Saturday, December 18, 2010

What are We to Expect?

Sermon preached at St. Stephen's Church, Rochester, New York on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 12, 2010: Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect another?

It was a perfectly legitimate question. It was a real question. It was and is our question.

The readings started this morning with a vision, one of the prophet Isaiah’s beautiful, poetic visions of the coming reign of God. It’s the third Sunday in a row we’ve had one of them.

Isaiah’s visions put before us a promised time when things will be put right, when God will have delivered us from all our enemies, even from those great enemies mentioned at the end of the passage: sorrow and sighing.

“They shall flee away!” we are told. Sorrow and sighing shall flee away! And I trust anxiety and fear and depression will be right behind them, put to flight by God.

Can you feel a little lift inside if you close your eyes and personify these figures in your mind and imagine them running for the hills for dear life: sorrow, sighing, anxiety, depression, fear?

We need these visions, indeed we do. But let’s be real, ultimately, can we believe them, trust them, have faith in them? Can we believe them to be possible? These visions are at least 2,500 years old. I don’t know about you, but in my meager 49 years of life, I am more than ready for the fleeing to begin.

John the Baptist, from his prison cell, sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect another?”

Can you feel the longing in this question? Having felt the flash of hope from Isaiah’s vision, can you now feel the longing for its fulfillment? Can you feel the confusion and the disappointment?

John asks one of our deepest questions, I think. It is a simple question of faith, acted out in our lives in so many ways. When we are seeking love or friendship or a place to belong, to worship to get in touch with God, it is this question that is on our hearts.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect another?”

The question has an edge of anxiety to it. As I said, it is a real question. The answer is not obvious to the one asking it. It is quite clear that John’s expectations have not been met. He expected a Messiah who would judge the evil world around him and turn it upside down. That did not appear to be what he was getting in Jesus. Jesus wasn’t living up to his vision.

That is the danger of these visions, of course. These promises, made so long ago, still not fulfilled.

It is, of course, much like what Christmas does to many people, why it can be a depressing time for so many. It is the season of high expectations: friends and family gathered together in happiness, peace on earth and in our own hearts, gifts that satisfy both the giver and the receiver, love that will never die.

All a wonderful vision, and, yes, little glimpses of it here and there, thanks be to God, but for so many, a long way off, another lifetime maybe. In this season meant to instill hope and possibility in us there looms the specter of disappointment and impossibility, the intense experience of all the limitations of this world.

One wonders if John was satisfied with Jesus’ answer: “The blind receive their sight,” he said, “the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf here, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

No doubt John had heard rumors of these miracles that happened wherever Jesus went. Not only did he not directly answer the question, he told him what he undoubtedly already knew! They were perfectly fine things, even great ones, but was this really all we were going to get from a Messiah? Wasn’t there some real liberation to be done, including John’s own? John was likely to rot in prison for the rest of his life if he wasn’t summarily executed (which, of course, he was). The Messiah was supposed to save people like him.

In Jesus was the power of God really overcoming the powers of this world? That’s what John was asking.

Again, I wonder what he thought of the answer. It was really no answer at all. A simple “yes” or “no” would have been better, much better. It would have told John and the others whether to have faith or not, trust or not.

But faith is always risky business. And the vision of a better time, a better place, of sorrow and sighing fleeing away, does not fall out of the sky, even with the babe come into the manger. This babe, after all, will do a fair amount of sorrowing and sighing himself. He will, even more, take all the sorrowing and sighing of the world onto himself.

Jesus did have a vision of God’s reign, much like that of Isaiah and the other prophets before him. He knew, however, that sorrow and sighing were not going to be chased off, that their only defeat was in their endurance, in the day to day struggle with them, in the faith that, in the end, the love of God was more powerful than they were, that, in St. Paul’s words, “nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

It is good for us here a little less than two weeks before Christmas to be reminded that faith, even faith in the babe in the manger, is risky business. It is never, in the end, certainty. Maddeningly certainty is the opposite of faith. Faith is always faith “in spite of” all signs to the contrary. Faith is certainty in only one thing: the eternal love of God that nothing can separate us from: not any trial or tribulation, sorrowing or sighing, anxiety or fear, not even our not completely fulfilled expectations.

It is this faith—in this “only one thing in spite of all signs to the contrary—that will see us through. It is this faith that will give us the patience of which James speaks in his letter, the eyes to see the love of God at work in and through us. It is faith that will give us the joy that Isaiah says can cause sorrowing and sighing to flee away.

It is not a masochistic endurance of suffering that Christians to which are called. It is patience in spite of everything the world can throw at us because we know that we are loved. It is patience that is perhaps better described as courage.

And it is not false joy that Christians are called to, pretending that things are better than they are, or lapsing into self-righteousness when things go well for us because, of course, we deserve it. It is joy because we know for certain that only one thing: that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

It is this certainty in only one thing that can save us from whatever we need saving from. It is this certainty in only one thing that can transform our lives and the world around us.

The hard work is for us to strip away all those other things that we think we are certain of, that only disappoint us because we thought they were what was to come and save us. That’s the work John had to do in his prison cell. It is the work we have to do in our daily life.

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect another?

Expect, have faith, in nothing but the love of God, the only thing from which nothing can separate us.

That is the message for us today, that sets us free from all the limitations of this world and gives us real joy and real courage day by day and, yes, sends sorrowing and sighing fleeing away, especially when we are together, around this Table.

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