John’s question is really the question for hearers of every age. More clearly than perhaps any place in the gospel, the writer fairly leaps over the characters on the stage of the narrative
and places the question smack-dab in our own laps. What will we make of this Jesus? Is he indeed the Messiah? For us? If not, how will we be opened to hear and see him as Messiah in such a way that he becomes the very reality of God’s blessing in our lives?
Living in the midst of Advent, perhaps the question is premature. Along with John we say, “Give us more data.” But when the kingdom comes it is not a matter of more data. We pray, “Let your kingdom come.” Martin Luther says, “God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us” (Small Catechism). Luther elsewhere says it is not enough to preach the works, life, and words of Christ as historical facts; rather Christ needs to be preached so that he becomes Christ for you and me (Freedom of the Christian). How will we read and hear to that end? Here, then is the deep question of faith, the leap from unbelief to belief, and the mystery of God’s kingdom at work in us.
John’s question is also the great “why?” Last Sunday, we listened to John’s preaching and to his expectations that this coming Messiah would really “clean house” (3:11-12). Now John is in prison, and we might be forgiven if we join him in his questions. If this Jesus is really the good news of God, then why is there still so much suffering and pain, evil and destruction, or hurt and brokenness among God’s creation? The answers lie in our imagination and vision. What do we expect to see in this Messiah? And what will we make of him?
Hearing and Seeing
If we are to receive this Jesus as God’s Messiah “for us,” then it will call for a dramatic new creation of ones who are made to hear and see in new ways. Our expectations and our hopes need reshaping. Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see” (11:4). Such seeing will need to be shaped both by the visions and hopes of prophets, those who have gone before. It will also need to be shaped by what is happening here and now among us. Where do we see the creative power of God at work amid the suffering of this world? Where do the blind, the lame, the sick, the poor have good news brought to them? And where do we find ourselves to be instruments of God’s creative power? Such hearing and seeing will return us to the theme of repentance and renewal that were part of John’s preaching of the kingdom. It is part of Jesus’ message to disciples as well. “Be not only hearers but doers,” he says at the end of his sermon (7:24). “Let anyone with ears listen,” he teaches in his parables (13:9). “Many have longed to see and hear what you have and did not,” he reminds his disciples (13:16-17).
The preacher in Advent will need to be the eyes and ears of the people. Where do we see the Messiah’s promising presence at work in world? Or do we see it at all? For disciples of any age such seeing is not always easy. Nor is there even any guarantee that it will be for us a matter of good news. That will again be shaped by our expectations.
Blessing or Offense?
Jesus says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (11:6). To hear and see in this way is to acknowledge that Jesus is indeed the one who is coming as God’s Messiah. It is to believe that there is power for new creation in God’s call to each of us as disciples, to be transformed by repentance to bear fruits of love and mercy. It is to know that the deeds and words of renewal and hope that take shape in our world because of him through us and through others are marks of God’s salvation. All of these are ways of talking about the “blessing” of God. “Blessing” is an important, if not the key theme for Matthew. It is a code word for the heart of God’s good news of mercy and grace. Such mercy is not just metaphorical expression, but is real in the life changing and world changing power of Jesus and his disciples among whom we are included. “Blessed.blessed, ” is Jesus repeated refrain at the beginning of his sermon (5:1-11). The words of beatitude are not first of all a call to be up and doing, but rather words of assurance, to know the blessing that is ours in the call and promise of God. “Blessed are your eyes,” Jesus commends his disciples when he uses parables to help them envision the new ways of God’s kingdom (13:16). “Blessed are you, Simon,” he responds to Peter’s central confession of him as God’s Messiah (16:17).
If blessing is the key mark of discipleship for Matthew, then its flipside or opposite is “offense” (11:6). Offense (Greek root: skandalon as either noun or verb, and often disguised in English translations, such as in 18:6-9) is the stance of unbelief. The key question of our lesson and of this Advent season is whether the good news of God’s blessing in Jesus will take root in us and produce the fruits of faith or whether it will be the cause of our turning away. In the narrative of Jesus’ birth we are reminded of the differing reception of the “good news” in a Herod or in the magi. As we move closer to the celebration, the question is not put more earnestly, “How will we receive him?” Is Jesus for us “the one who is come” or do we keep looking for another-or for others or other things that will fill our expectations of what we would like our God to be? Before we answer that question too quickly, we should take another look at John in our lesson.
What about John?
At the beginning of the gospel John seemed so confident in his preaching about Jesus as the one who was to come. So his questions now seem at best a bit puzzling. Several explanations of his question might be given. We have already suggested that putting this question in John’s mouth may simply be Matthew’s way of putting the question of discipleship directly in front of us, of making John’s question really our own, and thus facing us with the issues of faith and unbelief, of blessing and offense, which are at the heart of this gospel. A second suggestion returns to the matter of expectation and fulfillment. As much as Matthew paints John as the forerunner who proclaims the kingdom of God, still John remains only on the threshold of the kingdom. To judge from his preaching, the Messiah he expects will come with fire and brimstone, with winnowing fork in hand, to exercise judgment, or, as we have said, as one who will “clean house.” Instead what John hears and sees is one who brings forgiveness, healing, and mercy. Only Matthew’s Jesus explicitly says, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” not once but twice (9:13; 12:7).
