The Third Sunday of Advent
December 11th, 2016
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
John the Baptist, the prophet who last week was baptizing and calling all hearers to repent and turn toward the Lord, is now trapped in Herod’s prison.
This should not be a huge surprise to us.
Prophets who rail against the status quo and who call out the powerful for their refusal to serve as champions of justice often meet a similar fate or worse.
If I close my eyes, I can see him there in that cramped, dark cell…his face still bruised and bloodied where the arresting soldiers struck him…the distant light from above filtering down to where he sits propped against a rough wall…his eyes glazed and lost in thought while he spends hour upon hour reviewing his life’s purpose and wondering if it was all worth it.
Had he been right about proclaiming Jesus as the Lamb of God, the one for whom all the world had been waiting, the Messiah who would finally bring salvation to his people?
Or was he mistaken…had all this prophesying and all these challenges to Rome and the religious authorities been in vain?
I can see him looking at those cold stone walls, with the scrawled remnants of their previous occupants’ ravings and ramblings standing as a testament to the futility of resistance…scanning those walls in one monotonous survey after another and asking himself and God if this was the way he was supposed to be preparing.
It doesn’t surprise me that John asks Jesus, by way of his disciples, the question at the core of his rumination…“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus, the one John believes in as God’s chosen redeemer, is already present in John’s world, and yet the Romans haven’t been vanquished, Herod is still powerful enough to arrest prophets, and nothing looks like it is going to change anytime soon.
How much like our own world is John’s.
Perhaps we are not physically confined in a dank and dark prison cell like he is, but we yet remained imprisoned in a world into which Jesus has already come, and even so dark powers still seem to gain the upper hand…might makes right…and the light from above can seem frustratingly far away and out of reach.
In such a context, where is our hope?
Are we right to continue preparing the way for this Messiah about to be born to an unwed mother in Bethlehem…for this Jesus of Nazareth upon whom our faith is placed?
Jesus responds to John’s query with ancient words that would have been seared into John’s very soul…words that formed the backbone of Israel’s prophetic hope and consciousness since the dark days of exile.
When the people of God were at one of their greatest low points…in the days after the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem led to their decimation and deportation, these words from Isaiah reminded them of God’s never-ending accompaniment.
They must have been questioning themselves, just as John did, was it worth it?
Was it worth all the suffering to be free from Pharaoh if it would lead to this humiliating defeat and new slavery?
Isaiah’s words are meant to build up those who have been broken down and to assure the people that God is with them in the midst of trials and is calling them into new and redeemed life always.
The signs of God’s realm breaking into the brokenness of the current age are “the eyes of the blind being opened, the ears of the deaf being unstopped, the lame leaping like deer, and the tongue of the speechless singing songs of joy.”
So that happening is what Jesus announces to John, because he knows that John will remember the dark times of Israel’s past, and also remember how there was an end to their exile…a new holy way of restoration…that led to better times.
And he would also then know that Jesus, the one for whom he had prepared, not only was aware of this history, but saw himself as an agent of bringing this restoration about in his own age.
The truth is: our lives and times are always a mixed bag.
I dare say that there won’t be a single time in history in which all the hard things, the fallen things, the dark things are banished, and the light prevails completely.
Many nations, kingdoms, and visionaries have sought to bring such an order into being, and while their efforts have sometimes led to positive outcomes, invariably so many of those attempts at “bringing the kingdom” about politically have been co-opted by the forces of evil, and have led to more suffering than salvation.
That doesn’t mean that the faithful should steer away from matching political action with kingdom of God values, it just is a warning to do so with caution and with a full understanding of where power in the realm of God lies.
Power lies in the most unusual of places.
In the lame man who is healed and restored to his community.
In the leper who has been shunned, but because of the power of God has been made whole and cannot stop singing praises to God.
In the woman who expected a hail storm of stones, and instead found forgiveness in the face of Jesus.
Power for the realm of God can even be found in the depths of a prison cell…ask John, Peter, and Paul.
The dream of heaven, which is a dream for a restored and renewed earth as well, cannot be snatched away from us unless we surrender that dream by losing hope.
I believe that the complete realization of this dream is what we call heaven, and I do believe that God’s realm is active, unchallenged and all-encompassing in that state, place, or time known as heaven.
But while we walk this earth, while the incomplete is still with us, we get to choose the path upon which we will tread most.
We get to decide if we will walk in the way that leads to more of God’s realm breaking into our everyday reality, or whether we will walk on paths that lead away from it…or worse…that actively thwart its inbreaking.
When John heard those words of Jesus, I imagine that his spirit was fortified to face the days ahead, and he was confirmed in his belief that his work and efforts were not in vain.
He said yes once more to walking on the holy way that his ancestors had walked…a way that leads through the wilderness and deserts of this lifetime, back to the very heart of God.
Just as Mary had said yes to the child that was to be born through her…a scene memorialized in the mosaics above your head, with Isaiah’s water and pools in the desert nonetheless…and that yes provided a holy way through the wastelands and wilderness of her days.
What about us today?
Knowing the incompleteness of our world, knowing the prisons both physical and spiritual that we may face, knowing the hardships that come from proclaiming the way of Christ as the holy way that leads to salvation…can we say yes once more?
Can we ask the honest question, like John did, of whether Jesus is the one for whom we have waited…and move boldly forward assured that the yes in our hearts is enough to confront the principalities and powers that challenge us?
If so, then our feet will be on the holy way that leads to life, and we will not only gain eyes to witness the lame leaping, the blind seeing, and the dead rising, but we will also be empowered to say yes to the Holy Spirit working through us to bring such signs about.