Sermon for 3rd Sunday in Advent - Dec 11 2016

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent, Year A
December 11, 2016
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Isaiah 35:1-10; Canticle 15; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

The third Sunday in Advent is traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.”  Gaudete is a Latin command form word that means: “Rejoice!”

There’s an ancient hymn that begins: “Gaudete, Gaudete! Christus natus est, ex Maria virgine, Gaudete!”  - Rejoice, rejoice, Christ is born of Mary Virgin, rejoice!”

In a different year, we would be hearing the story of Gabriel coming to Mary to announce to her that she would bear the son of God.  Today, our only reference to that annunciation is her response, the Magnificat.

Today’s readings from Isaiah, the Magnificat, and Matthew all give voice to rejoicing.  The words are powerful and exciting and joyful.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.

Even the earth will rejoice!!

This news comes to a people living in the midst of sorrow and fear.  Hence we hear the prophet’s counsel: “strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’”

This news comes to John the Baptist.

In prison.

Wait – in prison?

Yes, my chickens, in prison.

John, who braved the Pharisees and Sadducees and even the king himself, so sure was he that the Messiah had finally come, and John had baptized him (see chapter 3), was in prison.  In fact, the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry began with John’s arrest, as Matthew reports:

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’ From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’[1]

Some time later – whether weeks or months, we don’t know – Jesus hears from John again, as we read this morning, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

The question sounds like doubt, or maybe fear:  Perhaps John is asking himself “Was I mistaken?”  Why would he wonder, do you suppose?

Perhaps it was because all the promises in Isaiah and the prophets had not been fulfilled as he expected.  He wouldn’t be the only one to wonder how Jesus could be the Messiah – Jesus’ disciples struggled with that, too, right up until the resurrection.  We should not fault him for his doubt; we all know those feelings ourselves, all too well.

How can this be the Messiah if life is still messed up – my life, the lives of those I love, the state of the nation, the state of our community, the state of the church, the wars, the anger, the hatred, the oppression, the poverty, the politics, the economy … the list goes on and on.

How can this be the Messiah?  Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to usher in the kingdom of God, God’s reign on earth, peace for all time, rejoicing, release, relief?  But where are these things we were told would happen?

These are really good questions.  And I don’t mind telling you – well, I do mind a bit telling you – that I’ve asked them a lot of late.  Along with the corollary: What are we to do now?  How can things be fixed?  Can we get a do-over?

Are you the one, or should we be looking for someone else?

We know the early church struggled to survive.  The followers of Jesus, even with the evidence of the resurrection, and the excitement and joy of the faith in their hearts, surely even they sometimes wondered if it were really true…how could they not?  And if they didn’t, why would Paul and James and Peter write to them to tell them to stand strong?  Of course they wondered.

Doubt is not a sin.

And faith is not an emotion.  Emotions are ephemeral, shifting throughout the day with the course of events as they unfold.

Last week, I reminded us that Paul urged Jesus’ followers to welcome those who were weak in faith – welcome them without any intent to debate with them or accuse them or judge them, but simply to walk gently with them as they explored the implications of their belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, as they figured out what that meant in their daily lives, how they were to treat one another, how they were to respond to the world around them – and to remember that everyone is weak in some ways and strong in others, so they should support one another, love one another, and care for one another, because they needed one another, and because the world is a hard place and the challenges it places before us are often difficult.

I wonder what John made of the answer he received.  “The blind see, 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 offense at me.”[2] 

Was it enough to satisfy John?  Is it enough to satisfy us?

I think the answer depends on how John views prison.  It doesn’t sound to me like deserts breaking into flower or streams in the dry land.

It sounds ironic – where is the line about the redeemed walking on the holy way?  Not in Jesus’ answer.

As I pondered how to speak to this exchange between John and Jesus, a question arose in my own mind – because I can look around and see a nation in distress, the hungry unfed, the lame still lame, the blind still blind, the oppressed still oppressed, and very little hope in sight for better days.

The question I heard as I sat with this text was, “What is your prison, Evelyn?”

And how does my prison – whether emotional, spiritual, psychological, or physical – affect how I hear or see or ascertain what God is doing? 

Into what prisons do Jesus’ words come?  Perhaps we are all in prisons – of others’ making or of our own making; yet into all these prisons, Jesus’ words come: “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised…”

Never mind what John made of them – what do we make of them?

What do we do with them?

Perhaps, rejoice?

And in our rejoicing, find we can indeed unlock the doors of our prisons and walk free?

Gaudeamus igitur – therefore let us rejoice!


[1] Matthew 4:12-17.

[2] Matthew 11:5-6.

  January 2018  
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