Is this a Messiah that John or we can live with? Do we really like a God who insists on coming to forgive, to show mercy, to call even the unrighteous to repentance? We think, for example of the parables of the unforgiving servant (18:23-35) or the laborers in the vineyard (20:1-16). Maybe that’s a kind of surprise that neither John nor you or I can live with.
How great a promise does God hold out for you and me this Advent season? Matthew’s answer is a promise so great that even the least person in the kingdom of God is greater than John. It is a promise so radical that even one as great as John can miss it as he looks for the mercy and justice of God in the wrong key, and so risks missing the kingdom when it comes.
But to be able to answer a “Yes” to John’s question is to know that we have experienced what Matthew means by the “blessing” of God. It is to have truly experienced what the Advent expectation is all about in its promise to transform our vision and hope.
This is one of those texts for which many of the hearers will know not only the words but the tune, because it stands behind the well-known alto recitative in George Frideric Handel’s Messiah:
“Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened.” For these people, the preacher’s challenge will be to help them hear it afresh.
For others, of course, the text will be so fresh as to be incomprehensible. Lebanan? Carmel? Sharon? The blind see? The lame walk? Highways in the desert? What in the world is this all about?
So the preacher is stuck between a rock and a hard place. “Obviously, this text is about Jesus,” say some; while others observe, “This text is about a world of which I know nothing.” What to do?
One way to help all people actually see and hear this passage is to help them realize how carefully the prophet has put it together, to introduce people to the beauty of its poetry. (This might require a visual aid-perhaps a screen or, at the least, an outline of the structure in the bulletin. The process works best if the preacher can develop the structure a piece at a time, letting people discover it gradually, rather than simply unveiling it full-blown. The goal, of course, is not to admire the structure for its own sake, but to appreciate its contribution to the text’s meaning. With this emphasis, I will choose here to limit the discussion to vv. 1-7 of today’s text.)
The prophet has taken great care with these verses (one might say that as a student he got all A’s in poetry). They are marked by a concentric structure that is quite common to Hebrew poetry-and which might require a very brief explanation: both individual verses and longer units of text can be marked by something like an a-b-b-a or a-b-c-d-c-b-a pattern. Today’s passage (vv. 1-7) begins and ends with a focus on creation. The desert and the wilderness, typical of the ancient near Eastern landscape, are being transformed: the desert blossoms, becoming as fertile as those rare watered areas, Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon (vv. 1-2); the arid sands become a luscious garden (vv. 6b-7). How can this be, hearers might wonder; and to what end. The preacher should first simply let people appreciate the transformation: Look! A dry wasteland is becoming a green paradise. Steven Spielberg could provide the special effects. (Now, to be sure, deserts belong to God, too, along with the various creatures of the desert; and they too are created good. Remember, that the text is poetry, not an ecology textbook. Let it be poetry, and go with the wonder of it.)
But let’s look inside those bookends of the text that focus on creation. In the next layer of the passage, human beings are also being transformed: hands, knees, and hearts are made strong (vv. 3-4a); eyes, ears, limbs, and tongue are healed (vv. 5-6a). (Note that seven elements are mentioned: the transformation is complete!) Again, amazing things are happening. Revel in them. Appreciate the possibility of the removal of pain, the healing of all that stands in the way of song and dance. (And again, the text is poetry, not a discourse on the place and possibilities of disability. Hear it for what it wants to say, not for what it doesn’t say. There are other biblical texts for another day to speak about issues of social justice and disability.)
But what is going on here? And how? In this case, the key comes in the middle. At the center of the concentric circles that describe the restoration of creation and humanity is God: “Here is your God,” announces the prophet (v. 4b)-God coming with power to overcome the wickedness, disease, and disorder that stand in the way of God’s breathtaking new age. The structure, then, is this: creation-humanity-God-humanity-creation (a-b-c-b-a). At the center is God, who comes to “save.” Among other things, this text helps us understand what it means to “be saved” in the Bible-not at all something that pertains only to individual souls, but rather a transformation of humanity and creation that enables all to sing together in present and eternal joy.
God, says the text, is the one with power to transform creation and humanity-and, look, here he comes! This is not an abstract or even eternal truth; it is a present announcement: God is showing up. Watch what happens!
And where does this happen? The text is clear: it happens as people are given eyes to see and ears to hear. God is in our midst, and amazing things are possible. People of God have known this in every generation-while, of course, in every generation they have wondered how to see it more clearly and believe it more firmly, given the often unpleasant desert realities in which they live. People in Jesus’ day were no different, and so the disciples of John sent to ask Jesus whether in fact he was the one “who is to come” (Matthew 11:3). They were asking nothing less than whether or not they could announce what Isaiah had claimed: “Here is your God.” In response, Jesus pointed to this text: Watch what’s happening. Things are being transformed. The sick are healed and creation obeys my voice. God is at work here, and wonderful things are happening.
