Hope is On the Way
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
December 11, 2016
I have a new friend named Betty. I met her in Diakonia class. Diakonia is the lay academy of spiritual formation and theological education that meets every Saturday in the basement of Grace Lutheran in Evanston. You’d like Betty too. We were talking about the season of Advent and about how sometimes we’re stuck waiting, watching, and longing for grace to show up in our lives. Betty said every year she gets out her Advent wreath and sets it on the dining table –and every year, that wreath is soon buried in a pile of cards, letters, papers, and lots of other stuff that inevitably flows into our house this time of year. She used to fret about cleaning it. When it hit her: that’s what Advent is all about. “God comes into my messy life despite all my junk!” In Advent we rejoice ‘cause hope is on the way.
Few of us could imagine landing in a bigger mess than the one John the Baptist faced—all because of his faith. Pacing back and forth in his narrow cell, imprisoned by King Herod, he is losing hope. Last Sunday John was shouting down Pharisees and baptizing sinners in the River Jordan. Every word he spoke exuded certainty and confidence. But now, while he faces death, he’s not so sure. He sends word to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3)
Like John the Baptist, we live in the Already and Not Yet. We stand in the discomforting quiet waiting impatiently for the salvation of the Lord and simultaneously we celebrate that our salvation has already come.
John has doubts. Jesus performed deeds of power in cities throughout Galilee—in Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum—but the people did not turn to follow him. Instead they said, “Look, [this Jesus is] a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19). So now, even John the Baptist, wonders if he made a mistake. Soon, Jesus’ mother and brothers will show up too, presumably wanting to question their problematic child and sibling. They will come try to take him home and out of the public eye.
Who is this Jesus? If Jesus is the Messiah shouldn’t it be clear to everyone? Our gospel prompts us to ask why God remains so hidden—even when the earthly Jesus stands right in front of them? Remember, John’s questions about Jesus arise after he’s listened to an accounting of Jesus’ deeds (11:2-3), not in ignorance of them.
The fact is—so far Jesus had not fulfilled any of John’s spectacular promises: John preached the Coming One would baptize with Spirit and fire, and cast the wicked into a furnace of fire (3:10-12). John is confused when he hears reports of Jesus’ ministry and realizes that Jesus is not the supernatural judge his preaching had foretold. (Paul S. Nancarrow)
If Jesus is the Messiah, why doesn’t he do more to protect us? Isn’t a savior supposed to save people? Why didn’t he save John? Why didn’t he come knock down the walls of Herod’s prison and break his chains? What kind of Messiah is this Jesus of Nazareth?
Jesus’s response affirms John even as he remains steadfast in his Godly mission. Jesus answers our questions. Jesus responds to John’s dark night of the soul. Hope is on the way.
It’s as if Jesus opened the bible to our first reading today from Isaiah 35 to re-direct John toward a different set of messianic expectations deeply rooted in scripture: not the destruction-filled imagery from the book of Daniel and later apocalyptic literature, but the shalom-filled imagery of peace from Isaiah: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:5). Jesus invites John (and us) to catch a different vision from within the pages of scripture about who the Messiah is. See, hope is on the way.
Jesus is the key to unlock our prison doors. Jesus is the One coming to break the walls of oppression and loose the chains that restrain us. Jesus does this not with military might, nor with a heavenly host of angels, but with the gentle-sure instrument of God’s peace that, even now, draws all people into the refining fire of his renewing grace.
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35) The kingdom comes and grace abounds through simple acts of mercy fueled by faith. We become part of an unstoppable force as we do God’s work through our hands.
For 28 years, our Parish Nurse, Michelle Knapp has given witness to today’s gospel among us. Her counsel and care and have given comfort to the people of Immanuel, Ebenezer and the surrounding community. I believe Michelle’s playgroups alone have made a difference in the neighborliness you can feel for blocks and blocks around our church. Again and again, Michelle has shown up when we are most overwhelmed with difficult decisions about healthcare or assisted living, or end-of-life to provide options and solutions. Hope is on the way every time Michelle gets in her car, or sits with us in the pews.
In the gloom of his prison cell, Jesus prepared John to meet the living God who is always more, whose coming is always different, whose power is always greater and more glorious than we could have imagined. We need the hush of Advent to know that another world is possible. New life can emerge from the ruins; the dessert can bloom; and lives be restored. Hope is on the way.
Christ Jesus is the one who stoops down from heaven to put a song in our heart. He is the one who comes to join us, and to walk with us. Jesus is the one who comes into our life no matter how messy or fraught with ugly strife, bickering or bitterness. Jesus comes not in wrath but in love; not as one who seeks to destroy, but as one with power to transform and renew. Jesus took on flesh and lived among us. This same spirit of Christ is upon you. Our hope is on the way.