Advent 3A, 2010
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Have you ever wanted something with every ounce of your heart and mind and soul, dreamed about it, talked about it, studied it to death, and then, once you finally had it, discovered it wasn’t everything you had cracked it up to be? Married folks, this is not the time for you to look at each other; parents, this is not the time for you to look at your children! That car, that house, that job, that gadget . . . or maybe even that person you worshipped from afar, that disappointed you. My mother decided one year that she simply could not live without a Stieff sterling silver bacon server to match the other rose pattern items in her silver chest. Her life was not complete without a sterling silver bacon server. She didn’t know how we had eaten bacon for all those years without one. So, on Christmas morning, there was a Stieff silver bacon server under the Christmas tree. I think we used it twice before it disappeared into the silver chest, and we used our forks or our fingers ever afterwards. My mother was no happier or fulfilled the day after receiving the bacon server than she was the day before.
I grew up dreaming of becoming a pilot. My entire existence was organized around the day I would fly an airplane by myself. My bedroom growing up was packed with plastic airplane models; I read every book I could find, watched every movie about flying, and talked about airplanes ad nauseum. I took flying lessons, and, less than a month after my fifteenth birthday, took off, circled the airfield, and landed Cessna 3188 X-ray by myself. It was the moment I’d been waiting for all my life. And when I got out of the plane, all I could think of was the Peggy Lee song popular in those days: Is That All There Is?
John the baptizer had been thrown in prison by King Herod for preaching revolution. He had identified Jesus as God’s anointed one who would bring God’s judgment upon the world, inaugurate the Messianic age, separate the wicked and the righteous, re-establish the nation of Israel and be its King. Jesus was John’s sterling silver bacon server, John’s pilot’s license – his entire existence had pointed to the Messiah. There are famous medieval paintings of Jesus and John, in which John points a bony finger at Jesus, signifying John’s ministry to look beyond himself and towards his cousin.
But Jesus doesn’t do what John said he would do. Matthew 9:35 and following says that Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Where’s the fire from heaven? Where’s the judgment? Where’s the destruction of the Romans, the establishment of independent Israel, the coronation of Jesus as King David’s long-expected successor? Good news? Healing? Compassion? Is that all there is?
So, from his prison cell, John sends his equally bewildered disciples to ask Jesus a question: Are you the one, or should we look elsewhere? Did John get it wrong? You certainly don’t look like what we were expecting. Is that all there is?
One of the hot topics these days in theology, culture, and philosophy is “the new atheism,” led by writers Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens, a famous conservative writer, contends that organized religion is "the main source of hatred in the world,” “[v]iolent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children", and that accordingly it "ought to have a great deal on its conscience". Hitchens, who is dying of metastatic esophageal cancer, vows that he will not become a believer before he dies – he will go defiantly into the night.
Christians and other believers need to read what the atheists say about us, because we need to confess our responsibility for their hatred towards belief. When I watch televangelists or listen to Christians on the radio or read the bigotry and hatefulness of self-identified believers, I often find myself far more in sympathy with the unbelievers than with the “Christians.” When the designated hitter for my beloved Orioles repeats the thoroughly disproven lie that our President was not born in this country, or when the Westboro Church of God announces it will deliver its hateful witness at the funeral of another American soldier or of poor Elizabeth Edwards, or when the Roman Catholic Church refuses to deal with the consequences of enforced celibacy among its clergy, I want to declare that if those people are Christians, I am something else. The Jesus they follow is not the Jesus I know.
So, how does Jesus respond not just to John the baptizer’s expectations, but to those of Christopher Hitchens, of Osama bin Laden, and of you and me?
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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. The measure of faith is not the sophistication of our theology, the breadth of our knowledge of the Bible, our political affiliation, or our lifestyle. The measure of faith is not whether we meet each other’s expectations. It is simply this: as a result of our lives, are people beginning to see God, themselves, and the world as we really are? Are people who are crippled and paralyzed physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually beginning to move into new freedom? Are people who have been cast into the margins of human society now welcomed into our homes and our hearts? Are people who have no hope and no future now given life by the power of God’s love flowing through us? Do the poor in spirit and the poor in pocket both experience good news beyond the admonition to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. It’s hard to do that when you don’t have any shoes.
Brothers and sisters, at Christmas the whole world is watching to see whether the baby in the manger has changed anything. Christmas Eve our church will be packed with people who haven’t been here since last Christmas, checking to see whether there’s still a baby in the hay. We all come to the stable asking John’s question: Are you the one? The answer depends on what we see between Christmases: are the blind beginning to see, the lame beginning to walk, the deaf beginning to hear, the dead coming to life, and the poor hearing good news? Is our blindness, lameness, deafness, death, and poverty being healed, or are we the same old crowd as last year? Is the world a better place this year, does someone who didn’t feel loved last year feel loved this year, because of you and me? Are you the one, or are we to look for another?
The more Christmases I live, the more I wonder why we give each other presents for Jesus’ birthday. Doesn’t this gospel lesson this morning tell us that if we want to honor Jesus for his birthday, we should be giving gifts to the blind, the lame, the outcast, the deaf, the dying, and the poor? In our lobby is a Christmas tree covered with tags listing gifts for emotionally disturbed children at Hallmark Youthcare Center in Richmond. We have two church members in jail right now. We have church members struggling to pay their bills, because they have no work. CARITAS ministries with the homeless is full to the gills. I have been visiting a woman at Henrico Rehab who just had a leg amputated, and who has no friends and no family. If the sign of Jesus’ kingdom come is that the poor, the lame, the dead, the deaf, the outcast, and the blind all experience good news, then how might you and I faithfully honor Jesus for his birthday?
I’ll close with a story by my brother Jim Hewitt. When Jim was serving a church in Northern Virginia, one cold February Saturday he took his middle-school age confirmation class to work in a homeless shelter in downtown D.C. Several other adult leaders from the church went with them, and they spent the day helping prepare and serve food to the homeless poor of our nation’s capital. At the end of the day, they were getting into the church van when they noticed that the church treasurer, who had accompanied them, was barefoot. “Tom, what happened to your shoes and socks?” Jim asked in front of all the youth. “As I was serving food,” the treasurer answered, “a man came through the line barefoot. I asked him what happened to his shoes, and he said he didn’t have any. I asked him what size his feet were – 10 ½ -- my size. So I gave him my shoes and socks.” The confirmation class, Jim said afterwards, learned more in those fifteen seconds from their church treasurer about what it meant to follow Jesus than they had in three months in class.
The whole world is still asking, are you the one, or are we to look for another? The answer lies in what they see and what they hear – from us.