We know Christ in the world by what we see and hear: the grace and love and healing of God continues to move through a dark world, bringing light and hope.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Third Sunday of Advent, cycle A
Texts: Matthew 11:2-11; Isaiah 35:1-10
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
That’s a powerful Advent question John the Baptizer asks Jesus. Has Christ come, or should we wait for another?
It’s a question filled with sadness, too. John, in prison, sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask this, because somehow John isn’t sure anymore. John, sent to prepare the way of Christ in the world, wonders as he faces death if Jesus is that Christ. John, who didn’t want to baptize Jesus because he recognized him as the greater One coming, now wonders if he made a mistake. It’s a frightening thought as you face death to wonder if you messed up the one main job you had.
Jesus answered “Go and tell John what you see and hear.” Tell him what’s happening. Ask him what he thinks that means.
But John was seeing and hearing things already. That’s why he asked in the first place.
John was a prophet. His call was to prepare the world for God’s anointed to come.
The Christ, the Messiah, was coming. And John saw a world woefully unprepared. He saw corruption, oppression. He saw people living lives apart from God. He saw in stark terms, in or out, black or white. You either bear fruit or you don’t.
He was in prison for speaking out about what he saw. He rebuked his ruler for marrying his own niece, who also happened to be married to his own brother at the time. John publicly condemned this, and “other evils” Herod had done, Luke tells us. So Herod put John in prison.
But John had been hearing about Jesus’ ministry since his baptism, and it seems to have caused doubt. Earlier, John’s disciples had come to Jesus with another question. John and his disciples practiced fasting as a spiritual discipline, but Jesus and his disciples apparently enjoyed their food and drink. They wondered why, and asked Jesus.
Jesus said you don’t fast when the bridegroom is present, an odd answer. But probably as troubling to John was Jesus’ approach to repentance. Jesus and John both preached it. But instead of proclaiming axes and fire and threatening people, Jesus said, “Follow me.” He invited people to follow him and learn as they went.
He picked flawed people as disciples, and trusted that they’d figure it out. Jesus had standards, no doubt. He called his followers to give up their lives to follow him. But his approach came with invitation, with promise of forgiveness, with proclamations of God’s love. He sought out publicly known sinners and ate with them, instead of publicly rebuking them as failures.
It seems clear the contrast between John’s and Jesus’ approaches were so striking John was finding doubt about his whole mission.
Jesus’ answer to John is brilliant.
He didn’t defend himself, or defend his disciples’ eating and drinking. He didn’t explain his approach. He simply sent John’s disciples back with the evidence of their eyes and ears.
And what did they see and hear Jesus do? Act like the Christ, the Messiah, as Isaiah promised. At Christ’s coming, the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a deer. Jesus was doing all this, and John’s disciples witnessed it. For good measure, Jesus reminded them that they’d seen lepers cleansed, the dead raised, and the good news preached to those who were poor.
Jesus, God’s Christ, has a simple answer for any who wonder if he is whom we claim him, if he’s the one for whom the world has waited: what do you see and hear? What does that tell you?
We likely share more than a little of John’s concerns.
Even some time after Christ Jesus began his ministry, John still looked at a world of corruption and oppression, of violence and evil, where people lived with little regard for living as God’s people. Yet Jesus seemed to act with much less anxiety about what was happening, and with much less prophetic anger. Did he not see what John saw?
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John’s question is our question. In a world of darkness and fear such as ours, we have to know the answer. Even if other generations have thought the same, that they were living in particularly evil times, challenging times, times of tribulation, and even if they really were, we know we, too, live in such times.
And if God isn’t taking the world’s evil seriously enough to come and put an end to all of this, if the coming of Christ at Bethlehem 2,000 years ago still hasn’t changed this world, brought peace on earth, goodwill to all, then we’ve got questions. If we’ve still got to wait, if God’s Messiah is yet to come, we need to know that.
Jesus’ answer to John is Jesus’ answer to us.
And that’s part of our problem. Blind people seeing, deaf people hearing, lame people walking, dead people living, all these were signs Jesus did 2,000 years ago. Such miracles don’t often happen like that anymore. Part of our struggle with faith is that miracles like Jesus did, and restorations of the whole creation and of all people such as we hear promised in Isaiah don’t seem to happen now, and haven’t for some time.
But we’ve forgotten something very important. When Christ Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, ascended into heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit to fill his followers, to transform them into Christ themselves, anointed ones, Messiahs. Paul claims that we are the Body of Christ and he doesn’t mean it as metaphor. We are, Paul constantly claims, actually Christ in the world, Anointed Ones of God, doing the work of Christ. That was the plan all along. That God would come to us as one of us, and transform us to be God’s Christ in the world ourselves.
So yes, Christ Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, did amazing things when he was here. Perhaps since we are not God ourselves, we can assume the Triune God never expected us to do such things with divine power. And remember, even when Christ Jesus was here, he himself was reluctant to do such miracles. Can’t we assume God knows our limits, our abilities, and knew them when we were called and anointed in baptism? If we are needed as Christ in the world, if the coming of Christ is coming in us to the world, it will be a coming that can use the abilities and gifts that we have.
This is what the Scriptures tell us repeatedly: the followers of Christ Jesus are now Christ. So the “second coming” might just be us.
So if Jesus says, what do you see and hear?, well, what do we?
I see Christ in the world, that’s what I see. Look at all of you, to start with. Dedicated, passionate people who bring light into the darkness every day, sometimes in small and sometimes in large ways. I see Christ everywhere I look here, anointed people who witness to God’s love by bearing the same love in their families, in their daily lives, in this place, in the world. I see people working against the powers of evil, making a difference every day, people with imagination and courage. I see people giving of their wealth to God’s work here and many other places, giving of their time and sweat to bring God’s light and healing hope into this world in more ways than we can count. That’s what I see and hear.
And that’s just this congregation. I see evidence of the same in our sisters and brothers in south Minneapolis all the time. And of course it’s happening in St. Paul, and rural Minnesota, and throughout this country, and throughout the world. Christ is alive and working against the darkness, the corruption, the oppression, the pain, the evil all over this planet.
God never needed us to do the miracles that even God’s Son wasn’t sent to do. God always simply needed us to be us, anointed ones of God, bearing the love and grace that we are given by the Holy Spirit so that the world would be healed.
It’s all in what we look at and listen to.
We can look at all the darkness and evil in the world and worry that God isn’t showing up to get rid of it all. We can spend Advent waiting and watching for that big, bright, flashy moment when God says, all right, we’re cleaning this place up.
Or we can look and listen for where the Triune God has actually said we will see evidence of God’s grace. We can listen and look for signs of Christ in everyday people, starting here, but stretching throughout the world. We can spend our Advent waiting and watching for where God really is coming and bringing life and hope, and we can join in that coming ourselves, as the Christ we are.
If we asked Christ Jesus John’s question, we know what he’d answer. “What do you think? What do you see and hear?” And in that answer we find all the hope our Advent waiting needs, and all the calling we need to go out into the darkness as the light of Christ we are.
In the name of Jesus. Amen