December 15, 2013, Advent 3 – Don’t Be Offended

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When I traveled to Wisconsin to study at Nashotah House for my very first seminary course, I had no idea where I was going. I took a bus from Potsdam to Milwaukee, which took about 30 hours, and then I took a local bus called the Badger Bus out into the boonies, and it dropped me off in the middle of nowhere, and that’s when I decided to panic. There was nothing familiar around me, and no-one I talked to had ever heard of Nashotah House, and I didn’t have a map or a cell phone, and I felt completely alone and helpless. And at that moment I was inclined to question all the decisions I had made that led up to me being at a little convenience store in Nowhere, Wisconsin, surrounded by nothing but highways. I told myself that I was stupid to have taken the Badger Bus, and I probably shouldn’t have taken the Greyhound, and maybe I was completely crazy even to go to seminary at all, and all I really wanted was to give the whole thing up and to be back home where everything was safe and familiar and I knew what to expect.

I think in a very, very small way, I could understand at that moment how John the Baptist must have felt in prison – except that his whole life had led up to this moment, from before he was even born, when he leapt for joy in his mother’s womb because he recognized the presence of God when Mary came to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. And then he had lived alone as a young man, living a rough and uncomfortable life out in the wilderness, but on fire with his message that the time had finally come for God to send his Holy One to his people Israel. The time was finally here for God’s kingdom to break into this unjust world, with judgment, and in righteousness. “The axe is laid to the root of the tree,” he proclaimed, “and every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is going to be cut down and thrown in the fire.” “The One who is coming is mightier than I – he comes ready to gather the wheat into the barn and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.” It was powerful preaching, so powerful that people poured out into the desert to hear him, and they didn’t just hear him, they were cut to the heart by his words and they repented and renewed their faith in God, thousands of them.

John’s vision even gave him the courage to speak out publicly against King Herod when the King seduced his own brother’s wife and married her, divorcing his own wife. And that was a very dangerous thing to do. John would have known that he was taking the risk of being arrested, that he was risking his life in speaking out against the King, but he had believed absolutely that God was coming to establish a righteous kingdom and he was willing to risk anything to do his part. But now as we read today, sitting in Herod’s dark prison, the journey wasn’t turning out quite the way he had expected and John began to question himself. Here he was, alone and helpless. He heard stories about Jesus here and there, but Herod was still on his throne, just as confident and powerful and arrogant as ever. So what did it all mean? Had he made a mistake after all? Had he misunderstood what God was doing? Had he misunderstood who this man Jesus really was?

It was a moment of crisis for John, a moment of doubt, but he didn’t let go of his faith – he sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask him. Tell me, please, are you the One? Has the time come, like I thought? Or are we still waiting for God to act? Because the coming of the Kingdom doesn’t look anything like I expected.

And Jesus sent back this answer – “Go back to John and tell him what you see. The blind can see, and the lame are walking. The deaf can hear, and the poor are hearing the good news.” Jesus was pointing John back to the road map, back to the prophets whose words God had sent to tell his people what to expect. When John heard what his disciples came back to tell him, he would have remembered what the prophets had said long before, when Isaiah wrote

“Say to those who have an anxious heart,
“Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”

 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
 then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”

When John heard that, he would have been re-assured that he was still on the right road, but he must also have begun to see that the reality was nothing like he had expected. He had always known the prophecies, but when the Messiah came, just like so many of the Jews at the time he almost didn’t recognize him because the ways of God’s kingdom were so radically different from the kingdom of this world. When God came with vengeance, John had been sure, and the Jewish people had been sure, that meant that he would sweep in and annihilate the bad guys. They understood that kind of vengeance, just like we understand that kind of vengeance. We like good triumphing over evil. We understand righteous indignation, and we understand waging just wars. We understand staging campaigns for morality and we feel good about being tough on crime. What we have a hard time understanding, and what John almost didn’t recognize, is a Messiah who comes in humility. We sometimes have a hard time recognizing a King who says, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.” John almost didn’t recognize the kingdom of heaven when it came because it turned out to be an upside-down sort of kingdom where the meek inherit the earth, where the one who is first must be the servant of all, and where the king lays down his life, even for his enemies.

I think all of us come, at some time in our lives, probably many times in our lives, to something like John’s moment of doubt in his prison cell; times when it is very hard to understand why the kingdom of heaven works the way it does. It is hard to understand why pain and suffering are allowed to continue. It is hard to accept that God can forgive things that seem unforgivable to us – and very, very hard to be asked to be people who forgive. It is hard to wait patiently for answers to prayers that we pray for so long and so fervently. To be a Christian is to be learning all the time what it means to be citizens of God’s kingdom where things work so differently from the ways of this world. And there are times when we’d like nothing better than to trade it all in for a God who just comes riding in on his white horse and kills the bad guy and hands us a book of rules to live by, because condemnation and self-righteousness are SO much simpler and easier than grace and compassion.

It’s awfully easy at those times to begin to question whether we’re really on the right road after all, or if we’ve made a colossal mistake in following this Jesus whose ways are so often unlike we expect them to be, so unlike what we would like them to be, and even more difficult, who asks us to follow him. John had no idea, when he began to prepare the way for the breaking in of the kingdom of heaven, that what was coming was going to turn this world upside down and inside out. But it turns out that God knew what he was doing. It turns out that it was only by weakness and humility that the powers of this world, pride and arrogance and violence and cruelty and death itself, could be destroyed. It turns out that the shameful death of the cross was the one and only road to abundant life. And in his prison cell, John began to grasp that dimly, by faith, when he heard what his disciples had seen: the eyes of the blind opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame leaping like a deer and the tongue of the mute singing for joy.

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