A sermon by The Rev. Nathan E. Kirkpatrick. Advent III. December 15, 2019
If you have ever lost faith in something
– in a cause or a candidate,
in an organization or an institution –
If you have ever given your all
only to find that your all is not enough,
If you have ever found yourself despairing or disillusioned,
If you have ever found the road steep and the way hard
And you have wondered if it is worth walking at all,
Then you have a friend in John the Baptist.
Our morning gospel finds John in prison;
In fact, in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life,
John has been in prison for almost seven chapters.
So long that he has missed
Jesus’ sermon on the mount, the Beatitudes,
and The Lord’s Prayer.
He has been incarcerated as Jesus has already healed many,
Raised at least one from the dead,
And stilled a storm at sea.
While Jesus was laying all the foundations of his public ministry,
John was a religious and political prisoner
Of a narcissistic megalomaniac
Who resented the fact that John
tried to hold him accountable for his unethical behavior.
You remember John is in prison
Because he had publicly objected to Herod
Taking his brother’s wife as his own.
As the gospel of Luke tells it:
“But Herod the tetrarch,
being rebuked by [John]
about Herodias, his brother’s wife,
and about all the [other] evil things Herod had done,
added this to everything else –
he locked John up in prison” (Luke 3:19-20<https://biblia.com/bible/nasb95/Luke%203.19-20>).
And in prison, after more than a while in prison,
After missing all the foundations of Jesus’ public ministry,
A no-doubt weary John the Baptist
sends a question to Jesus,
one of the most haunting questions in scripture.
“Are you the one who is to come,
Or should we wait for another?” (Matthew 11.2).
To hear the pathos in the question,
to hear the heartbreak,
to really hear it,
we have to remember that this is John –
John, whose birth had been announced by an angel,
John, who, in utero, had been present
to hear Mary’s song
as Jesus’ mother sang it to John’s mother.
This is John whose own sense
of calling and purpose
was to fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah –
The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked straight,
and the rough places plain,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
This is John who had preached to the masses
about repentance and transformation.
This is John who had said of himself,
After me comes one who is mightier than I …
I baptize you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit..
This is John who baptized Jesus,
and at that baptism, watched as the heavens were opened,
watched as the Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove,
and who had heard there a voice from heaven thunder –
“You are my Son; with you I am well-pleased.”
This is that John,
who now is asking,
“are you the one who is to come
or should we wait for another?”
As I hear it,
If John is not outright losing faith,
he is certainly losing heart.
Now, to be fair about it,
there are biblical interpreters who say
that this is more of a rhetorical question,
that John sends Jesus the question
on behalf of all the people
who had heard John’s preaching across the years,
who themselves may have begun to wonder,
who themselves may have begun to ask –
“John seemed so certain that this Jesus was the Messiah,
but look what’s happened to John.
Is Jesus really the One? Or was John wrong?”
So, these biblical interpreters suggest that
perhaps John is raising the question
not really for himself
but for all of these others
who might now have a doubt or two,
who might be wondering
if this is the One who has come to set all people free
if He can’t even get John out of Herod’s jail.
Sort of the opposite of
what most of us mean when we say,
“I’m just asking for a friend…”.
You can see, you can hear
what these interpreters are doing, right?
They’re wanting to protect John,
John, the one with the resume I just read to you,
from the possibility of doubt
precisely because of that resume.
They’re wanting to say,
“no, no, nothing to see here,”
if a person with that resume
what does that mean for the rest of us mere mortals?
If John, after all of that,
could find himself despairing – even for a moment –
what would that mean for all of the rest of us
who have spiritual resumes that pale in comparison?
But, for a moment,
I wonder what would happen
if we don’t try to protect John.
If instead of saying,
“oh, that’s so sweet of him,
he’s faking some doubt
so that the crowd gets to hear Jesus say,
‘yeah, yeah, I’m the one,’
how benevolent of John” –
what if, instead,
what if we say
that maybe, just maybe,
John’s life, John’s circumstances
had made it hard for him
to hold on to belief even for just a moment?
I, for one, think that that
might make him more important for us rather than less.
I, for one, think that that
wouldn’t tarnish his halo or risk his sainthood at all,
but it might actually confirm his humanity and his sainthood.
Rather than the caricatured firebrand preacher,
John might be a bit more accessible to us,
a bit more familiar to us.
It may also help explain why –
as Fleming Rutledge, the preacher and scholar, notes –
John, not Jesus, is the central figure of Advent.
If we don’t try to protect John,
then, for any of us who have ever wondered
if Jesus is the One we have been waiting for,
for any of us whose lives have made it hard to believe,
then, for us, we have a newfound friend in John.
Here’s my hunch –
if I’m wrong, you can tell me at Teachable Moment or lunch.
My hunch is that most of us
at some point or another
have looked out at the world through
all kinds of prison bars -literal, metaphorical –
and have wanted to know
if we have put our faith in the right Messiah,
we have wanted an answer –
“Are you the One? Or shall we wait for another?”
Which is so much deeper,
so much harder,
than losing faith in a cause or a candidate,
in an organization or an institution,
it is so much harder than giving our all and finding it not enough,
so much harder than walking the road and finding it tough-going
because, in each of those moments,
if faith is true, then we have faith to lean on.
But, if faith falters, then, so, too, does the very hope that sustains us.
What if John is asking for himself
and giving us words for our experience, too –
are you the One or do we have to keep waiting?
It’s a perfect third Sunday of Advent kind of question,
when, in a normal year, the walk to Christmas starts to feel long.
When maybe we’re ready to be done with Advent hymns
as beautiful as they are and just sing a Christmas carol or two.
When maybe we’re done with waiting.
Two Sundays ago, I was with
the folks of the Episcopal campus ministry at Duke
for their Sunday evening Eucharist,
and several of the students
were talking before mass
by the advent wreath.
And at the Episcopal Center,
their Advent wreath
has different colored candles –
three purple and one pink –
for the Sundays in Advent.
And the students were discussing why there was a pink candle.
One of them finally said,
“did you ever think that maybe they were just tired of purple?”
Maybe you know something about being tired of purple,
tired of waiting for God; weary of wondering if or when life will change.
Maybe John’s question is yours:
Are you the One or do we have to keep waiting?
In Matthew’s Gospel,
Jesus answers John’s question.
“Go and tell John what you see …
that the blind see, the deaf hear,
the sick are healed, the dead live again,
and the poor have good news preached to them.”
For us, Jesus might answer it this way:
Go and tell what you hear and see –
that the community that gathers in my name
brings food for the hungry,
builds Tiny Homes for the homeless,
welcomes strangers and makes them friends,
cares for those who are hurting and for those who are healing,
marches for justice and prays for peace,
gives time and treasure to change the world.
If you have ever asked, if you have ever wondered,
if John’s question is yours today –
Hold on to what you hear and see,
because our waiting is almost over.
The Rev. Nathan E. Kirkpatrick