Advent 3: Listen and Look – Hear and See

My sermon from this past Sunday, Advent 3 (Yr. A). The audio can be heard on St. B’s site, where you can subscribe to all our sermons.

Third Sunday of Advent (December 11, 2016)

  • Gospel
    • Matthew 11:2-11

What are you expecting for Christmas?

The season of Advent is a time of expectation. Our lectionary and liturgy attempt to direct our attention to Christ’s second coming, preparing ourselves, our community, and our world for the coming Day of the Lord. This is when evil will be destroyed, God’s justice established and, as the prophet Isaiah declares, 35:5 “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

In practical terms of course, for most of us it means looking expectantly towards Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. If we are children, that expectation is the pent up energy and excitement of presents, days off school, and just general silliness like our Family Christmas Concert this evening!

At Christmas friends and family signed the ribbon on the tree by Mack’s grave.

But as adults our feelings are often more complex. If we have young children we may be infected with their joy and I urge you to embrace and not question that. But for most of us, as we age we also have more and more friends and family who are no longer with us to join in the celebrations. With God’s grace they are now made whole in Christ, truly healed, but we remain here, in Advent, waiting expectantly.

Here in the northern hemisphere nature itself seems conspired against us. The days are shorter, the nights long and dark, and it can be a time of sadness and depression as much as joy. I remember when we first moved to England getting to late December and feeling down not just because that is what grad school will do to you, but because the days were so short, less than 8 hours of daylight. Then I looked at a globe and realized that Oxford and Anchorage Alaska were on almost the exact same latitude![1] Seasonal Affective Disorder is real, I can tell you!

All of this does bring home to us the true nature of Advent. We are waiting, eagerly expecting the Lord’s coming because we know, through our own lives and experiences, that we needs his return, we need him to heal us, to bring justice to this world and our own lives. We are living literally and metaphorically in “dark days.” Yet this is when we must remember John the Baptist and the purpose of his ministry.

John 1:7 John came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

Indeed, he has come into the world and he will come again. But the world did not know him.

When John and Jesus were born the people of their own time were as eager as we for the Messiah to come. The prophets had declared that one anointed by God, a Son of David would come and establish God’s kingdom forever! And so they waited…. But what were they waiting for? What were they expecting for “Christmas”?

Some were expecting that it would be a son of David, a man of royal descent who would rally an army to him and drive out the Romans and bring self-rule back to Eretz Yisrael. Others, like those who left us the Dead Sea Scrolls, believed that God would not only drive out the military rulers, but that the Temple rulers were also corrupt and had to be destroyed. They apparently were expecting two messiahs, a Son of David on the throne and a Son of Aaron to reestablish the sacred High Priesthood. His cleansing of the Temple would make Jesus’s up turned tables look like a fraternity party! What we know with great certainty is that no one expected a humble teacher who would die as a sacrifice for our sins. Paul’s describing the crucifixion as a “stumbling block” is an understatement. The very notion was heresy.

If we try and place ourselves into their time and thinking, even as faithful followers of the LORD, studying and knowing the Tanakh with great humility, I doubt if any of us would expect Jesus as the Messiah. Their expectations were all completely reasonable and well-reasoned from Scripture. But they were so focused on their readings and traditions that they did not hear God when he spoke, first through John the Baptist and then Jesus himself.

Matt. 11:7 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?

11:8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.

11:9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.”

We tend to look for what we want to find and discount what doesn’t fit our expectations. When people went out to hear John’s message many clearly believed a man of God should be more respectable, dressed more appropriately. Many more were offended that he should be telling them that they needed to repent of their sins, who was the wild-man that he should tell them that they were sinners? We all have this great ability to discount anything or anyone that doesn’t meet our expectations. In the verses just beyond our reading today Jesus points this out.

18 “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”

How often do we “make God in our own image”? Republican, Democrat, liberal-progressive, conservative-traditionalist, pacifist, warrior, hippy… We can always find a text here or there (and ignoring all others) to support our preconceived ideas. In so doing we run the risk of missing who God really is.

