Old Testament: Isaiah (35:1-10)
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
The Response: Canticle 15
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
The Epistle: James (5:7-10)
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
The Gospel: Matthew (11:2-11)
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 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? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 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.’ 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.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:2). That was John the Baptist’s question for Jesus. Maybe he thought that he knew the answer but wanted to be certain by putting it to his former follower directly. Or maybe, considering the fact that Herod Antipas has locked him in prison and he might be put to death at any moment, he wanted to make sure that his other disciples knew whom to follow when he was gone. Whatever John’s motivation might have been, he wanted a straight answer.
And he got one – well, sort of. Actually, Jesus didn’t give him a “yes” or “no”; but, realizing that John was steeped in scripture, Jesus provided him with the only answer that he would need in order to draw his own, inevitable conclusion. Jesus didn’t give a theoretical description of his identity or his nature, something that Christians in later centuries would struggle to work out as they developed the creeds. Instead, Jesus simply instructed them to go back to John and to tell him what they themselves had seen him doing. And Jesus’ list of his actions would clearly bring to John’s mind and heart those signs of God’s presence that were described by the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading. John would know that these were the works of re-creation that God’s servant, God’s Anointed One, would bring about when the reign of God was breaking into the world. That would be the only answer that he needed.
Notice what Jesus included and what he didn’t. While his teaching in words was important, it seemed that his teaching in action was even more so. What characterized his role as God’s Anointed One, God’s Messiah, was the very down-to-earth, practical difference that he was making in the lives of others. Those were the same sort of transformations that the earlier prophets, like Isaiah, had described as signifying the coming of the reign of God. Jesus was making a positive, noticeable difference in the lives of the poor and the suffering. And John would recognize in that work the presence of God making all things new.
People today, like people in every age, look for reasons to hope. Whether they are explicitly “religious” or not, they seem by nature to be on a lifelong search for something better, for a greater life, for a brighter future, maybe, as 12-Step groups put it, for a “Higher Power.” One place that they tend to look, especially in difficult and questioning times in life, is to communities of faith, like this church.
And the fundamental question that they ask, even though they are not likely to put it in the same words, is the question that John asked Jesus: “Are you the ones who are to come? Are you a community of people in which I will be able to encounter that ‘something greater’ or maybe that ‘Someone Greater’? Will I be able to find in you that Higher Power at work in the world, making all things new?”
These are questions that people, at least internally, are asking us. And these are questions that we and all other churches need to be asking ourselves on an ongoing basis. The answer that we give can have significant consequences both for those who are asking the question and for those of us who need to give an answer. And churches often fail the test.
Churches in general have been in significant decline for decades now. And a large part of it may well be the answers that they give to those who look to them for and experience of God and for the life that God offers.
The inquirers ask, “Are you the ones who are to come, or should we look somewhere else? Are you a community of people in which we will encounter that for which we most long? Are you a community that is making a real, positive difference in the lives of others?” And, all too, often, churches respond: “Go and tell John and everybody else what you have heard and seen: a nice, fairly innocuous group of people who keep to themselves; who focus on themselves and on their private relationships with God; who talk mostly about things that make no difference whatsoever in the lives of anybody else; who argue among themselves about issues that are of little concern outside their own, narrowly focused community; and who essentially ignore the real, practical, everyday problems and challenges faced by so many people in the communities and world around them.” “Are you the ones who are to come, or should we look somewhere else?” The answer seems painfully obvious; and so they go to look somewhere else.
But what if, instead, we and our sister churches were able to give those inquirers the same sort of answer that Jesus gave? What if we were able, in truth and with integrity, to tell them: “Go and tell John and everybody else what you have heard and seen: the hungry being fed, the vulnerable being protected, the children being loved and educated, the elderly being cared for, the immigrants being welcomed, the marginalized being embraced, the poor being filled with hope”? In short, what if we were actually to live out our God-given role of being Christ‘s Body, as serving as Christ in the world today? What if people were actually able to see in us the loving and compassionate God of all creation, at work making all things new?
As we continue our journey through this season of Advent and focus our attention on the coming of God, our scripture readings confront us with a decision. We are faced with a choice: a choice between making the coming of God just a comfortable and consoling, theoretical proposition, with little implications for people’s everyday lives, or seeing in it an occasion for making a tangible, life-giving difference in the lives of those in need. As New Testament scholar Douglas Hare has asserted, the coming of Jesus presents us with “not a theoretical decision (what category does Jesus fit) but an existential one: What does it mean for me that God is opening a new age in and through Jesus?”
As the concluding Collect for today’s Prayers of the People puts it: “Give us grace to accept the Christ who comes in your name, and the courage to see your Christ in all who suffer, to be hands to the helpless, food for the hungry, and rescue for the oppressed.” By the grace of God, may it be so.