a sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Advent
Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
For Jesus, the answer seemed perfectly obvious. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear.” Truly, miraculous things were happening all around them. Why couldn’t John see that?
Today is Gaudate Sunday! Gaudate means REJOICE! Look at the advent wreath and you’ll see that the gaudy rose candle is lit. (This is where we get the word “gaudy.”) So you might say that today is “Joyful Sunday.”
It seems that everywhere we turn this time of year, people are reminding us to rejoice! The Christmas displays in the stores. The Music on the radio. “It’s a Wonderful Life” on TV. All the shopping and decorating; the parties, and pageants and school assemblies. All of them telling us about the shear joy of the season.
But what if we just can’t find anything to feel joyful about?
In today’s Gospel, John sure doesn’t sound very joyful at all. If you recall, John was the one who had declared that Jesus had come to save the people from their sins, the one who was so great, John was unworthy to even carry his sandals. He knew better than anyone who Jesus was and what he meant to the people of Israel: Forgiveness. Truth. Hope. Freedom. That’s quite a lot to feel joyful about.
But if John was rejoicing, he certainly wasn’t very happy. He was sitting in a cold, damp, prison. He had been arrested for doing what he had always done, speaking the truth to the rich and powerful, and they didn’t like it one little bit. And so he was arrested and thrown into jail. And as he sat there he began to have a crisis of faith. His certainty became doubt. And as he doubted he wondered, “what if I was wrong? If Jesus really was the Messiah, why hasn’t he done anything about the injustice and cruelty we’re facing? If he really is the Messiah, why am I sitting here in this prison? What if I have been a fool all this time?”
It was a simple question, really, one that all of us ask at one time or another. After all, the Messiah was supposed to be a mighty warrior, a strong man who was supposed to free the children of Israel from their oppressors. And John was certainly oppressed. Besides, John was Jesus’ older cousin, and he was the one who baptized him. If anyone could ask such a direct question, it was John. So one day, when one of his followers came for a visit, John sent Jesus a message. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
How long do we have to wait, Lord? If you’re really The One, can you give us a little sign before we all start to lose hope?
This time of year always seems to bring both joy and sadness at the same time. There is the excitement of preparing for Christmas, and then there’s the sadness that also seems to come with it. There is the joy of decorating and cooking for the ones we love, and the sadness and doubt that we might not look like a Martha Stewart holiday. There is the joy of having friends and family once again, and the sadness of the loved ones we have lost over the years. The holidays are full of joy and sadness. For those who have lost a loved ones or those who are out of work, it can be especially hard, given all of the family and friends, the shopping and spending that goes on around them.
This week, as we await the arrival of the Christ child, the news has been full of stories and images joyful celebrations for the life of a great man, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and sadness that like John, he had spent much of his life in prison. Then, just yesterday, we remembered the one year anniversary of the sad tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. We still grieve along with the families there, and yet we pray for their healing. During Advent, both joy and sadness come together – tidings of comfort and joy mixed together in the bleak mid-winter snow and rain.
I think that this is what makes Jesus’ answer so perplexing. For him, the answer seems perfectly obvious. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear.” Truly, miraculous things were happening all around them. Couldn’t John see that?
But that’s just the problem. John couldn’t see – or at least, he couldn’t celebrate the miraculous signs that Jesus described – because he was still in prison. John’s expectation was that he, too, would be able to participate in the singing, in the celebrations of life restored, of sight and sound and health and wonder. Instead, he was still locked in prison, with little hope for his future.
I think this is why the season of Advent brings us up short. And while there really isn’t any reason to believe that more people suffer in the winter than in other times of the year, it certainly feels that way. Given all our pumped up expectations for a “perfect Christmas,” our emotions are at an all time high. No wonder our grief seems to be so much more painful during this time of year, and sorrow seems so much harder to bear. All this, of course, is in sharp contrast to the messages we hear from the world around us – peace on Earth, love and fellowship with our family and friends, warm hearts and homes, and don’t forget to buy gifts for everyone.
The fact is that a great many people have trouble rejoicing in this gaudy, joyful time. When our own personal reality comes crashing down against the joyful expectations of the rest of the world, we become very conflicted.
This is why it’s especially important for Christians to remember that Christ came into the world not to erase our suffering, but to redeem it. He came to bring light into a world of darkness, to bring hope to a world of despair. It isn’t our job as Christians to deny another person’s pain, but to show compassion for them. “Compassion” literally means to “suffer along with them,” just as Christ suffered once and for all for us and for the whole world. Christ gives meaning to our grief, because in the end grief comes from love, and love comes from God. Christ comes to give us hope that one day our suffering will be redeemed, and we all will be restored to the loving arms of God.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John’s question rests on the hearts of many people around us this time of year, people for whom joy is an emotion that is too far for them to reach. It is a question born not from lack of faith, but from pain. As Christians, our job is not to ignore their pain and try to make them happy, but to suffer along with them, and to show them, to the extent that we can, just a bit of God’s saving actions in the world.
Today is Gaudate Sunday – the gaudy Sunday, the Joyful Sunday. We’re in the home stretch for the beginning of Xmas. We may be a little mixed up about how our lives have unfolded. We may have a mix of joy and sadness during the season. Some of our lives may have pieces that downright painful. But we remember that we are not in this alone – we have the most remarkable gift of each other. Compassion – suffering with one another – all for the sake of the greater joy in the coming of Jesus Christ.
Until then, let us joyfully come together for worship, singing and praying, eating at the table, and proclaiming the Good News: This is the one we have been waiting for. Get ready – the Prince of Peace is coming!!
Thanks be to God.