2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Let us pray. Startle us again O God with joy when we were imprisoned in anxiety. And Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.
Most years on the second Sunday of Advent, we focus on John the Baptist thundering out in the wilderness like an Old Testament prophet speaking about he coming of Christ all while wearing a camel hair outfit and eating locusts and honey. He is a curiously dressed misfit with a powerful voice, kind of like a special Advent mix of Buddy the Elf mixed and Charlton Heston.
But by this point in Matthew’s Gospel, our text for today, that chutzpah has faded and John is in prison. He is in prison simply because he might have raised embarrassing questions about the King’s incestuous side-hustle and dictators are perennially brutal. From prison, John sends this question to Jesus by way of the disciples: “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” This question haunts me. It’s an end of your rope kind of question. It’s a “please tell me this has not been a complete waste of time” question. It’s a “put up or shut up” question. Maybe you have lobbed a question like this before.
The spouse asks the doctor, “Is that the best treatment plan you’ve got, or is it time to seek a second opinion?” A congregation member pulls aside the pastor, “Is this church really what it says it is, or should I go find another place to worship?” A man asks his wife, “Do our vows still mean what they did, or have you already made up your mind that it’s over?” This is less a question, more calling the question.
It seems like John’s context has changed him. He used to be wild and free and baptizing people and eating artisanal locusts far off the grid. Now, his reality is four walls. He used to feel the water and sand of the Jordan pool around his toes, feel the thrill of holiness course through is hands. Now, his ears ring with all the sounds of despair around him
When you’re in prison, you don’t have patience for generic “everything is going to be fine” sermons. When you’re in prison, whether its illness or grief or anxiety or divorce proceedings, you have already waited long enough so Advent waiting is not your favorite. It would have been easy enough for John to give up. To let go of these naïve questions and succumb to the cold hard reality of his imprisonment. Sometimes that’s easier than the risk of further disappointment. But John took one more shot in the dark. “Are you it, or do we wait for another?”
Notice: the response he receives from Jesus, it reads like a press release, not a fuzzy sermon. “Tell him”, Jesus says, “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. Tell him because he doesn’t know that yet. Tell him because he needs to know that for his soul to endure. He doesn’t need to worry about who I am right now. That will come. But, he does need to know that the world is actually changing and he does need to remember who he is.”
And in that response, a gust of peace blows through the bars. Advent truth often feels like that, a gust in the dark, a glowing paradox rather than a perfect Christmas card. It is what some people call the alreadyand not yet of the kingdom of God. There are two main parts to it: the first is proclamation and second is affirmation.
First, proclamation. Proclamation is the fancy word for telling the stories of God’s liberation and healing that we have seen using actual words. A few years ago, I was part of a workshop about 21st century Christianity that I’ll never forget. Many Presbyterians shared around the tables how they were worried about talking about their faith. They didn’t want to offend. They didn’t claim to have all the answers. “I get that,” Brian, the workshop leader said, “But imagine you’re downtown and someone comes up to you, lost, frustrated and says, ‘Where is the Metro?’ Imagine if you responded, “There are many metros.” The guy would get irritated and say, ‘I know that! Just tell me the one that you know! Tell me one that is close to here!”
I can’t tell you how many people have pulled me aside to ask about Christianity. Some clumsy because they haven’t been to church in years, others are at the end of their rope with church but not with Jesus. And one of the best parts of my job is that I often have front row seats to good news. Like today, I can tell them people who are experiencing homelessness received 66 sweaters, oh, and also housing and medical care and meals and community at Christ House since 1976. I can tell them people of faith worked together to resettle more than 260 refugee families from Afghanistan in Burke in the last year. I can say that forgiveness that makes you gulp back tears actually happens. I can say that there is a love that is stronger than cancer. I can say that the ones who died still light our path in mysterious ways. These are stories I simply can’t explain that except by the grace of God. The world may be tired of simplistic pamphlets but the world is hungry for proclamation.
Second, there is affirmation. Jesus offers this public blessing over John, this beautiful affirmation of who he is, regardless of where he is. It sounds like this: “The John I know is no reed blowing in the breeze. He’s never been one for soft robes and slippers. He is not just a messenger. He’s a prophet the likes of which the world has never seen.” To be a Christian is to see everyone through the grace of Christ. To see them as beloved. To see them as powerful. Not because they are perfect but because God works through imperfect people. Including you, including you on your worst days, including you if you’ve been pent up in a prison of stress or pain or depression and you lash out at those you love. Even still, you are essential to God. That is affirmation.
I am sick with pride that Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister. His show was quiet proclamation and constant affirmation. Proclamation: Look, children in wheelchairs are celebrated. Children who are blind know what is going on because he took the time to say aloud what he was doing “Now I am feeding the fish.” Look, African-American police officers have their feet washed in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood the same week national protests erupted over black children praying in an integrated swimming pool. Mr. Rogers taught the world affirmation. Do you remember this song?
It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.
One last story. This week, I was in a meeting with the Chair of the Board of Supervisors of Fairfax. A few pastors and I were trying to get him to speak boldly in favor of mental health care, especially for those on the margins, like high schoolers and the poor and the elderly. During the meeting, this thunderous leader so full of power and ideas kind of folded and said, “I don’t know what to tell you. I have done all I can. You should blame Richmond. I really don’t know why something so obvious has to be so hard!” The air seemed to go out of the room. Then, this pastor from Springfield who kind of looks like Abraham Lincoln said, “Listen, you are talking to pastors. We are used to working on things that should be obvious but are hard. Civil rights, women’s rights, care for the poor, welcome for all people. But we have also seen amazing things happen even if it takes longer than we prefer.” With those words, the air shifted. The chairman paused, perhaps remembering who he was before the fancy chair, remembering the people who had inspired him long ago, and after maybe a minute of quiet, he said, “Ok, tell me what I need to do.”
Proclamation is the key that unlocks us from hopelessness, and affirmation is the gust of love, enoughness, transcendent peace and courage, that blows into our lives, reminding us who we are before the world weighed in on us, so that we start to move again and that is how we ultimately discover who God is.
If I had to sum up that second Advent candle, in a year when we need peace so desperately, it would sound like this: The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, and Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Proclamation, affirmation, two candles that darkness cannot overcome.