The Rev Cynthia KR Banks: Advent 3—Year A; Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
We are deep into Advent. The third Sunday. And today, we start to turn toward, to anticipate, the coming of Jesus. That first Sunday of Advent was all about apocalyptic, end-of-the-world, second-coming-of-Jesus stuff. The second Sunday of Advent turned toward John the Baptist. Today, we bridge from John the Baptist to Jesus. We still are nowhere near the birth narrative; that is yet to come.
Today is about hope and possibility and curiosity. John was in prison, and he heard what the Messiah was doing. He sent word by his disciples to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Now, remember, John had baptized Jesus—shouldn’t he have known who Jesus was??? Maybe, but for whatever reason, he didn’t know, he wasn’t sure, he was curious. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” “Are you the one, Jesus? Are you the one?” There is something about that question that rings so deep, so true, so authentic, so real, so honest. Behind that question lies a yearning, a hope, that Jesus is indeed the one who is to come.
Now, Jesus could have gotten mad; he could have berated John for his blindness, for his inability to see what was so obviously so. But Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus says simply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see, go tell John what you are experiencing: 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.” Impossibilities. All of these things should not have been so, and yet they were so. Jesus isn’t just giving John the evidence for being the one who is to come, but Jesus is also defining what it means to be the one who is to come. God’s anointed was anointed for a purpose—to restore sight, to restore the capacity to move, to restore those who were cast out of society, to restore the ability to hear, to bring back to life, to bring good news to the poor. And Jesus is clear—the one who does such things is going to offend a whole lot of people. Why else would he say, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me?”
And then Jesus commends his fiery prophetic cousin John, says that among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. But even as exalted as John is, there are those yet even more exalted than he—the least of these. “The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” The least—who are they? The blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, the poor—those whom society had cast down and cast out. These are the ones exalted in the kingdom of heaven. These are the ones who hold a special place in the heart of God and in the heart of the one whom God has sent.
So, this works on two levels. Jesus makes clear here, the one who is coming is deeply concerned about those at the margins of society. If we aren’t connected to the least of these, we are going to miss the place where God shows up, where God comes, on a regular basis. We don’t need to be in relationship with the least of these just because God has a particular love for them, but we need to be in relationship with the least of these because it is there that we will see God ourselves. It is there that we witness Jesus at work. It is there that we see miracles transpire. It is there that we discover the art of the possible in a world that says, “Give up, accept your lot, it’s impossible to change anything.” So, we need to witness the place where transformation isn’t just possible, but expected.
Second, this works on the level of our own soul. Where are our places of blindness? Where do we need to see something anew? Where have we lost our capacity to make forward progress? Where do we need the strength to walk tall? Where do we feel unclean and like we are on the outside looking in? What pieces of our selves have we declared unclean, unworthy of love and respect? What parts of us need to be brought back into relationship with the whole? Where have we ceased to listen? What do we need to hear? What in us has died, and what makes us come alive again? Where are we impoverished—in our bodies, in our minds, in our hearts, in our souls? What riches are awaiting us, yearning to be discovered and claimed? Can we trust that the one who is coming to set the least of these free is indeed coming to us? Can we trust that the one who is coming is coming to do this work in us?
Advent, “adventus” in Latin, it means “coming.” Something is coming. Someone is coming. To receive the one who is coming, we need to prepare. Not by way of getting things all neat and tidy and perfect like you do when a houseguest is coming, but we need to prepare by lifting up all these places where we are indeed impoverished and in such profound need. We need to bring these to light so that Jesus can fill them with his light and his life.
Then, we won’t just be witnesses of the transformation that Jesus is working, we won’t just be reporters conveying what we see and hear, but we will be the transformation itself. Then, we won’t have to ask if he is the one who is to come. Then, we won’t have to ask if we are to wait for another. Then, we will simply know. When you’ve been touched, when you’ve been healed, when you’ve been set free, when you experience transformation at the deepest level of your need, at the deepest level of your soul, then you will know, in the words of Paul, as you have always been known.
So, in these remaining days of Advent. Prepare for the coming of the Lord, but not in the frenzy that is swirling around us in the world. Prepare your heart. Prepare your soul. What places inside of you are longing for the coming of the Lord? Open those places, those spaces, and know that nothing is impossible with God. The one who is coming longs to inhabit those places and spaces. And as he moves into those places and touches them and heals them and resurrects them, we, too, will discover what it means to be born anew. And then, all those beautiful images from Isaiah will be pictures of us and our lives—the deserts of our souls will blossom and we, like those ransomed of the LORD, of whom Isaiah spoke so long ago, shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon our heads; we shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
There are a lot of good gifts to be given and received in the coming days and weeks, but none so priceless as a transformed life. The one who is to come is coming. Welcome him into your deepest places of longing, and know, know you will never be the same. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 15, 2013