Download or listen to the Third Sunday in Advent, “In A Year Or Two” (Luke 7:18-28)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A lot can happen in a year or two. You can go from what seems like perfect health to a diagnosis that you never saw coming. You can go from a good job and more than enough money to no job and very little money. You can go from what feels like happiness and contentment to the wreckage of unhappiness and discontent. Probaly most of you know how much can change in a year or two. John knew it, too. In a year or two, John had gone from preaching about the coming King, the one who was greater than he because He was before Him, the one whose sandals John wasn’t worthy to untie, the one he didn’t want to baptize because he thought that one should be baptizing him. John goes from pointing at Jesus, and saying, “I am not the Messiah; but look: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” to sitting in Herod’s prison cell. And as John sits counting the stones in the walls around him, he sends two of his disciples to go ask Jesus a question: “Are you the Coming One, or should we keep looking, keep longing, keep waiting, keep expecting?” While this is going on, Jesus is doing what Jesus does: preaching that the Reign of God has come on the earth, that it has broken into this creation in Jesus’ own flesh and blood, and doing the things that prove it, the signs that point to it. He had just healed the son of a centurion and raised from the dead the son of a widow. And when the messengers come to Jesus from John, Luke says that in that hour, Jesus was healing people with various diseases, healing those oppressed by what was happening to them, healing those with demons. The messengers say, “John sent us to ask, ‘Are you the Coming One, or should we keep looking?'” And Jesus says to them: Go tell John what you see and hear. Tell him to recall to his mind the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The blind see again, the crippled walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor—those who have no resources, no recourse, nothing to give—they have the good news preached to them that a God has come who wants to give them everything in His Son.” Go tell John that. And blessed is the one who hears this Word and does not stumble and fall over Me; blessed is the one who hears and believes this Word more than anything he sees or feels.
I don’t know if John told those disciples to go ask Jesus because he was pointing them to Jesus in the midst of their doubt, like he does in John’s Gospel. Or, whether John is really asking, because he has doubts verging on unbelief. I don’t really know, but I do know how much can happen in a year or two. How you can come to the point where if it were up to you to sustain your faith and hang on to God, you would have given up a long time ago. But whichever is true, whatever John was really thinking, Jesus sends those messengers back with a word. John has no more than what we have! He didn’t see any of what Jesus was doing. He was stuck in prison. John had only what we have: the words of messengers, of prophets and apostles, telling us that we don’t have to wait anymore; that Jesus actually is the one promised from the beginning of time, that He actually is the Son of God in flesh come to make this whole broken world right again. John didn’t have to wait anymore. The Lord had come, just as John had been preaching. And yet… And yet, John did not get out of prison. He didn’t escape the executioner’s axe. John didn’t have to wait anymore; but he still had to wait. In fact, he’s still waiting to see what he believed.
We don’t have to wait. We’re not waiting for Christmas. Jesus has already come and been born; a year or two after this, Jesus would be crucified and rise from the dead. We already have the death and resurrection of Jesus in baptism and in the holy Supper. We don’t have to wait. But we still have to wait. We rejoice now, but not fully. We feast, but it’s only a taste. Advent is the difference between faith and sight. All of this: John in prison, the Messiah has come but things don’t look any different; our lives as we experience them versus what we believe—all of this is about as far from everything the world calls Christmas as we can get. The world cannot wait. Wait for Christ? We can’t even wait for Christmas! We have to cover up Advent, because we cannot wait; we want all the good feelings now. So we cover up Advent with tinsel and shiny lights; smiles and nice, clean blankets of fresh-fallen snow. We don’t want to think about how things are; we want to make up a Christmas world that has only sparkles and light, with no evil in it. But John knows better. And we know better. Christians are not pessimists, nor are we optimists. We have to be realists. And if we were trying to avoid reality, the way things in this world really are, we had more than enough evidence of reality this past week. Death has a way of interrupting even our perfect Christmas dreams. But John, and people in Newtown, CT, and sometimes us, have to suffer Advent. John suffered Advent, waiting for the Christ to come and free all the captives. Advent, like Lent, are about the things we see and feel; Advent, like Lent, is about sin and death. Nevertheless, Advent, like Lent, is also about hope that trusts the Word of Jesus in spite of what we see and feel. Advent and Lent tell us that what we see and feel is not all there is.
About 600 years before Jesus was born, God spoke to His people through a man named Zephaniah. Zephaniah lived at a time when Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon were breathing down Israel’s neck. Within a few years, Babylon would come and burn Jerusalem and take Israel into exile. And yet, listen to what Zephaniah says: “Yahweh has taken away the judgments against you. He has cleared away your enemies.” Oh really, Zephaniah? Well it sure doesn’t look like it. It looks, in fact, like pretty much the opposite. But when Yahweh speaks, it’s as good as done. God says through the mouth of Zephaniah: I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. I will rejoice over you with gladness; I will quiet you with my love; I will exult over you with loud singing. Yes, even as Babylon comes south.
When God speaks, it’s as good as done. Though John died in prison, when Jesus says that the dead are raised and that the poor have good news preached to them, it was as good as done, for John and for you. Another condemned man, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once said that Advent is a lot like a prison cell: you hope and watch, do this, that, or the other thing—things that seem to be of no consequence—and the door is shut and can be opened only from the outside.
Whether the next year or two bring mourning or rejoicing for you; whether Jesus comes in a year or two, or sooner, or later, He will come and open this door from the outside. He will gather all of you who mourn for the neverending festival of the Lamb’s high feast, so that you will no longer suffer reproach or shame; He will put this long, tired Advent to bed, and He will wake you for the greatest Resurrection day that you have never imagined. It’s as good as done. Jesus said so.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/15/12