New Hope Fellowship
Second Sunday of Advent
December 8, 2019
I read a thing one time about an orphanage and the couples, the “potential parents,” who would come to the orphanage school during the day and visit with the children and see if they connected with one of them. These couples would come and go, usually leaving with a smiling baby or a slightly confused toddler.
The older children watched these potential parents come and go, come and go, as they got older and older and less and less appealing as adoptees. One of the older children put her plight into words.
Every time a couple entered the room, no matter what they looked like, my heart would skip a beat. I knew it probably wouldn’t happen, that they probably wouldn’t pick me, but every time I hoped with every part of myself that they would be the ones.
My eyes would follow them as they wandered around the room, picking up babies, talking to children, and I would stare at my potential Mom and my potential Dad and dare to whisper, “Are you the ones? Are you the ones? Are you the ones?”
[Story told by Mindy Douglas Adams, Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, December 2, 2007]
Are you the ones, or do I have to wait for another?
The people of Israel had been waiting for a very long time. Even John the Baptist would tell you that he had been waiting for a very long time. He and his disciples needed to know the truth. There was one answer they hoped desperately for. But they had to ask. They had to know.
So John’s messengers came to Jesus and asked him, Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
All this time John had been talking about how
one who is more powerful than I is coming
the messiah is coming.
All this time he had been preaching about the coming Christ.
All this time John had been warning his listeners about the judgment day that was on its way with the Messiah. Remember John’s words about the coming Messiah:
Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Evidently, after watching Jesus work for a while, John had some second thoughts him. And it’s really no great surprise.
John was in prison. What happened is this. Herod Antipas was the ruler in Galilee at this time, and his brother Philip ruled the land just north of there.
Herod Antipas’ brother Philip was married to their niece. Follow this closely. Philip was married to his niece, the daughter of another brother of theirs, Aristobulus.
While Philip’s back was turned, his brother Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, took Herodias, the niece, to be his wife. Two brothers married to a niece.
Well, John didn’t think too highly of incest and adultery, so he turned his fiery rhetoric on Herod, the ruler of Galilee. And John ended up in prison.
And while John is in prison, he sends word by his disciples to go to Jesus with this question and wait for an answer:
Are you the one who is to come?
Are you the one I was preaching about?
Are you the messiah?
Or are we to wait for another?
Now why would John say such a thing? How could John,
this preacher of wind and fire,
this one who proclaimed that the messiah was
this one who was there at Jesus’ baptism and
heard the voice of God come down out of heaven,
this John who seemed plagued by anything but
how could John ask such a question. Are you the one?
Maybe it’s because he had been sitting alone too long in that dark prison cell. There he lies depressed and forgotten, and he becomes haunted with doubts. Out of his dejection and discouragement he sends this question to Jesus.
I don’t think that’s it—at least that’s not all of it.
Look at what the text says. When he heard what Jesus was doing, he sent word by his disciples. When he heard what Jesus was doing.
John begins to doubt because Jesus is not doing what John expected him to do. It doesn’t seem to John like Jesus is laying the ax at the root of the trees. It doesn’t seem like Jesus is setting fire to barren limbs.
[Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year A, Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly Gaventa, James Newsome]
He is coming, John had declared. And then, when he came, John said, Are you the one?
So the messengers came to Jesus and asked him, Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
And Jesus said, Go and tell John what you hear and see:
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.
Jesus was not all wind and fire. He wasn’t all about blowing away the chaff or burning up the deadwood. Jesus’ ministry was not so much
thunder and lightning
as it was
the gentle rain of healing and good news.
John begins to doubt because what Jesus is doing does not seem to match up with John’s expectation. John got Jesus wrong. John expected
judgment over mercy,
destruction over forgiveness.
And I can see my sermon shaping up very easily from there, where I say something like: There goes John again preaching fire and brimstone about the destruction of sinners, but look: Jesus is
more interested in healing than burning down,
more interested in raising the dead than smiting the
Can’t you see that sermon?
I get how John got Jesus wrong—or at least how he would come to have some different expectations for Jesus. I get how John got Jesus wrong. Right? That’s an easy sermon to preach. It would make most of us feel good.
But I have an issue with preaching at the people who aren’t in the room. In fact, I have a real problem with it. It’s too easy.
I went to the evangelism conference of the Colorado Baptist Association one time down along the gulf coast of Texas. The Association leader preached a fiery sermon condemning people who don’t believe the Bible. I mean he really came out strong against people who don’t believe the Bible. What courage it takes come out in favor of the Bible at a Baptist evangelism conference!
He actually said that the Pope didn’t believe in a literal hell, but he sure would start believing in it as soon as he got there. He said something about how the Pope would believe it when the smoke from the lake of fire reached his nostrils.
That was the last time I went to something like that.
You should have heard the “amens” and seen the nodding of heads as this preacher preached about people who don’t believe the Bible and the Pope. Everybody loved it.
