It’s the Third Sunday of Advent. The days are getting shorter. The nights are growing longer. The last month of the year is a darker, colder place to live. And it is in this cold December darkness that we are all a little more sensitive, a little more attuned to the real darkness and chill of our world. The world around us appears even more fragile than usual, more harsh, and more broken.
Human service organizations report record number of volunteers and donations in the days leading up to Christmas. It’s really kind of silly when you think about it. The homeless are still homeless in July. The cold are even colder come February. Nursing home residents won’t be any younger when March arrives, and the hospitals are filled with the sick every month of the year. But at Christmas, our hearts become a little more tender, and they tend to bleed just a little bit more.
And here lies our great December disappointment. Our holiday awareness of the world’s plight is the great paradox of Christmas. If God so loved the world that God was willing to become flesh and be Emmanuel, God with us, why is there so much pain and suffering in our world? Why is there so much poverty, sickness, injustice, and pure evil? Why is this world so cold, so dark?
Death, divorce, disease, destitution, desperation, despair—darkness—it envelops us like a December Arctic blast.
If God so loved the world that God was willing to become flesh and dwell among us, if Christmas really occurred, if God truly came, if good news actually happened, why is this world still so cold? Why are we left disappointed?
I believe these are the questions with which John the Baptizer struggled.
As we mentioned last week, John is the very first character in the Christmas drama. He is the one of whom Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than [he]”. He is the one who had given his entire life to God, who had very faithfully and courageously lived out his purpose in life preparing the world for the advent of the Messiah. His important role in salvation history had been prophesied years earlier by the prophets Isaiah and Malachi. And he fulfilled this role with utmost humility and commitment.
When people felt led to worship him, John quickly said, “No, for there is one who is coming who is more powerful than me, for I am not even worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.”
And what does he get? What is his reward?
Imprisonment. He is locked up in a cold, dark cell waiting for the Romans to cut off his head.
Talk about Christmas paradoxes!
“Wait one minute!” John must have thought. “This can’t be happening! Not to me! Not to the one who was chosen by God to prepare the hearts of people for the Advent of the Messiah! I have been so faithful, so courageous. I have sacrificed, and I have given my all. And just look at me now! Look what I have gotten! Look where I am! My world could not be more cold, more dark! Something is just not right about this.”
Can you relate?
So, there, in prison, enveloped in disappointment, John sent word asking Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come?” Are you the messiah? Are you the one about whom I have been preaching all these years?
“Or are we to wait for another?” Someone who is even more powerful. Someone who will finally come and set this world straight. For if you are truly the Messiah, why is my world so dark? Why am I sitting in prison about to lose my head? Why do I feel the way that I feel? Why am I so disappointed? Something is just not right with this picture. Jesus, I want, I need some answers!”
Jesus answered John alright. Just not the way he hoped he might answer. Jesus told his disciples to “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.”
What is Jesus telling John by pointing to these signs of the Messiah’s coming?
Well, I know what he is not telling John the Baptist. As one who has read about John ten chapters earlier in Matthew and as one who knows something of the disappointment of this world, I know that Jesus was not telling John what John wanted to hear.
Jesus was not saying, “Yes, John, I am the one. I am the Messiah of the world who is coming with my ax in hand to cut down the Romans and throw them into the fire! With my winnowing fork, I am coming to clear the threshing floor and burn your enemies with an unquenchable fire!
So Cuz, you just sit tight, because Christmas is coming and things are about to get straightened out! Somebody’s coming to town and he’s making a list! He’s checking it twice! So all who are against you, why, they better watch out!”
No, Jesus said, “I am he. I am Christmas. However, Christmas is not carrying an ax and a winnowing fork and harsh words of condemnation. I’m carrying bread for the hungry. I am carrying water for the thirsty, and I’m carrying words of forgiveness for the sinners.”
The one who is more powerful than John comes, but this powerful one comes with a different type of power: a selfless, self-expending power. He comes to rule not with an iron fist, but with outstretched arms. He comes to love and to save and to die. The Messiah goes into villages, not to burn them down with unquenchable fire. But goes into villages to eat at the table with sinners, to give hope to the poor, to bring wholeness to the broken, and to give life to the dead.” This one who is more powerful than John comes as a suffering servant.
From his cold, dark prison cell, John the Baptist heard about this so he sent word inquiring, “Are you the one? Are you the Messiah who is to come? Or are we to look for another?” John’s whole ministry had been pointing to Jesus, saying that he is the one. Now John asks Jesus, “Are you really the one?”
John preached, “The Messiah is coming! He’s going to fix everything. He’s going to straighten the whole thing out. He’s going to finally set things right. But now the Messiah had come. And John the Baptist is in prison. And he’s about to have his head served up on a silver platter.
Anticipation of the Messiah has now met the reality of the Messiah. And for John, and if we are honest, for even us today, there is some disappointment.
And all John was told was to look for these signs of his coming. And although these signs were not what he expected, and certainly not what he wanted, miraculously, John will soon learn, as we all are still learning, that these signs were all he truly needed.
And you know what I am talking about! The good news is: Jesus the Messiah of the world has come to this earth as the light of the world to save us all from Satan’s power, and there are signs all around us that prove it!
The blind receive their sight—you know people who are physically blind, yet they can see God more distinctly, see hope more clearly, and see love more purely than anyone with 20/20 vision.
The lame walk—you know people in wheelchairs who are more whole, more together, more able, and more gifted than some world-class professional athletes.
Lepers are cleansed—you know people who have been demeaned, degraded and dehumanized, yet they have more of a sense of belonging, of distinction, of purpose, of eminence, than royalty.
The deaf hear—you know some hearing impaired who are more attentive, more alert and more keenly aware of this miraculous gift we call Christmas than folks who can hear a pin drop.
The dead are raised—you know people who on their deathbeds were more conscious, more hopeful and more alive than some couples on their wedding day.
And the poor have good news brought to them—And we all know folks who do not have a dime to their name, yet they are richer, more satisfied and better-off than some of the wealthiest people we know.
And there was once an old preacher named John sitting in a cold, dark Roman prison cell, about to lose his head, who, although he did not always realize it, was more liberated, more unfettered and unshackled, and more free than any new born baby!
And then there are the small signs of Christmas that are all around us—in a friend’s or a spouse’s undeserved forgiveness; in the innocent love of a child; in a warm embrace; in a friend’s thoughtful visit, encouragement, empathy and love; in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of a cup.
And these signs can also be seen through serving a hot meal to a stranger; giving a coat or providing shelter to the cold and undeserving; visiting the lonely in a nursing home; and wrapping gifts for families you have and will never meet.
Yes, on the surface, John the Baptist may have been disappointed when Messiah did not come quite as he preached, when Christmas did not come with a fire to conquer and destroy his enemies. But I believe John began to learn, as we are all still learning today, that fire can take many forms. Yes, some of the forms are destructive and dominating in their effects. But other forms are warm, comforting, purifying, light-producing and life-giving. These are the forms of fire which our Messiah, which Christmas takes in our world.
And because of this, on this Third Sunday of Advent, on this dark, cold day of December, we light another candle, and we are still learning that light does not disappoint us.