Sermon preached by the Reverend Adam Yates
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday of Advent – December 12, 2010
Today’s gospel lesson is an excellent example of the pitfalls of reading scripture out of context. You see, when read by itself, this short story of John’s message from prison is easily interpreted as a doe-eyed, holy, and hopeful inquiry from the soon-to-be-martyred John the Baptist as to whether the long-awaited messiah has finally arrived. It is almost an echo of Simeon’s words when he first beheld the Christ child, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word, for these eyes of mine have seen your salvation.”
But we know that John the Baptist was not some innocent, gentle, doe-eyed holy man. John the Baptist was a loud, dirty, and fiery holy man who shot his mouth off so much that he got arrested. Just last week, we read from an earlier part of this same gospel about how John called the religious leaders of his time a “brood of vipers” and proclaimed to all who would listen that the messiah was coming and that with him would come the unquenchable fire into which the chaff of the world would be cast! And let us not forget, John the Baptist baptized Jesus with his own hands, proclaimed with his own mouth that he should be baptized by Jesus instead, saw with his own eyes the heavens opening and the dove descending, and heard with his own ears God’s proclamation that this was God’s son with whom God was well pleased.
So we see that today’s gospel reading, when taken in context, is not a story of holy hope, but is a story of conflict. John the Baptist, that fiery and wild holy man, preacher of judgment and brimstone, proclaimer of revolution, is stuck in jail. And the news he hears from his followers is that Jesus is simply going around preaching moral teachings, and caring for the poor and the sick. And John the Baptist, sitting in jail in his camel hair clothing, wants to know where is the unquenchable fire that he preached, where is the judgment and the righting of long-suffered wrongs?
This was not what John had in mind when he baptized Jesus that day in the Jordan River! And so, John the Baptist sent Jesus a message via his followers, not an innocent inquiry, but a passive aggressive barb. Now John the Baptist was never one to mince words, so I like to imagine that what we have received in a scripture is a PG version of what John actually said, cleaned up by the early church leaders. I would provide you with an approximation of what I imagine John’s message really sounded like, but my preaching professor discouraged us from swearing from the pulpit. So I will leave it to your imagination.
You see, John the Baptist had a very clear idea of what the coming of God’s kingdom would look like, of what God’s messiah would do. John wanted to see God “come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.” John wanted to see all the wrongs that he and his people had experienced righted with judgment and violence, he wanted to see those who had caused such suffering cast into the unquenchable fire! John the Baptist wanted a revolution, he wanted it now, and this Jesus character was not living up to his expectations!
But, I’m not going to stand here and berate John for his disappointment or condemn him for his lust for revolution. You see, John bore and watched others bear the burden of oppression, and John was a voice crying out in the wilderness for justice, God’s justice, and John had waited and watched many years for God’s promised salvation. And there is something very human about John’s desire for judgment and vengeance, violence and revolution. Whether we face oppression for our race or religion, abuse for our sex or sexuality, or violence from our community or our spouse, our history shows humanity’s predilection for turning to violence in our quest for justice, even if it is only a desire for violent justice that is never acted upon. I suspect that had I been sitting in clothes of camel hair, waiting out my days in jail, I would have had a few choice words for Jesus as well.
But Jesus responds, “the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news!” John questions, we question, I question, “are you the long awaited justice, are you the revolution?” And Jesus answers, “I am the new creation.”
We humans have a hard time imagining how a new creation can be brought about without first destroying and wiping clean. So difficult is it that the few who have conceived of something different stand out in stark contrast: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Reconciliation Movement in South Africa. It feels groundbreaking to suggest that we can create the new without first getting rid of the old! But this is the good news, my sisters and my brothers, God is greater, and God’s justice is not our justice! Where we see a need for violence and judgment, God simply creates and transforms. What is more, we could no sooner stop God’s new creation than we could stop the rising of the sun and the start of a new day!
While we are standing watching the sky for the lightning bolts of God’s judgment, pools of water are already swelling in the desert sands at our feet. While we hunger for the humiliation of our oppressors, the eyes of the blind are opening, the ears of the deaf are unstopping, the lame are leaping like deer, and the tongues of the speechless are singing for joy!
So now, as we sit here in the midst of Advent, we must ask ourselves, will we remain in our jail cells, clothed in camel hair, waiting for that unquenchable fire, or will we open our eyes and watch the new creation around us?