December 11, 2022, The Sign of Joy to Come, Matthew 11:1-19 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

To listen to this sermon, click the link above.

As we lighted the candles this morning, we finally got to light the rose-colored candle, in keeping with the rose-colored vestments that we use for this day. We use this rose color to symbolize joy. And we call this third Sunday of Advent Gaudete Sunday, which is the Latin word meaning “Rejoice!” from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” On this third Sunday in Advent, in the midst of our longing and our waiting and our preparation, we remind one another to rejoice, being assured that the coming of our Lord is surely drawing near.

Once again today, we hear from the prophet Isaiah about the glory that is coming, the substance of our hope. Today his word is all about the undoing of the world’s sadness and suffering. The desert, Isaiah, says, is going to burst into flower – from no life at all to an abundance of life. The weak will be made strong, the fearful will be en-couraged in the real meaning of the word, made courageous. The blind will be able to see, the deaf will be able to hear, the lame will leap like the deer. That hope of reversal echoes down through the centuries in the words of Mary, who sang “He has cast the mighty down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.” The return of the King will mean the un-doing of all the effects of sin and evil, the healing of all hurts, and the wiping away of every tear. Today we look towards the un-doing of the curse that holds all creation in bondage – and we rejoice.

But we are all of us acutely and continually aware that we are still waiting for all that goodness. James gives us a perfect metaphor for this present season we are living in, calling us to be patient. James says we are like the farmer, who has planted his seeds in the ground. He knows there is a harvest to come, but he has to wait patiently, a long while, for the early rains, for the late rains, for the seeds to sprout and grow and blossom and fruit. He warns us about the temptation to get grumbly and complain-y in our waiting, taking out our impatience on each other, as we are so apt to do when the waiting gets long and tiresome and our hope gets faded and frayed. Which is the very reason we need this season of Advent so much, to lift each other up, to renew one another’s hope, to exhort each other to rejoice, reminding each other, reassuring each other, that the time of our joy is drawing nearer every day, even every moment.

And the reason for all that lifting up and renewing and exhorting and reminding and reassuring is that this waiting is hard. I know that is true for us, but to me it always comes as something of a shock to read about John the Baptist waiting in prison and to realize that even he, such a powerful man of faith, even he began to lose hope. Sitting in Herod’s dark prison, even John started to wonder whether he had gotten it all wrong. The Messiah had come, the Holy Spirit of God had anointed him at his baptism and the people who were there actually heard the voice of God speaking from the heavens, “This is my beloved Son.” The crowds that had flocked out to hear John began to follow Jesus instead. But sitting in prison, facing the probability of his execution, it was very hard for him to believe that he hadn’t gotten it all wrong.

Because how do we know that all this hope and joy and glory we’ve been talking about the last couple of weeks – how do we know that we aren’t just deluding ourselves? How do we know we haven’t gotten it all wrong? Like the farmer, who looks out on his flat, lifeless fields and wonders if there will ever really be a crop, sometimes we look out on the war and violence and injustice and sadness in the world and wonder if our hope is just something somebody made up, just some kind of a pipe dream and not a real hope at all. But really, we are in a much worse case than the farmer, because the farmer has the assurance of his long experience to keep his hopes up, but our hope is of something unheard-of, something beyond all human experience, beyond our human rationality. Isn’t it ridiculous to hope that nations will give up war forever? Aren’t we fools to think that the whole system of the survival of the fittest, predator vs. prey, the ways of this dog eat dog world – aren’t we fools of the highest order to think that will ever change?

John knew what it was to be shadowed by that kind of bleak cloud of doubt. So he sent out some of his followers to ask Jesus straight out – “Please, tell me, yes or no, are you the Messiah? Did I get it all wrong? Are we all still waiting?” And Jesus being Jesus, he didn’t answer him with a plain yes or no. He answered him by pointing out what was happening right now. “Go and tell John what you see and hear,” Jesus told them, “the blind are receiving their sight, the lame are walking around, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf are hearing, the dead are raised to life, and good news is being brought to the poor.” Here were the very things Isaiah had foretold, the un-doing of the powers of death and hell, and the reversal of the world’s priorities and protocols, one person at a time, one act of mercy at a time.

Advent calls us to hope for the ultimate and complete healing of all sin and death and evil, for the wiping away of every tear, for the raising up of the lowly and the crushing of the world’s powers. Jesus charged to keep awake and alert as we wait, not to let the world lull us into sleepwalking along in its ways. From John himself, we have the warning to winnow what is life-giving from what brings death, in our personal lives, in our communal life as the Church, and in our society. But is there any way for us to see something of the hope we are looking forward to, in the here and now, while we wait, in the midst of war and suffering and injustice and sadness? Like John in his dark prison, we might well ask, is there any sign of joy for us now, to reassure us that we haven’t just been fooling ourselves all along? How can we know we didn’t get it all wrong?

Today we lit the rose-colored candle for this third Sunday in Advent. And that can never mean that as Christians we live our lives wearing rose-tinted glasses, as they say, pretending that everything is good and fine and in order right now. The world puts on a cheery facade this time of year – homes and store windows and whole villages strung with fairy lights and ringing with holiday music. We would betray our Lord’s heart of compassion if we didn’t continue to see, and to mourn for – and to do something about – the pain and suffering and need behind all the lights and tinsel. But the light of the rose-colored candle reminds us that even now we can see the signs of his presence in the world – the works of mercy and love that guide us toward his coming, as we pray in the Book of Common Prayer on page 837, giving thanks for “all that is gracious in the lives of men and women, revealing the image of Christ.”

I believe that the sign Jesus gave to John is a sign to us as well. We don’t yet see the wholesale undoing of evil and sin and death. But our hearts are encouraged, our hope is strengthened, when we see works of love and light in the midst of the world’s darkness, the workings of God’s kingdom one act of mercy at a time, the healing power of God’s kingdom one person at a time. The sure sign of joy to come is mercy now, is forgiveness now, is kindness and compassion now. Look around you, what grace and mercy do you see and hear even now? As we see the power of love at work in the world, and even more, as we ourselves reach out in mercy and grace and love, as we ourselves act as lights in the darkness – not just seeing hope, but being hope ourselves – then we are reassured that Christ is surely coming, that God is surely restoring his Creation to wholeness, that the Sun of Righteousness is surely rising with healing in his wings, and that there will surely come a time when the way of death is no more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: