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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Advent 3 – Year A

I love the season of Advent. The imminence of the Christ Child makes me feel the same way now, in my 40s, that it did when I was 20, and ten, and five years old. It is a childlike feeling, simple and happy and eager and grateful. The older I get, the more aware I become of how cleansing this feeling is. Lord knows I need that cleansing Advent feeling more and more each year!
Perhaps this is because as a person of a certain age, and as a priest, I’ve become just as aware of the way these four weeks of Advent can bring as much suffering as grace. Christmastime should be shot through with light and life, and it is; but it is also a time of hardship, darkness, and death. Again, I suppose the reason I am more conscious of it now has to do with the business I’m in. Regardless, it seems a cruel hand to be dealt to families right before the holidays when the background noise is nothing but Jingle Bells and the solemn, candlelit beauty of “Silent Night.” Just in the last two weeks, our parish alone has lost four beloved members, two unexpectedly. You’re probably thinking that these events happen all year round and you’re right. But I have a hard time reconciling myself to the randomness of death and tragedy when they strike during Advent, when I’ve begun to believe that our hope for joy and normalcy might just be enough to change the world.
We have all read the stories about how the holiday season can intensify the loneliness of the lonely, how alcohol abuse and suicide rates spike in the month of December. While I can not diminish the pain caused by such events, I am thinking this morning of the kind of senseless and random tragedies that bring more questions than answers: Do you wonder why those three children had to die in that house fire? And how that mother will ever survive Christmas, much less the rest of her life, without them? And why did that car have to crash in that ice storm, killing that young man?
The local and national news this past week seemed remorselessly grim. The headline of the Richmond Times Dispatch on Monday: More shootings and more victims. Three family members murdered in Virginia; four more slain in Colorado; eight people shot to death in Omaha the week before. The paper reported that in five days, at least 15 people across the country died in multiple shootings.
How does one retain a glimmer of hope in a season so marred by hopelessness?
John the Baptist poses a version of this same question to Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Earlier in the Gospel, at the Baptism of Jesus, John has identified Jesus as the one. But now John stews in prison, fearful that his prophesies will bear no fruit. It seems that no one is taking seriously his command to repent, that the Kingdom of God is far from being near. Worse yet, John’s preaching seems to have gotten under the skin not only of Herod Antipas, but also of Herod’s illegitimate wife, Herodias, who is calling for the prophet’s head on a silver platter. So John is not so much asking as imploring when he poses the question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Up to this point, John’s followers have hailed him as the Prophet Elijah returned to earth. Now they must question that assumption—and so must John. His life and ministry hang in the balance. Where is God in all this? Where is God? Has all this work in preparation for the arrival of the Messiah been in vain? Is it too much to imagine John at this hour crying out as Jesus later cried out on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Jesus relays his answer via John’s disciples—an answer that is undoubtedly cause for consternation. There is no show of power; no men on chariots busting the Baptizer out of prison. No blasting of enemies. No apocalyptic fireworks heralding the end of the world. Rather, John learns that Jesus’ ministry is one of blessing and healing and liberation. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus tells John’s disciples. “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.” (Matt 11:4-5)
In short, the One who is to come is already present. And his ministry—bringing healing rather than vengeance—fulfills the testimony of the Prophet Isaiah, who said: “He will come and save you. 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.” (Isaiah 35: 5-6). The One who is already present is also confirming the words of the Psalmist who declared of the Lord, “He gives justice to those who are oppressed, food to those who hunger; freedom to those who are imprisoned; sight to the blind; he lifts up those who are bowed down; and he sustains the orphan and widow (Psalm 146: 4-9).
The question for us then becomes: Are these promises of restoration enough for us today? Can we find solace in an ancient metaphor of someone’s corrected disability? Can these promises heal a broken heart? Can they offer comfort when a parent dies of an unknown heart ailment? Or when a young person full of life-giving spirit becomes a statistic about gun violence?
Well, I believe they do. I ask you to look again at one promise mentioned in the seventh verse of our psalm this morning. “The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down” (146: 7b). Think about that. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. Those who are broken. Those who are beaten down. Those who are so inconsolable that they cannot pick themselves up off the floor. Those who don’t dare raise their heads off their chests and walk out of darkness for fear that light itself will be blinding.
But this is all one can do, as searing as that light may be at first. This is the promise of the One who is to come who is already present. We take his hand in the darkness and slowly walk in the direction of the light. One searing, comforting, step at a time. A day, a week, a month, a year, a life. It is a journey one takes with God. And it is also a journey one takes with one’s faith community. In one’s faith community. Let me tell you something simple and true, which you must never forget: Never underestimate the power of your faith community; never take it for anything less than the healing and love incarnate that it can be—and that it is.
Perhaps we, like John, need to stop looking for the fireworks. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves why we cannot stay put in a place of ambiguity, paradox or suffering long enough to discover that Christ is indeed there, and that he will free us from it. John the Baptist had to trust too, that he would be delivered from his oppressors in a way even he could not fathom when he learned that Jesus’ ministry was one of blessing, healing, and liberation rather than an apocalyptic show of power and destruction. The show of force was the way of the Roman Empire; the Baptizer’s God revealed himself in a show of love.
This season we need to use our own voices as John did. We need to cry out in the wildernesses of our own lives to anyone who might listen that there is still time to get ready for the birth of the Christ Child who comes in love. We must proclaim that there is a different way of being human, the way of love, the way of a God who loves us into wholeness, and who brings the good news that the creator of the world is also the comforter of the world. So we can answer with certainty, “Yes, you are the one who is to come—and no, we are not to wait for another.”

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