December 15, 2019
The Third Sunday of Advent
After mission group last Wednesday night, I drove Deborah to the Silver Spring metro so she could catch her bus home. As we were driving, I told her that growing up, the Sundays leading up to Christmas (I am pretty sure the term Advent was never used) were easy. The first Sunday you got a sermon about the Annunciation, the second Sunday was about Joseph and the journey to Bethlehem, the third Sunday was about the shepherds and the choir of angels and the fourth Sunday was about the birth of Jesus and even the Wise Men might get squeezed into that already crowded barn, because more is always better, right? It was simple, straightforward, and hit all the important stuff. After I finished saying all that there was a pregnant silence and then Deborah said, Yeah, that was Baptist Advent, not Liturgical Advent.
So you are spared a sermon about the shepherds watching their flock by night and instead we have Isaiah waxing eloquent about deserts blooming and the lame leaping and the mute shouting for joy; the Psalmist reminds us that God executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry and sets prisoners free; the Epistle tells us that we must be patient; and in our Gospel, John the Baptist is in prison and sends word to Jesus asking, Are you the one or should we wait for another?
I always get a bit confused in Advent. It feels like past, present and future are all tied together in some kind of time warp. This paradoxical nature of Advent is clearly visible in our readings, where the one who is to come (in the future) is performing deeds (in the present) that fulfill prophetic expectations (of the past).
Are you the one or should we wait for another? That is the question John’s followers ask of Jesus.
John the Baptist is in prison. His passion for preaching truth to power got him in trouble with Herod Antipas, but his disciples, who were allowed to visit him, were sent by John to ask Jesus this question.
It is a strange question, though. Why would John, who baptized Jesus and announced to the world that Jesus was the one, need an answer to this question? After all he baptized Jesus and proclaimed that he was anointed of God. We are not told why he asked the question, but I am sure being in prison might cause many existential questions like this to rise to the surface. What matters more is what this question might mean to us, today in the here and now. “Are you the one or should we wait for another?”
I remember, years ago now, when our kids were still in middle school, I was wrestling with whether or not we should stay at Seekers. I had framed the question around whether this was the right community for the girls. The problem, as I saw it, was that the Sunday School was getting smaller, and Marian and Lauren were going to be the only ones in middle school and I really thought they needed more opportunities than Seekers could provide as they grew older. I remember very distinctly being in the car on the way home from church where I had raised the idea again of exploring other churches when Marian from the back seat said vehemently, “We don’t want to leave Seekers. We like it here. Don’t make it about us.” Well that shut me up and I soon realized that I was the one having a problem with Seekers. Or rather I should say my real problem was how deeply did I want to commit to finding the answer and responding to the question “Are you the one or should we wait for another?”
A bit later, I preached a sermon which I thought of as a “Here I Am” sermon; a sermon that talked about giving up on resisting God’s call, and to place myself firmly at Seekers. I thought it was an honest, self-reflective and heart-baring sermon. But during the comment time a visitor piped up and said “But where is the hope?
Where is the hope indeed!
The Psalmist says:
Happy are those whose help is the God of Israel,
Whose hope is in the Holy one their God,
Who made the heaven and the earth,
the sea and all that is in it!
Holy One you keep faith forever:
You secure justice for the oppressed;
You give food to the hungry;
You set captives free;
You give sight to the blind;
You raise up those who were bowed down;
You loved those who do justice;
You protect strangers,
You sustain orphans and the bereaved-
But you thwart the way of the corrupt
Holy One you will reign forever your God Zion through all the generations, alleluia.
This sounds like good news, doesn’t it? I think we could get behind anyone who promised this, but it isn’t that simple is it? We live in a world that seems so broken, where people are discarded, ignored and often unheard. Like John the Baptist we are often stuck in our own prisons wondering if we have somehow missed out on the promised Good News.
About a year and a half ago, a group of former students from the school Keith and I went to while we were missionary kids in Japan created a Facebook group about the sexual and physical abuse that happened at our school, in the dorms and among the missionary families in Japan. One of our classmates invited me to join the group and I did.
We are mostly my age now and we are talking about events that happened fifty plus years ago. As we began sharing and collecting stories of abuse and neglect, some patterns emerged and we began pushing for some kind of acknowledgement from our school and the mission boards that these terrible things had happened and that an investigation should be conducted. The school resisted, saying all this was in the past and they now have good processes in place to protect students.
And that response just broke me, because I was molested in the dorm when I was 7 or 8. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I finally was able to put what happened to me in some kind of sexual context, but at the time I knew something was wrong and told my roommate who told my dorm parents. The only problem was that it was the dorm parent’s son who had molested me. The investigation consisted of my dorm parent talking with me and then his own son. When my dorm parent explained to me why he believed his son’s denials, his proof was that he had heard his son singing hymns soon after they had talked and his conclusion was that “No one would sing hymns if they were lying.” And that was where the matter ended.
