FPC Sermon December 11, 2016 Matthew 11: 2-11
This morning we lit the candle for the third Sunday of Advent. This day of joy comes from the Catholic Church and is known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete in Latin means “Rejoice.” Gaudete is the first word of Philippians 4:4, which is on page 1830 in your pew Bibles. This scripture was traditionally read on the third Sunday.
That’s why today, the candle we lit is called the candle of joy. You may have noticed that today’s candle is pink, not purple like the other Advent candles. It is meant to strike a light-hearted note amidst the purple. Purple is the color we use at Lent when we’re leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
In today’s gospel lesson, John the Baptist, who is in prison, sends his followers to ask Jesus a question. It’s a really important question. It’s a question that every Jew who had been awaiting the Messiah might want to ask. These folks had waited for centuries for a Messiah to rescue them.
In John’s case, the concern was very particular. John had been baptizing these Jews awaiting the Messiah. John had told them they’d better repent because the kingdom of heaven was near. They’d better repent because someone else was coming. That someone was going to baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire, as we read in Matthew 3: 11-12. John didn’t expect a happy ending for those who did not repent.
But what John in prison was hearing about Jesus apparently didn’t conform exactly to his expectations. Jesus didn’t match John’s idea of the Messiah to come. We understand from this text that John must have been free to receive visitors and to pastor his flock even while in prison.
Advent, too, is a time of anticipation. Like John and his followers, we wait. We wait for all sorts of things. We wait for Jesus.
Yet, each of us asks at some point, is the Jesus who comes the one we expect? Is the Jesus who comes the one we really want to follow?
The baby in the manger is one thing, but the Christ who calls us to discipleship is someone else altogether. The Christ who overturns the tables in the courtyard of the Temple sounds a lot more like the one John was expecting than the gentle Jesus meek and mild whom we like to portray.
In Matthew’s text, we hear Jesus asking the crowds what they had expected of John. Did they expect someone in fancy clothes living in royal palaces?
You and I can understand this question because wealth impresses us. Billionaires impress us. People in fancy clothes living in royal palaces impress us. We don’t care how they got their money, whether they earned it fair and square, or whether they cheated their contractors and their workers en route to their multiple palatial homes.
You and I are exactly the same homo sapiens to whom Jesus was speaking. We heard in Wednesday Bible study this week that you can learn about our priorities by examining our checkbooks or, we might add, our credit card statements, than from mere words. Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows we are seduced by glitter and power.
The irony of John the Baptizer is that he was none of those things. The gospels tell us very deliberately that John wore camel’s hair clothes with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey, not steak or goat or lamb or whatever more prosperous people in those days liked to eat.
Those details aim to tell us exactly what John was and was not. If John walked into this church today, we’d all probably look askance at his appearance and wonder if he’d come to the right place. Ditto for Jesus. He’d probably strike us as marginal.
Yet, Jesus wants all his followers, including you and me, to understand that he himself is the opposite of everyone’s expectation of how a savior should behave.
The joy that excites us on this third Sunday of Advent is that the Christ coming into the world actually cares about you and me as individuals.
What he tells John’s followers to report back to him exemplifies what kind of Messiah he is. He says to them, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”
Imagine that you are John hearing this message. John who had baptized Jesus. For John, Jesus was not doing the expected: Herod was still on the throne, and John was still in prison. John was listening for the good news. He wanted to know that Jesus was in fact the promised Messiah. He had his ear to the ground. His followers were reporting back to him.
But Jesus didn’t give him the definitive answer. Rather, he left it up to John to decide based on how his ministry was changing lives.
For us, what Jesus said should be great news because what Jesus is doing is to pick us up where we are and then lead us to a better place, a place of joy.
There’s a video circulating on the Internet now from a 60 Minutes program about a blind young man in England who plays the piano. Maybe you’ve seen it. Derek Paravicini is not just blind. He’s autistic and severely retarded, so retarded that he can’t count to ten. He’s what we call a savant: someone with an extraordinary, singular talent.
In this case, Derek started playing the piano as a small child. Not just playing the piano but playing tunes that he heard. Because he was blind, he didn’t do this by reading music. His fingers just found the keys. As someone briefly given piano lessons at the age of six, I know this is a gift. I read music and never could quite manage reading two lines of music at the same time. Derek, however, has perfect pitch. Not only that, he can play tunes in any style. Now, he travels all over playing for people.
He’s not the only one either, it turns out. There are others as well. Children who can hear any piece once and play it back, with variations. What Derek does, it turns out, is to focus entirely on music. He doesn’t have to deal with all the other realities in the world that distract you and me.
Derek’s parents, faced with a disabled child, had no expectations. Yet, the talent given him by God led him to extraordinary accomplishments. And he loves people and draws strength from them. He has joy!
Consider again Jesus’ answer to John. Amazing things are happening. The world as known is turned upside down. It’s not what people expect. It’s not what John expects. He’s in prison, and he’s worried. But amazing things are happening just the same. And what is happening creates joy.
Is it possible to have too much joy? I don’t think so. We all know there are forces out there determined to depress us, bound to crush our faith. Maybe it’s your children or your marital relationships or your friends or substance abuse. Perhaps you are weighed down at this holy season by griefs too great to bear.
Jesus, as he does with John, challenges us to answer for ourselves: is he the one or should we wait for another?
Think of the times in your life when Jesus has made a difference. Those are the times when we know that Jesus is real. Imagine what your life would be without Jesus. To whom would you turn when life seems unbearable?
Jesus, by who he is and by what he does, leads us to be purveyors of joy. Do you and I believe this? Are we comfortable with sharing and spreading this joy?
That’s what discipleship is all about. Spreading the joy even as we doubt, even as we are uncertain, even as we’re not sure we measure up. Jesus teaches us that his way is humility and a cross. It’s not gold and diamonds.
The first will be last and the last will be first. Yes, it’s a reversal of what the world teaches, but it’s at the root of our faith: the call to use our talents in order to rejoice and give joy. Because Christ has come and remains with us always. Amen.