Can we believe this, that God has shown up in Jesus and stands today in our midst? This is our Advent message. But can people see it? With our hearers, we pray for at least two things: first, that we be given eyes to see and ears to hear-that our eyes and ears be opened to discover what God is doing in God’s Son Jesus and in the world around us; second, that we ourselves become signs of the kingdom to those who are watching and waiting for God. Is the world transformed when we pass through, as it was when the Israelite pilgrims made their barren world a place of springs as they journeyed to Jerusalem (Psalm 84:6)? In Christ, God is in our midst, in the center of our lives and our world-just as God stands in the center of our text-and God means to do surprising things there.
In the third Sunday of Advent, the epistle reading shifts from Paul’s letter to the Romans, to the Epistle of James. Paul and James have often been contrasted with each other,
particularly in regard to their attitudes towards the relationship between faith and works. Yet both are concerned with the unity and health of their congregations.
Paul warns against aspects of the Mosaic Law that divide Jewish and Gentile Christians, such as circumcision, food laws and Sabbath observance. James also is concerned about divisions between members of the assembly of faith, but the divisions that worry him are between rich Christians and poor Christians. He warns against favoritism towards rich church members (2:1-9), slander (3:1-12), greed, violence and fraud (4:1-3; 5:1-5). All of these warnings, addressed to everyone in the fellowship, and addressed specifically to the “rich” (5:1-6), precede the passage in today’s lesson and set a context for the exhortation to “be patient” (5:7).
This context is important, because without such warnings addressed to the “haves,” exhorting the “have-nots” to be patient can be a form of continuing oppression. Imagine, for example, telling the refugees in Darfur to be patient while they are being slaughtered. Or recall Martin Luther King’s response to the clergy of Birmingham, who counseled more patience on the part of Black people fighting segregation. It matters a great deal who counsels “patience,” in what context, and to what end. James first pronounces God’s judgment on greed and exploitation, before he encourages those who are suffering, with the promise that “the day of the Lord is at hand” (5:8).
Patience is the theme for today. What is “patience?” In the first place, it is an alternative to the life of grasping and exploitation that James condemns in 5:1-6. Patience makes possible a life of deferred gratification, waiting for fruit to ripen before harvesting it. It is difficult to imagine a more countercultural way to live in our materialistic, fast-paced society. I grew up with “snail-mail;” now I’m impatient if e-mail takes more than a few seconds.
Many years ago I heard a seminary professor say, “We all want to make this world our Zion.” We all want to make our corner of the world into the promised land, and we want it NOW! The costs of our impatience are enormous, from our gluttony for oil, to our degradation of the environment, to radical inequalities in the distribution of the world’s goods. No wonder James, concerned for the welfare of the “have-nots,” counsels patience. Knowing that this life is not all that there is, and that God’s future is far better than we can imagine, makes possible a life of open-handed generosity. Patience includes the capacity to forego economic gain as a guide and motivation for our actions.
There is a second aspect of James’ teaching, which we might call the “politics of patience.” He tells his hearers not to “grumble” against each other. The Greek word can also be translated as “groan in travail,” the way a woman in childbirth groans. Paul uses it to describe the way all creation groans together, eager to be freed from “its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21-23). Christians are not to stand aside from that groaning and pain and yearning, but to share with all humanity in suffering and hoping for God’s salvation.
In contrast with such solidarity in suffering, James warns his hearers against turning their pain, their “groans,” against each other. It is easy, when we are experiencing hard times, to become bitter and mutually judgmental, or simply to stop going to church. How many people quietly drop out of Sunday morning worship when they go through intense personal crises, such as divorce or death or conflict with their children? How many people put on a pious public Sunday morning face because they fear the judgment of their Christian brothers and sisters?
Patience involves a capacity to suspend such judgment, to live with unresolved problems and relationships. We do not need to impose a quick fix on messy situations; rather, because we live in the light of God’s judgment and salvation, our job is to cultivate mutual understanding. We don’t have to make this world our Zion, we don’t have to force events into a situation favorable to us, or to manipulate relationships in order to get what we think we want. Rather, we have the room and time to grow into the kind of fellowship James describes in 5:13-20. At the heart of that fellowship is the honesty enjoined in 5:16: “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
Thus, thirdly, patience is essential to the process of becoming a peacemaker. The premature resolution of conflict usually inflicts some kind of violence on one of the parties involved, by silencing them. The patience to listen, to withhold judgment, to attend to each person’s or group’s or country’s concerns, is a major part of diplomacy, whether in marriage counseling, family life, church politics, or international relations. James calls this kind of diplomacy the “wisdom from above,” which is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity” (3:17). And he adds, “And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (3:18).
According to some early Christian traditions, the author of this treatise is James the brother of the Lord. If so, this is the same James who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21), whom Paul visited there (Galatians 1:19; 2:9, 12), and who was especially concerned for the welfare of the poor (Galatians 2:10). Whether or not this is the same person, there are many connections between James’ teaching and those of Jesus. For our lesson today, we might think of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20); “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).