Comparatively, my story was fairly insignificant. Much worse happened to many others and we are all now realizing that we suffered in silence and had no idea just how firmly our suffering had imprisoned us while our parents were preaching the Good News.
Pain is real! Injustice is real!
Neither the Psalmist nor Isaiah deny the harsh reality of life. Isaiah talks about weak hands, feeble knees and being lame and speechless. He talks of deserts and thirsty ground, of ravenous beasts and of sorrow and sighing. The Psalmist talks of orphans and the bereaved and the corrupt.
John’s disciples ask Jesus, Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?
And Jesus replies, Go and tell John what you hear and see.
“The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news bought to them.”
I think when we hear these words or read other healing stories from the Bible we often move into magical thinking where somehow the ones who were healed had their illnesses, their infirmities completely erased from their lives, as if they had never happened to them. But that is not really what the Bible tells us.
Jesus does not erase the fact that they were blind, or lame. It is just that NOW they can see and walk, but they surely still remember and know what it was like to be blind and lame. The lepers are cleansed, but they were lepers and still carry the scars of what that illness did to them. What has changed is that they can now be welcomed into the community, no longer isolated and alone. They are healed, but the scars, the remnants of their illness, and the pain and sorrow they endured remain as a reminder of the reality they lived through before they were healed.
The Psalmist and Isaiah are also clear that although transformation and healing will take place it is not an erasure of what was before. Isaiah says weak hands will be strengthened, not necessarily as strong as before, but stronger, feeble knees will be made firm but they might not be the knees of a 20 year old. The Psalmist talks of sustaining the orphans and the bereaved and thwarting the way of the corrupt, but they are still orphans, still bereaved, and the corrupt are thwarted but do not necessarily become uncorrupt.
In Japan there is a process called kintsugi for repairing broken pottery vessels using precious metals to ‘glue” the broken pieces back together so the vessel is restored. What is interesting is that the cracks are clearly visible, only now they are filled with gold or silver. The pot is restored: it is not the same as it was before, but it is not broken and useless either. Instead the vessel is transformed, broken and whole all at once.
Our Facebook group persisted and we pushed harder to be heard until eventually the school and the mission boards who founded the school agreed to open an investigation. Just recently I spend five hours talking to the investigators about what happened to me. I told my story not because I wanted revenge, or to get justice – it is too late for that now – but rather as a warning that the current administration should be vigilant and not rely too much on their reporting mechanisms working in a small insular community like our school and missions.
My classmates should never have had to endure any of what they endured, but somehow in the midst of sharing our pain and sorrow, we have come together, we grew strong, we demanded what we needed, we have listened, we have supported each other and we persisted in the midst of being ignored. I have gained some new friends that, but for this small movement to right an injustice, I would never have gotten to know. Recently I was approached by one of the administrators of our Facebook group saying she needed to step down and wondered if I would be willing to take her place and I have agreed. I am healing and maybe there is some healing I can offer as well.
What the Psalmist and Isaiah promise is the hope that whatever hurt, sorrow, indignity, whatever is wrong, whatever is unjust: that it is not the end of the story. They promise that the rain will come in the dessert and it will bloom.
Early this year parts of California near Walker Canyon and Lake Elsinore experienced a “super bloom apocalypse,” where long dormant desert flowers in the hot dry desert exploded into bloom after rain and snow melt from the mountains watered the thirsty ground. The bloom was so vibrant and full this year that when satellites in space took pictures you could easily see the areas where the bloom was occurring.
But the bloom doesn’t happen every year. The last time was in the spring of 2016 and depending on weather conditions it might not happened again for another 10 years. We have to be patient and notice the signs, when the weather and water conditions are just right, and then we see the miracle of the desert blooming.
James tell us to be patient and to strengthen our hearts while we wait for the coming of the one we hope for. He tells us that like farmers who wait for their precious crop we too need to cultivate our hearts so that we are ready to see the Hope which is coming.
Advent is not for the faint to heart because Advent calls us to look at the world as it really is and yet demands that we still look for the Hope who is to come. It call us to look for those glimmers of hope that come in the midst of the no good, very bad realities that surrounds us and realize that these things do not define us, or the world, that the story is still unfinished. It demands that we look around us to see the paradox of Advent: where the one who is to come in the future is performing deeds in the present that fulfill prophetic expectations of the past.
We need to observe the signs and – more than anything else – retain that inexpressible hope that transformation and healing are possible for ourselves, for those around us, and for this world that God so loved.
For that is the Good News!
 O. Wesley Allen Jr., Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11, WorkingPreacher.org (December 15,2019).