Year A, Third Sunday of Advent
15 December 2019
Sermon preached at Trinity Church on the Green, New Haven, CT
Thou shalt know Him when he comes
not by any din of drums,
Nor his manners nor his airs,
nor by anything he wears.
Thou shalt know him when he comes,
not by his crown or by his gown,
But his coming known shall be
by the holy harmony which his coming makes in thee.
Thou shalt know him when he comes. (1)
I heard this lovely text set to music last Sunday evening at The Yale University Chaplaincy’s Service of Lessons and Carols at Battell Chapel. As I reflected on it, and on today’s Gospel, I wondered if I could rest assured that I would know Jesus when he comes again. Would I recognize Jesus? Would I be too busy and distracted to notice?
I had this fear as a child, you see. I knew from going to church that “Christ will come again!” Somehow, when I was young, it got planted into my brain that Christ could come back at any minute. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, and with 2000/Y2K coming, the end of the millennium had many on alert: remember that old saying, “Jesus is coming, look busy!” And I wondered, how will we know exactly? Will the trumpet really sound, and the dead be raised? Or, will it be like the rapture where supposedly some will suddenly disappear and others be left behind? (Terrifying!) Would there be increasing wars and violence beforehand? Would there be some great sign? I found it all quite scary, and worried that Jesus would indeed come in my lifetime, but I might not recognize him, or believe it was him. I will admit I may have lost at least one night’s sleep over this childhood anxiety.
Would we know Jesus when he comes? What if Jesus again comes as a refugee child? As a person of colour born into poverty, in a country dominated by a foreign power? What if when He comes again He is not he, but she or they? What if Jesus comes as humbly and quietly as the first time?
I find it reassuring therefore that John the Baptist wasn’t so sure about Jesus’ identity either – he had to ask if Jesus was the “one who is to come.” Last Thursday evening, we discussed our Gospel passage for today at our Young Adult Bible Study. I was grateful for the discussion, as those attending had much better insights on this passage than I. First of all, we have to remember that at this point in Matthew’s Gospel, John has already baptized Jesus! And at his baptism, the Spirit of God descended like a dove and a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ That must have been more than a hint for John. Yet John is still unsure – after all, John has wound up in prison. Things are not looking good for him. No wonder he might be asking this question. One can wonder if his question comes from true curiosity, or from disappointment. Or from fear that what God has promised has not yet come to be, and that John’s very life is now at stake.
So, John has heard about Jesus and his works by word of mouth in prison, and he sends his disciples to go find Jesus to ask him this question. My young adult peers also agreed at this point in the passage that Jesus is a little, for lack of a better word, snarky in his response! The disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus if he is the messiah, and Jesus doesn’t reply with a simple yes or no answer, instead he answers them indirectly. He riddles them back, saying, “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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Jesus is not very pastoral towards John and his followers, but he is theologically correct! His answer enlarges the scope of the question.
How did John receive that response? If it were I, I might think, ‘well, great for those who were blind and lame and sick with leprosy and dead and poor – great that Jesus is there, but I’m still in prison!”
I think that many of us might be asking variations of John’s question. “Is this it? Is it you, Jesus? Are you here with me? Is this going to be what helps me? Are you really coming back?” We spend our lives waiting for the next right thing, for the markers of life and success that we hope and pray for. Is this the job I will retire from? Is this the person I will marry and build a life with? Is this the treatment that will cure my illness? Will this be the year I find safe housing? Will God help others in my life obtain the things they need and desire? What burning question is on your heart this morning? What are you waiting for? Sometimes the answers we need don’t seem to come, or don’t come soon enough. We trust that God is with us in our discernment, yet only hindsight is 20/20. We, like John the Baptist, need reassurance. As we wait for Jesus at Advent, we all wait for many other things that we need and desire. We live in a season of anticipation, and yet our imaginations about God and God’s possibilities can be limited. We too need reassurance, like John, that yes, it will be ok, that we will be ok. Many of us might be stuck in figurative, if not actual, prisons like John. Even those of us with the strongest faith, when the going gets tough, may feel trapped, and wonder, “is Jesus really the real thing? Is Jesus really coming back? Is our religion real and worth doing at all? Is Christmas just a fanciful tale, ultimately worthless and impotent against the powers of evil in the world?”
It’s always reassuring when someone else asks the question that we are all thinking – so thank goodness, John the Baptist has asked it for us today. Perhaps, despite knowing what he knew, as John heard in prison about what Jesus was doing, Jesus didn’t fit his idea of a messiah. Jesus didn’t fit his idea of a saviour.
Jesus answers John by not answering – he basically tells John and all of us that we must decide on our own if Jesus is for real – we have to look at his actions, look at what he did and has done -look at his miracles – look at the evidence. What do you see?
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” is the question at the heart of Advent, as we live into this season of anticipation, waiting, hoping, and longing. In our longing, we must hold onto hope – that God is in the business of keeping God’s promises. We can look to the faithful ones who have known Jesus and walked with him – the prophets of old and of now; those we love and look up to in this parish community and in our families, and we can draw inspiration and strength from them. May they help provide the evidence that Jesus is the Messiah – that we need Jesus, and only Jesus can save us.
The Prophet Isaiah says in our reading today: “They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’ … And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
The theme for the Third Sunday of Advent is joy – may we feel joy today, as we anticipate and prepare for joy being born in the world, even as we are mindful of all the places in our lives, and in those of others, where there seems to be little joy. May we be reassured today that Jesus is for real! That Jesus is coming. That doesn’t make life a cakewalk for any of us – we will all still have ups and downs. But may we be reassured that Jesus always walks the way with us. And as we pray and hope and long and wait, we know Jesus now – and we will know him when he comes.
(1) – Text is attributed to “Anonymous,” but many composers have set it to music – see the settings by Mark Sirett, Joel Raney, Hal Hopson, etc., among others.