The Impatience of Advent
The Impatience of Advent
On the third Sunday of Advent we revisit with John the Baptist. John’s circumstances have changed dramatically since last we heard from him. He’s grown impatient and perhaps so have we. Let’s explore the impatience of Advent in relationship to Jesus’ ministry.
Scripture: Matthew 11: 2-11
John the Baptist is impatient. He is in prison and so perhaps that is understandable. He’s preached against the marriage of Herod Antipas as it violated Jewish religious law. While there he wonders to his followers who have come to visit him if Jesus is the Messiah or is it someone else?
We know that John will die in that prison. John himself probably fears it which makes his impatience understandable. If Jesus is the Messiah, why doesn’t he get to work and set the captives free?
This doesn’t seem to be the same bold, courageous individual we saw last week preaching in the desert. What’s happening here?
This is a passage that doesn’t seem to meet the promise that we are given as followers of Christ and it’s John the Baptist who is going to be let down. How do we reconcile this, what is Matthew trying to tell us and how does it prepare us for Christmas?
Matthew Skinner on his commentary for this passage writes, “Christianity is, at root, an Advent religion. That is, our theology situates us in a cleft where promise and fulfillment don’t quite meet. Our experiences situate us there, too, as people keenly aware that our institutions are full of prejudices but resistant to healing. And yet we stick to a different narrative, a hopeful narrative. We don’t believe God leaves the world to its own pernicious and violent devices. We never stop expecting new life to break onto the scene. We have work to do, but we simultaneously recognize it as God’s work done on God’s terms.” (Matthew Skinner – https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/advent-perception)
The first disciples, Matthew’s community and us here today, we know that the promise doesn’t line up with the reality we live in. The world and the society we inhabit isn’t as pure or as good as the one Jesus preaches about. We aren’t there yet and John the Baptist and Jesus later in the gospel are used to illustrate that point. The catch with Jesus is there is the resurrection, but we’ll talk further about that at Easter.
John is impatient. We are impatient. We know it can be better, we know it should be better, but we are often caught in cycles that won’t change. However, as Christians we cling to a narrative of hope because we have seen and do believe in a better way.
I’m not sure how many of you caught this but during last week’s sermon I said the following, “If Matthew, through the voice of John the Baptist is telling us that Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire, but then he doesn’t write about Jesus baptising anyone then he must be using this imagery to make another point.” If you were paying attention, you will have noticed that I did not answer that question. I actually, rather abruptly changed the subject.
There are two reasons for that, first if you picked up on the omission it leaves you with something to ponder and maybe you did. Second, we pick up on that thread this week as we revisit John the Baptist.
It may not feel that way as we read today’s passage. John is in prison of Herod Antipas awaiting death. While there he asks the question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Remember, in the opening of Matthew’s gospel John tells us that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. That tells us that John was expecting something and his question today means that Jesus may not have met with his expectations or as we’ve just discussed that John is getting a little impatient. Jesus promised to set the captives free. Well, here is John languishing in prison wondering when he’s going to be freed.
What then is the point that Matthew is trying to make with this omission? Jesus provides the words when he says to those who are gathered, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see?”
Remember people left the cities, they left Jerusalem which is the center of society and they went to the wilderness where we find those on the margins. They went for that compelling message John offered and for the news of the one who would come after. Baptism refers to rebirth, Jesus may not physically baptize an individual. However, his ministry represents a new creation, a new society, a rebirth from the old order. We are resurrection people. We believe that a death, the death of Jesus, leads to new life. That is the baptism that John refers to, that is the fire and under the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit we seek to follow in the ministry that John, then Jesus started.
Following up on John’s moments of doubt and impatience in this passage Stanley Saunders writes the following, “Today, many Christians may ask similar questions: if Jesus is really the one who brings God’s rule to fruition, why is our world still marked by exploitation, injustice, polarization, and violence? Why are we still waiting? How long must we wait? Will Jesus really come to redeem those who suffer, or should we look for another? The answer lies not in any academic or technical adjudication of Christological titles and actions, but in what one makes of the signs Jesus performs: do we believe that when the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them that we are seeing God’s power? Or are we looking for something else? How is God’s power still evident today? Will we experience the good news as redemption or judgment?” (Stanley Saunders – Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11 – Working Preacher from Luther Seminary)
When I read about a person who was homeless being housed, I see God’s kingdom at work.
When I read about someone with mental health concerns, being treated with compassion and concern, I see God’s kingdom at work.
When I read about community efforts to vaccinate against a virus, I see God’s kingdom at work.
When I read about an individual dying, or being in the room with that person, as they are surrounded by loved ones, I see God’s kingdom at work.
I see God’s kingdom at work all around us. I see signs of it every day, without fail.
But I also see the efforts to thwart that work and like John the Baptist I sometimes grow impatient. Because I should not have to celebrate that someone was housed, shelter and housing is a human right, we can do better. I should not have to celebrate when someone with mental health concerns is treated with compassion and concern, because all people should be treated that way.
I grow impatient because those things that led people away from Jerusalem and towards John still happen today. I am struck by the message that Jesus preached in this passage, the blind receive their sight: they see a better way forward as a society. The lame walk: we won’t leave anyone behind. The lepers are cleansed: you won’t be shunned because of who you are. These aren’t healing miracles; they are statements about how we should live together as a people wrapped up in healing imagery because society was and is unwell.
Sometimes I grow impatient because I see how good it could be and then we get in our own way.
John the Baptist prepares the way. He goes before us and calls out the wrongs. He forces us to think critically about what it means to allow God’s child, our saviour, the Messiah, to be born in the abject poverty that is a cattle’s trough. The birth narrative, the nativity, which in a few weeks we will celebrate with pageantry, is a powerful critique on society.
John the Baptist prepares the way. And its alright if you are impatient. Christmas is coming and the one who would definitively show us how to live and care for one another will be born. Our role, as followers of Christ, as people who will welcome the Christ-child is to follow in his footsteps and ensure that the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and that the Good News is shared. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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