amish of the twenty-first century.”  It was a way of saying that, for all practical purposes, Presbyterians would be marginalized and irrelevant, as if we were horse-and-buggy people—totally out of date and rendered invisible by our irrelevance in a world that had totally eclipsed us. 
            Wardlaw remembers that prediction was made in print and was repeated at any number of church meetings.  Whenever that prediction was voiced—“the Amish of the twenty-first century”—people laughed at how cleverly the thought was put.
            Then, in the fall of 2006, we watched as an Amish community in Pennsylvania grieved over and buried a group of their own schoolchildren who had been slaughtered by a rage-filled man with a gun that he finally turned on himself.  In the midst of their grieving, this Amish community paused to send a delegation to reach out in forgiveness and compassion to the widow and family of the one who had slaughtered their children, and even to provide financial support for them.  The world watched in disbelief as they summoned a strength that was impossible, humanly speaking…and then dealt with the sin and tragedy that had penetrated their world by beholding it all with the right kind of eyesight. 
            We watched as they returned love for evil…as they reached out in healing and redemption.  We watched in complete awe as they directed our gaze, if we had the eyesight ourselves to see it, toward a light shining in the darkness--  a light that the darkness could not overcome.
            What a witness!   In a world that can be dark and threatening and incomplete and full of terror, what a difference it can make if we can have the right kind of eyesight, as we move further into God’s future.  May we have eyes to see the long view.  May our eyes be opened to  see God’s activity in what happening.
            In the first verse of the hymn we’ll sing later, we sing with Mary, “Could the world be about to turn?”  By the second and third verses, the we sing “the world is about to turn.”  And in the fourth, we affirm that God is turning the world around.”[5]
            On this Third Sunday of Advent, the rose-colored candle reminds us that God invites us into joy.  God offers us hope, trusting that the day is coming when that hope will become reality.
            In the meantime, every time we reach out with love...  care...  and compassion--  the Kingdom of God grows a little larger...  and is that much closer to being fulfilled. 
            So-- in the meantime, let us wait patiently.  For the coming of the Lord is near, and the world is about to turn.
My heart shall sing of the day you bring.

Let the fires of your justice burn.

Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,

And the world is about to turn.


Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
December 15, 2013


[1] I continue to be grateful to Barbara Brown Taylor all these years later for some insights on this passage, in “Are You the One?” in Mixed Blessings (Susan Hunter Publishing, 1986), p. 57.
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, ibid.
[3] Isaiah 35:5
[4] Theodore J. Wardlaw, Journal for Preachers, Vol XXXI, Number 1, Advent 2007, (Decatur, Ga: Journal for Preachers, 2007) p. 6
[5] “My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout” / “Canticle of the Turning.”  Text: Rory Cooney, 1990.  Music:  Irish melody.  Text and music from 1990 GIA Publications, Inc.  This is in the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God (2013). 

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