So rather than asking who we are expecting Jesus to be, we need to ask what do we hear and see about him? What is the testimony, in Scripture and in the lives of those around us, of Jesus?

11:3 [JB’s disciples] said to [Jesus], “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

11:4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

Listen and look and whom will you find? The savior of the world, the one who can bring peace not just ultimately when he ushers in the new heaven and earth, but even in our lives today. Listen and look; hear and see.

I know it is not easy. We can say, “I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…” but then receiving that grace and peace, being transformed, can be so incredibly hard and always painful.

I am no psychiatrist or psychologist. I am not a therapist or a trauma counselor. I just read texts and try and understand them even as I work through my own struggles and griefs. Or I should say, I try and allow God to work in me through my struggles and griefs. I am certainly not perfect or even fully healed. It is hard, I do not dismiss the real struggles of depression, grief, and mental health issues.

My senior year in high school I was depressed. All sorts of factors were at work, but there is no doubt that I was experiencing depression. A caring friend gave me a book, which I still have, called Happiness is a Choice. Maybe, but depression is not a choice, schizophrenia is not, joblessness is not, death is not. The choice that does remain for us is how we respond to these very real forces in our lives.

What I have found in reading Scripture is a description of our world that is applicable to our personal lives as well. God created the world and it is very good and perfect. God created us in his image, perfect and with the freedom of choice. Yet we, like creation itself, are broken and in need of the healing that only God can bring. It is a healing that will never be fully complete until, as Paul says, “this perishable body [and mind] puts on imperishability, and this mortal body [and mind] puts on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:54).

So we could say that we always live in Advent, in a constant state of expectation, anxious for Christ’s return when all things will be made whole. Yet here we remain for this time and God desires for us to live fully here and now.

Once we have recognized and acknowledged Jesus is our God and Savior, the question that remains is what are we expecting from God in our lives. God has not left us alone with our fears and hopes. He has sent us his Spirit and one another to comfort and support us, to bring us healing and strength. But do we recognize his grace when we see it? Or are we like those who saw in John the Baptist only a madman or in Jesus only a glutton and drunkard?

Over the 9 years we lived in Louisiana there was at least one tropical storm every year and, of course, Hurricane Katrina. In our second year Tropical Storm Francis dumped an impossible amount of water in just a few hours. As I waded waist deep (I am 6’3”) back to the house I saw neighbors in canoes and bass boats going up and down the neighborhood making sure everyone was all right.

There is a story about an old woman in just such a storm. The water began to rise and neighbors came by in a boat. “Miss Emmy, get in, we will take you to safety.” She replied, “No, the Lord is going to save me!” The water continued to rise, she moved to the second story. The emergency services came by in a zodiac boat, “Ma’am please get in the boat.” “No! The Lord will deliver me!” Finally, she had to climb out on the roof and when the National Guard came with the helicopter she again refused, “The Lord will save me!” After she drowned and opened her eyes in the presence of the LORD she said, “Why didn’t you save me?!” God replied, “I tried! Three times! But you refused every time.”

Perhaps it is not the most sophisticated sermon illustration, but it has always made me ponder and ask myself, do I recognize God’s provision when he sends it? Do we accept God’s grace in our life? Or are we constantly looking for “more”?

I can only speak for myself, but I have found that growth and healing tends to be slow, painful, and step by step. It is easy for me to write off the call of a friend as just a coincidence, rather than the grace of God, the moving of his Spirit. Too often, in fact, I keep praying and saying, “God speak to me, give me guidance and wisdom” without actually listening and realizing that God is speaking to me through those around me, like my wife, for example. Or even an old friend from Louisiana who just happens to now be a bishop in Tennessee.

What are you expecting this Advent? Listen and look, hear and see, for God is at work in your life.

And the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ bring us light and life.

Amen. ✠

[1] Oxford: 51°45′N – 1°15′W; Anchorage, AL 61°13′N – 149°54′W

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