“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
This is just totally the wrong time of year to ask that question. I mean, we’re already into the third Sunday of Advent. The Christmas train has left the station and it’s not turning back. The lights are up. The turkey has been ordered. Most of the gifts are bought. Advent calendars are more than half done. The Christmas booklets are being printed. We’ve already sung O Come O Come Emmanuel and we’re about to do it again.
And you, John the Baptist, you want us to stop all that and ask whether we’ve got the wrong guy? Instead of celebrating the coming of Jesus, you want us to think about whether we should be looking for something else? Like, maybe we should just put this whole thing on pause and figure out whether we’re going in the right direction before we go any further?
Sorry, it’s not happening. What a question! Bad timing really.
And of all people, John the Baptist, how can you be the one asking that question? I mean, John you were there. You were the one who leapt in the womb when you first recognized Jesus, before he was even born. And then it was you who recognized him at the Jordan River, you were the one who publicly proclaimed him as the one who is to come, as the one more powerful than yourself. You baptized Jesus. And now you have the nerve to ask “are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”
If John the Baptist had doubts, I think it’s safe to say that none of us is immune to having doubts. Doubt is part of the lived experience of faith. So what do we do about that?
For the first two Sundays of Advent we talked about the importance of seeing. We talked about the great visions of Isaiah. We got another one of those today. On the first Sunday of Advent it was the vision of all nations coming together to learn the ways of peace, to beat their swords into ploughshares. Last Sunday it was that vision of God’s holy mountain where none will hurt or destroy. Today it is the vision of a dry and barren desert exploding into bloom, a great image of transformation, beauty and joy.
“The wilderness and dry land shall be glad, the desert shall blossom, and rejoice with joy and singing.”
Can you see it? I asked you that the last two Sundays. Can you see these great visions of justice, of peace, of inclusion, of grace, of joy? Can you see the glory of God which Isaiah proclaims by means of these great visions? Can you see this future that God is calling us into? Can you see glimpses of this new reality, this new reality that John and Jesus both call the kingdom of God, can you see it poking through in our present times, like the tip of a flower pushing upwards through the dust just before it blooms in the desert? Can you see this new reality, this future that we’re heading towards, can you see it made incarnate in the person of Jesus?
Because if you can, you can do Christmas. If you can, this vision will inspire you, encourage you, energize you and help you to transcend the challenges of our day to day lives. You’ll be ready to jump on board this train, and become part of God’s movement to make this great vision a reality.
But here’s the problem. Some days we can see it, and some days we can’t. There are days when our vision is good. There are days when it is hard to see. There are times and places and situations in our lives which make it hard to see. Sometimes we can’t see where the train is going.
John is in one of those places in today’s gospel. John is in prison. Captive. Isolated. Oppressed. At risk. Some of us have experienced prison. I haven’t but I expect that being in prison is hard on your vision. You see stuff you don’t want to see. And it’s hard to see the glory of God. There are lots of situations in life that can affect our vision, it’s not just prison. Hospital stays. Isolation. Poverty. Alienation. Illness.
John is in a place where it’s hard to see. The things he thought he saw so clearly before just aren’t clear anymore. The salvation he was so sure he had seen in Jesus isn’t lining up with his current reality.
“Are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another?”
None of us is immune to doubt.
How we see, what we see is of great importance – but what happens when we find ourselves in a place that makes it hard to see?
When our vision fails us, we need others to tell us what they see.
“Go and tell John what you hear and see.”
You remember last week I shared with you Mary Oliver’s instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
I think that the most important bit of this three-part instruction is the last. Tell about it. And that might just be the part that we need to work on the most.
John is in a place where he can’t see for himself. John is in a place where he is struggling with doubts. But at least he has the sense to ask his question, to appeal to his disciples for help. There’s certainly a lesson there for us, especially for those of us who always want to be independent and self-reliant. Ask your questions. Ask for help. John does.
And when the disciples put John’s question to Jesus, Jesus just seems to know what John needs. Not simply an affirmative answer, he doesn’t just say “yes I am”. He says instead “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.”
To those who can see, Jesus says “Go and tell.”
Tell about it.
Mary tells about it. The angel opens her eyes to all that God has in store for her, Mary gets it, she sees it, she has that vision of God’s glory, grace and justice, she sees it breaking into the world and she doesn’t just tell about it, she sings it:
“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
For he has looked with favour upon the lowliness of his servant.
Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is his name.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”
Now that’s telling about it.
Isaiah is a great seer, but he too knows that it doesn’t stop there. Seeing isn’t enough. Once you’ve seen, you have to tell about it:
“Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God,
He will come and save you’”
Then, says Isaiah, then once you have told them what you have seen, then the eyes of the blind shall be opened.
There are times in our life when we see it, when we can see the glory of God, the kingdom of God, that longed for reality of peace, justice and joy, we see it ahead of us, we see it breaking into our midst. And there will be times in our life, places in our life, hard places like prisons, where we just don’t see it. And in those moments, we will need others to come and tell us what they have seen and heard.
So if today is one of those days when you can see it, don’t keep it to yourself. Tell about it. It is perhaps our greatest calling as followers of Jesus. Jesus says to the disciples, go and tell John what you see and hear.
Do you get why we do this faith thing in community? Why we have this body we call the church? On any given day, there are some of us who are in a place where they can see, and there are some of us who are in a place where they don’t see clearly. Where we wrestle with doubts. There is no shame in this. Jesus says that among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist - even at the very moment that John is wrestling with doubts. Doubt is part of the lived experience of faith. But when we are in a place where we don’t see well, we need someone to tell us what they see. And when you’re the one who does see something, the best thing you can do with that glimpse is to tell someone, to articulate it, and to share what you’ve seen.
You see how we need each other? So here’s what I want you to do during Open Space. If you have seen something, if you’ve caught a glimpse of the future, of God’s peace, justice, joy and grace breaking into our world, I want you to find someone who’s asking the “are you the one” question and go and tell them what you’ve seen.
And, if you’re the one wrestling with doubts, who isn’t seeing it today, who’s asking the “are you the one” question, I want you to find someone who has seen something and ask them to tell you what they’ve seen.
And if you think you’re both seeing and doubting at the same time, and that happens too, then just find someone and talk about it.
Because seeing is important. But even more important is telling about it.
Homily: Yr A Advent 3, Dec 15 2019, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 35.1-10; Luke 1.47-55; James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11
Image by Georgie Pauwels, Creative Commons