This sermon was preached on the third Sunday of Advent, December 15th, 2013 at St. Matthew’s Riverdale.
A Sermon on Being Sent Ahead.
A prayer of St. Augustine: May that Sun shine upon us, from which that lamp (speaking of John the Baptist) derived its flame.
I speak to you in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The point: John was sent into the world to prepare the way for Christ’s coming. In a similar way, the church is sent into the world to prepare the way for Christ’s second coming. This “preparing the way” is what Advent is all about. Christ has come once but not yet twice and until that happens our life together ought to reflect a community of people that is waiting for and anticipating just such an event.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This question, which John and his disciples pose to Jesus, is a pertinent one for us today. I haven’t done any empirically verifiable research or anything but just from my own observations it seems to me that there are few people out there that actually deny the historical existence of Jesus all together. There are some, of course, but they’re hardly taken seriously even in the world of secular academia. And so the question usually isn’t, “Did or did not Jesus exist?” but rather, “Who was/is Jesus?” In our gospel reading today we see that right from the start of Jesus’ ministry this was a live question: “Are you the one who is to come?” Or, do we keep on waiting? What makes this question perhaps even more pertinent for us today is that we do not have Jesus standing before us as the disciples of John did. The church has always made certain claims about Jesus and done so in his absence, as it were. Just as John’s disciples were waiting, so too we wait though our waiting is of a slightly different sort. This can be frustrating for believer and non-believer alike. If Jesus really is who he says he is why does he not make this obvious? Why must we rely on the Bible and on other people to tell us this? Why can’t we just figure it all out on our own? Why the waiting?
Are you the one who is to come? The one who is to come? What’s all that about, really? We should hear this question in light of the verse that preceded it: “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing…”. The Messiah; the one who is to come. Broadly speaking, the question that John’s disciples ask Jesus concerns expectations and hopes that Israel had about their future, expectations and hopes that at present were unrealized. Take, for example, our reading from Isaiah this morning. We have language of the desert blossoming abundantly, of God coming with vengeance to help his people, of a highway running through the desert upon which the righteous come home to Zion with singing and dancing. Now, if you are familiar with Isaiah, and those of us who have been reading through the Bible together have just read through Isaiah, you’ll know that at the time Isaiah was prophesying the people of Israel were divided into two kingdoms. Their idolatry, that is their refusal to worship the one true God and to live in faithfulness to the covenant that he made with them, led to a murderous division. As a judgement upon all of this, Israel would be led into exile under Babylonian captivity.
Indeed, only four chapters after our reading from this morning the prophet Isaiah confronts King Hezekiah: “Hear the word of the LORD of hosts: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the LORD,” (39:5-6). But this judgement, this exile, will not be permanent. It will not last forever as our reading this morning attests. A highway will be set-up in the desert, “and the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away,” (35:10). Granted, there is no mention of a Messiah in our reading from Isaiah, however, over time Israel’s hope for a future restoration, a time when God would set things right, became associated with a Messianic figure. ‘Messiah’ simply means “anointed one”, as does ‘Christ’, a kingly figure that would, in essence, liberate Israel from oppression and usher in God’s presence and peace once and for all. As we heard this morning one of the ways Isaiah describes this day is as such: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy,” (35:5-6). We see this very same theme in Psalm 146 which we sang together this morning: “The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down,” (v7-8).
Are you the one who is to come or should we keep waiting? A straight-forward question deserving of a straight-forward answer, is it not? Yet, Jesus does not give such an answer. He could have simply said, “Yes, I am he!” But no, rather: “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,” (11:4-5). While this is not as direct and clear of an answer as Jesus could have perhaps given it ought to be revealing, both to us today and to John’s disciples then, particularly in light of the Scriptures from Isaiah and the Psalms which we heard together this morning. Simply put, the signs that would accompany Israel’s long awaited and hoped for future, a future in which God would come as judge to finally set things right, were being made manifest in Jesus’ own ministry. Are you the one who is to come? Consider what you hear and see, says Jesus, and discern for yourselves whether I am he. Indeed, in Christ, those in prison have been liberated and set free. In Christ, those in exile have returned home with great joy. Yet, the truth that God has come to our rescue in Jesus is not particularly obvious, rather, it requires witnesses: Go and tell John what you hear and see.
