Monday, December 13, 2010
Sermon - Matthew 11:2-15 - Advent 3
December 12th, 2010
Last week we saw John the Baptist at the peak of his ministry – baptizing crowds and calling out Pharisees. Today, we read a bit further in Matthew's Gospel, and John's in a much different place. Prison, in fact. He had criticized King Herod, who had taken his brother's wife, and didn't take kindly to John's finger-pointing. John's hopes for release were slim. And we all know what John's fate would soon be – beheaded at a grizzly birthday party for the king. In the valley of the shadow of death – John sends his followers to ask Jesus, “are you the one, or shall we look for another?”
Today, we light that pink candle in our Advent wreath. It's often called the “shepherds candle” or the candle of Joy. This season of preparation evokes in us many and varied responses – and joy should be one of them. For like the shepherds who first heard the news of Christ's birth, we too believe he is the one who is to come. The Savior who brings peace on earth and God's good will toward man. We have joy, even in our expectation of Christmas. But then there's John, sitting in prison....
John must have looked around his prison cell, and found it a rather joy-less place. We can only imagine what it was like. Probably not the clean and sterile institutional setting of today's prisons – you might imagine a rat scurrying here or there. It was probably a dark place without much sunlight – figurative or literal.
And if we think about what John might have heard in his prison, perhaps it was the moaning of other prisoners. The jingling of jailers' keys. The sharpening of their axes. Or even the silence of his own isolation. In any case, nothing to be joyful about. A man sitting, thinking, alone with his thoughts, and perhaps his doubts.
We can relate. As we look around, and listen – what do we hear this Advent season?
We might look around at the decorations, the bright lights and greenery. We might see the gleaming snow and the cheery red cheeks of well-wishers. We might see joy on the surface. But a closer look reveals that all is not right with this world. Sin doesn't stop for the holidays. People don't stop being people just because it's December. In some ways, the stress of the season makes us even more miserable – or makes us miserable to be around. We are busy and preoccupied. We are worried and harried. We'd like to take time to reflect on the deeper meaning of it all – but we're so easily distracted by the sights and sounds, or by the worries and cares.
Or perhaps you're more like John, sitting alone with his thoughts. Maybe loneliness or the grief of a lost loved one is your constant companion in this jingle-belled jailhouse. You sit there looking at everyone on the outside going on with life as usual – happy and cheerful it seems, but you're stuck in a place that seems hopeless and joyless.
Give John this. At least his unbelief still had some belief. In the depths of his doubt, in the dark hour of his coming demise, he reaches to Jesus through his disciples. He longs to hear a word of hope. He wants to be re-assured that Jesus really is the one.
And you can say, “What a doubter! Wasn't this the same John who boldly proclaimed Jesus the Lamb of God? Who baptized him and heard the voice and saw heaven open and the dove come down?” Yes. Isn't this the same John of whom Jesus said, “among those born of women, none is greater than John?” Yes. But even the greatest of us still needs the word of Christ. Even the most faithful, the most bold and the strongest Christians need the Gospel. We all face times of joy-less-ness in our messy prison of sin. We all need to be lifted up, to see and hear....
And Jesus delivers. He sends the message back. Not a promise of earthly deliverance. No get out of jail free card. But a better answer than John could have hoped for. “Look around, John. Listen, John”.
What you see – the signs of the Messiah. The miracles of Jesus point to who he is. Healings and wonders were his calling cards, meant to point to something even greater. Notice the climax of the answer isn't even the raising of the dead. It's that the good news is preached to the poor.
What do you see? What do you hear? When it comes to Jesus – what we see and hear is good news.
John must have found it hard to be joyful in prison, for what he saw and heard was so dismal. But take a look at Calvary. On that dark day, on a hill far away, with suffering and shame on display. Take a look at the bloody, beaten, humiliated man wearing a thorny crown and nailed to an instrument of death. And listen to them jeering and mocking and spitting. See his disciples deserting him, and the soldiers surrounding him, casting lots for his clothing. And hear the women weeping and the silence of God as his own Son suffers.
And then hear these words: “It is finished”.
And then look – and see what is not there. He has burst the bonds of death. The prison of his tomb is left, door wide open. And hear the words of angels, “He is risen!”.
If you're like John, stuck in the prison of your sins and the broken sinful prison of life around you. If you're looking for a word of encouragement – a word of joy. Look, and listen. Don't just look to the bright lights, and listen only to the carols piped into the shopping malls. Look to Jesus. Listen to Jesus. Look to his cross and empty tomb. Listen to his promising word, and hear his absolution.
You may not be set free from prison, healed, or granted a miracle. Indeed, like John, you may even face death. But you will know the good news of his truth. And even if you die, you will live. And even in your suffering, you will find joy in him.
For you will look and listen with the eyes and ears of faith – and see a whole different reality. He who has eyes to see, let him see Jesus. He who has ears, let him hear Jesus. In his name, Amen.