Expectations and Hope – December 11, 2016

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas LangNicholas
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday of Advent
December 11, 2016

Isaiah 35:1-10James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

In the name of God, the Creator; Jesus Christ, the long-awaited messiah; and the Holy Spirit, the Giver of life. Amen.

Welcome to Act Two of the John the Baptist story. If you missed the first act, let me bring you up to speed. Last Sunday we got a taste of John’s strong and prophetic preaching. His message was very direct: Get ready. The kingdom of God is upon us. So repent. Turn your life around. Have a change of heart. Reorder your priorities.

Then he took on the Pharisees and Sadducees, the powerful and wealthy leaders of the time. He called them a bunch of slithering snakes—not a good move. Now John is in prison. His fierce preaching has caught up with him. His formidable voice has fallen silent. There are no great crowds following him hanging on his every word. He is alone and he is in jail.

Certainly, that should not surprise us. Herod Antipas, a powerful political leader, had John arrested because John condemned him for marrying his brother’s wife. Politicians don’t like it when anyone exposes them for their immorality or lack of ethics. John’s fate is the way autocratic governments deal with those whom they regard as troublesome. Within the last century, we’ve seen this in China, in the former Soviet Union, and in San Salvador.

So John’s arrest in not surprising. What is surprising and what is the issue here is John’s doubts about the authenticity of the ministry of Jesus as Messiah. The wonderful thing about this story is that it demonstrates so well for us that the heroes of the Bible are not perfect people. They are, like you and me, just human beings, not mythical models of perfection.

Think about it. What is happening here with John the Baptist? Everything has been taken from him—his ministry, his preaching, his opportunity to make an impact, even his popularity among certain segments of the society. He is alone in a stinking jail cell and he has lots of time to think…and to question. We all know how enthusiasm for a new cause can turn cold and how disillusioned we can become in the face of adversity. The cost and burden of commitment can at times seem weightier than the immediate reward.

And having immediate reward is a characteristic of our culture. I’m as guilty of it as the next person. We want the promised land to come now and we all have our own set of expectations, sometimes unrealistic ones. Take a look at our Community Cares Wall on St. Paul’s Place. “I hope for a better future,” was one wish written there this week. We all hope for and even expect God to make things better for us.

John expected that Jesus would take up where he left off on the fire and brimstone trail. He expected that Jesus would create the reign of God with power and with unquestionable works of majesty and glory. Instead he finds out that Jesus is engaged in healing the sick, loving the poor, and preaching good, rather than bad, news.

Well, John, if you expect that great wealth, military power, greed, self-absorption and self-righteousness is the way to the kingdom of God, your expectations will not be met. God’s reign in Jesus will ensure that all will be well and good things will abound and God will end the disparity between the “have mores,” and the “have nots.” But with John the Baptist, don’t we all wonder when? How long, God, must we wait for it to come? It’s not easy to follow the counsel we hear from James today, to “Be patient until the coming of the Lord.”

We all struggle with our expectations—of ourselves, of the people we love, of our jobs, of our employees, of our teachers and students, of the church—and, yes, even our expectations of God. What we want out of God is not always what we get. There is sometimes a gap between our expectations of God and the reality of God, of our expectations of Jesus and the reality of God in Christ.

In the dark days of our own waiting, it is not difficult to understand John’s doubts, his need for assurance, his hope that he might see God’s Kingdom appear in his time. We are much the same. The dimmer the light in the world, the more uncertain what is to come, the harder we struggle to believe and to be fulfilled.

This Advent season we are surrounded by stark reminders that we live in a broken, troubled world. International conflict, great dissention in a nation divided along political, theological and ethical perspectives, terrorist threats, a resurgence of hate crimes and evidence of covert racism, violence targeting law enforcement officers, worsening conditions for migrant populations, confirmation of interference by a foreign government in our election process, environmental devastation and the news yesterday of the bombing in Turkey and this morning a bombing near the Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Cairo that killed at least 25 people – which may inhibit any possibility of our imagining the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision: of those in our own dry land rejoicing together, and sorrow fleeing away.

But there are always signs of hope. Yesterday I learned that this community has given over 100 gift cards amounting to more than $4,000 for the families of the Norwalk International Academy whom we will host for a Christmas party this evening—just one example of how God’s love breaks into our wilderness and makes a desert place blossom and rejoice.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians of the twentieth century once said:  “This is an age of spiritual blackout, a blackout of God.  We have entered not only the dark night of the soul, but also the dark night of society.  We must seek out ways of preserving the strong and deep truth—the theology of a living God in the midst of the blackout. For the darkness is neither final nor complete.”

Our hope is first in waiting for the end of darkness, for the defeat of evil; and our hope is also in coming upon single sparks and occasional rays, upon moments full of God’s grace and radiance and to cherish those moments of radiance and keep them alive in our lives, to defy absurdity and despair, and to wait for God to say again:  “Let there be light” And there will be Light.
My prayer for us on this third Sunday of Advent is that we all hold on to that expectation, if even by a fraction of an inch, for human beings can live for days without food and shelter, but we cannot live for a single moment without hope.

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