However, believer and non-believer alike often assume that any god worth believing in should not depend on witnesses to be made known (Hauerwas). Rather, any god worth his or her salt would be obviously known, as a sort of general principle, either through introspection or by observing the world around us. So, if the God of Israel who raised Jesus from the dead requires witnesses, then this would suggest that what Christians believe about this God must be false. On the contrary, if the God Christians worship as Trinity could be known without witnesses, then such a God actually would not exist precisely because the God Christians worship is not a general truth but is the particular Jesus Christ (Hauerwas). It is no accident then that Jesus calls disciples and, after his ascension, pours out his Spirit forming a community that embodies the gospel and thus bears witness to the risen Jesus. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why some take offense at Jesus—because he cannot be known apart from witnesses. We do not simply know the character of the world, or ourselves, or God instinctively, we need to be told these things. I was in Starbucks with a friend last weekend. A man neither of us knew saw the Bible in my friend’s hand and took that as an opportunity to tell my friend that everything in the Bible was a fairytale and that my friend was an idiot for believing any of it and that he could find god if he simply ignored the Bible and looked within himself: “I am god, you are god!” he said. However, the god that one finds in oneself or in a beautiful sunrise is likely not the God the church worships. The God the church worships is not a general principle that we can find “out there” or “in here”, but is concretely “the God of Jacob” (Psalm 146:5) “who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them,” (146:6). The Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, takes on flesh in Christ Jesus as was foretold by the Old Testament Prophets, and in and through and by this very act, the very act of assuming human flesh, helps and redeems his people. Thus, we cannot know the Father apart from the Son (Mt. 11:27) and we cannot know ourselves apart from the God who takes on human flesh in Christ Jesus, and we cannot know any of this apart from the community whose task it is to bear witness to such truth.
In order that the church might adequately bear witness more is required than words. The truth of God in Christ is borne out in the world in and through a community which not only proclaims but embodies this truth, or rather, is embodied by the truth that is Jesus. That is, the language we use to bear witness to Jesus, in our worship and confession and so on, cannot be divorced from the life of the church. To speak Christianly means that the speakers’ lives must correspond with what they say. The very grammar of Christian speech presumes that those who use the language have a character that is consistent with it (Hauerwas). As such, “witness” names the reality that we cannot speak the truth without it having worked truthfully in us. We cannot bear witness to the risen and living Jesus if that very Jesus is not working in us, transforming us into his likeness. This is what it means for the church to wait, as we do liturgically during Advent. To wait is to be a community that has been and is being formed into the likeness of Jesus. Thus, the witness of Jesus’ disciples has a definite shape. We see this in the tenth chapter of Matthew which I cannot go over here but encourage you to read yourself. Simply put, as Jesus is about to send them out as bearers of news, we see that they themselves are to be the exemplification of what they have to say. And none of this is really their own doing, for to whatever degree their lives bear faithful witness, this is the result of a gift they have been given. The same is true for the church today. Insofar as we actually do bear faithful witness to the risen Jesus in our life together, we need not get too excited with ourselves, but rather humbly thank God for his grace at work in us.
“But how can you say such things? The church is full of hypocrites!” Indeed. To be sure, the disciples often provide inadequate witness to Jesus and a quick glimpse at the history of the church as well as it’s current state reveals that this is not an isolated matter. Heck, we need look no further than ourselves. Yet, just here, the inadequacy of our witness is itself also a kind of witness. We have been called to live lives that point to Jesus—lives that are unintelligible if the one we follow is not the Son of God. Sometimes our pointing is off direction, but this is revealed precisely as Christ is unveiled and our inadequacies are marked in relation to him. Like the sleeping disciples in the garden or Peter warming himself by the fire, even our failures are given focus in relation to Jesus to whom we witness (I am indebted to Stanley Hauerwas’ Brazos commentary on Matthew for this last paragraph).
Our word Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming”. John was sent on ahead of Jesus to prepare the way for his coming. And indeed, when Jesus came out to John to be baptized John proclaimed: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!…the Son of God! (John 1:29, 34). But the season of Advent is not simply about celebrating the coming of Jesus into the world 2,000 years ago. For the Latin adventus is the translation of the Greek word parousia, which is commonly used to refer to the second coming of Christ. Thus, Advent offers both the opportunity to share in Israel’s ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and to be alert for his second coming. Advent carries this double meaning. The church, like John, is not “the one who is to come,” but has been sent into the world by Jesus to prepare the way for his coming. However, situated as we are, we bear witness not only to the fact that God was in Christ Jesus reconciling the world to himself but additionally that this Jesus who redeemed all of creation in his life, death, and resurrection ascended to the right hand of the Father from whence he will come again to judge the world. We so bear witness to the coming of Jesus only as the proclamation of the truth of the Scriptures forms us, and as our life so formed proclaims the truth of Scripture. “May that Sun shine upon us, from which that lamp derived it’s flame.” May our life together enable the world to hear and see that Jesus is indeed “the one who is to come”, and that he is coming again, and blessed is anyone who takes no offense at him. Amen.