Of course they loved it. This was a group of people who had come together for a Baptist Association meeting. People who don’t believe the Bible don’t go to Baptist Association evangelism conferences. Neither was the Pope at the conference. Everybody loved that fiery sermon because it was directed at all the people who were not in the room. It was directed at “them.”
We love to hear about other people—“them”.
The easiest sermon for me to preach today would be the one about how John the Baptist got Jesus wrong. I could talk about all those judgmental people who condemn sinners, who want Jesus to take the winnowing fork to sinners.
Maybe I could talk about Fred Phelps, that Baptist preacher who had his little congregation called Westboro Baptist Church to picket the funerals of people who die of AIDS, telling grieving families that their loved one deserved his fate, that it was God’s wrath.
I get how people like that get Jesus wrong. So do you.
That’s an easy sermon—the one about how John and all those judgmental people get Jesus wrong. The harder sermon to preach is not how John got Jesus wrong but how we get Jesus wrong.
I guess there may be a few in this room who are still expecting the incineration of wickedness that John anticipated and who may be as eager for it as John seems to be.
But the truth is, the crowd I usually hang around with, and I imagine most of us here in this sanctuary today, are way too polite and understanding of complexity and nuance to sound much like John the Baptist when we see human sin.
Our crowd’s problem is not that we, like John, think the Messiah will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire when he comes. Our problem is not that we are too focused on expecting Jesus to bring the hammer down on sinners.
Our problem is that I think we really do not expect much of anything to change with the Messiah’s advent.
It is not that we think Jesus will be vindictive and we are just too gleeful about that—or at least it is not usually that. Instead, our problem is that I think sometimes in reality we don’t expect the coming of Jesus to really do much of anything.
Do we really expect Jesus to radically change the world and our lives, or do we just hope he’ll maybe take the edge off?
[this idea of how we get Jesus wrong comes from Mary Hinkle’s blog, “Pilgrim Preaching,” December 12, 2004]
Maybe the way we get Jesus wrong is not so much that we are expecting the wrong thing but that we are not expecting enough.
Do we understand that this Messiah who comes intends
to open the eyes of the blind,
to raise the dead,
to give the poor a real future and a hope?
I’m talking about myself here about not expecting enough.
I tend to be pretty reasonable about what will and will not happen.
I tend to be pretty much reliant on my own abilities to handle things.
I tend to be pretty resigned to things that don’t seem like there’s anything I can do about it.
And I read a set of documents that ends with the risen Jesus saying, See, I am making all things new [Rev 21:5].
John’s expectation of the Messiah might have been too vengeful;
our expectation of the Messiah is likely too small.
You know, John the Baptist’s question to Jesus in this week’s text, along with Jesus’ answer, I think it ought to have the effect of opening our eyes a little. Maybe John’s question and Jesus’ answer will open our eyes to formerly unexpected messianic activity in our lives and in the lives of those we know.
Maybe if we expect more we’ll see more. You can go and tell John what you see and hear.
One of us is walking again after being laid low by grief for years on end.
Another can actually hear it and believe it now when someone says to her, I love you.
Another of us is beginning to feel that he doesn’t have to yell, Unclean! or do a dozen equally drastic things to keep people at a distance he’s unworthy.
[ideas here draw upon a paragraph in Barbara Brown Taylor’s untitled advent sermon in Duke Chapel on December 12, 2004]
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.
Could this be the Messiah?
John almost missed the coming of the Messiah because he expected Jesus to be different than he turned out to be.
What a shame it would be if you and I missed the Messiah, not because we expected the wrong thing, but because we didn’t really expect much of anything.
Here we were, just
going about our lives,
trying to get by,
trying to fulfill our obligations, and
it never occurred to us to expect more.
Did it ever occur to you to expect more?
At the end of his recent book, The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found, Frederick Buechner tells about his only brother, Jamie, who lived in Manhattan, alone—a private, dignified, proper gentleman who was dying of cancer.
Buechner visited him when the end was obviously near. They talked and then Jamie asked for a favor. Buechner writes:
He never went to church except once in a while to hear me and he didn’t want a funeral, he told me…but when I suggested maybe cocktails and dinner for some of his old friends in the fall when everybody gets back to the city, he said that sounded like a good idea. But he did ask me if I would write a prayer for him that he could use and keep on the table by his bedside. (p. 163)
Buechner wrote for his brother—and for all of us:
Dear Lord, bring me through darkness into light. Bring me through pain into peace.
Bring me through death into life.
Be with me wherever I go, and with everyone I love. In Christ’s name I ask it. Amen.
Here we are waiting for Jesus. Some of us are expecting the wrong thing. But some of us just aren’t expecting enough. I mean, here in this season of supposed Advent anticipation, do you keep Buechner’s prayer by your bedside and pray it every night? Do you really expect that when Jesus comes he can bring you through
darkness into light?
pain into peace?
death into life?
That he will be with you wherever you go and with everyone you love?
When it comes to the coming of the Messiah,
what are you expecting?
What do you dare look for?
What do you dare hope for?
Maybe if we’ll expect more we’ll see more.