Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent
Readings: Isaiah 35:1–10, James 5:7–10 & Matthew 11:2–11
Several years I watched a documentary on the mass migration of wildebeest (some 1.7 million of them) that occurs each year around the same time in the Serengeti region of Africa. The migration is heavily influenced by the wet season and the availability of water, and as I watched the documentary I was amazed to see the landscape change as floodwaters flowed into dry and arid areas of land, that soon came bursting alive with plant life and lush vegetation. It was an incredible transformation.
The prophet Isaiah uses similar imagery of the transformation of the desert, to paint a beautiful picture of the final Kingdom in which everything will be as God originally intended it to be. It will be a time when life will be peaceful at last, and everything will be made right. Isaiah says it will be a time when, “The eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.”
In today’s gospel passage, we hear Jesus himself quote these words from Isaiah when he says to the disciples of John the Baptist, “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.”
John has sent several of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” At this time, John is in prison, and he seems to be having doubts about whether Jesus really is the Messiah. John has heard of the deeds that Jesus has been performing, but the behaviour of Jesus is quite different to what John had predicted when he told the people, “I baptise 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 baptise 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.” (Matthew 3:11–12)
John was expecting Jesus to be stronger in calling people to repent, and to also be more damning in his judgement of those people who refused to repent. He was surprised to hear that Jesus was spending as much time healing the afflicted crowds as he was instructing them, and he was surprised by Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah, which made mercy and compassion its predominant criterion. John might also have been thinking that if his own purpose was to prepare people for the coming Messiah (3:3), and if Jesus really was that Messiah, then why was he in prison when he could have been preaching to the crowds, preparing their hearts to accept Jesus?
The response of Jesus to John’s doubts, is to point out his acts of healing the blind, lame, and deaf, curing the lepers, raising the dead, and preaching the Good News to the poor. In effect, the message that Jesus is sending to John is, “I cannot answer for you. You have to decide for yourself whether I am for real. Look at the evidence. What do you see?”
Christians have been waiting for the second-coming of Jesus for over two thousand years now. And as we continue to wait, perhaps like John, we might have doubts about Jesus as well. We might be asking ourselves, are the stories all true?
The same answer that Jesus gave John applies to us as well. We have to decide for ourselves if it is real or not. We have to look at the evidence. And the evidence we have is that of Scripture, particularly the stories of the Apostles and their ministry following the death of Jesus. Their ministry bears witness to the fact that they believed Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. But not only do we have Scripture as evidence, we also have the witness of countless numbers of people over the past two thousand years who have died for the same belief.
Today’s gospel passage ends with Jesus saying the following about John the Baptist: “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.” It appears that Jesus is exulting John on the one hand, and then is putting him down on the other.
But of course that’s not what he is doing. What Jesus was really saying about John is that no person ever fulfilled his God-given purpose better than John. He is greater than all of the Old Testament prophets, because he most clearly points to Jesus as the Messiah, but he will not live to see the inauguration of the new covenant after Jesus’ death and resurrection. In that sense, even the least significant Christian (the “least in the kingdom of heaven”) is “greater than he.”
In that regard John is like so many of the Old Testament prophets who suffered and were persecuted: prophets such as Moses, Elijah, and Jeremiah. The Apostle James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem, uses the prophets as an example when he encourages followers of Jesus to be patient in the face of suffering.
James is giving advice to followers of Jesus on what they should do as they wait for the second Coming of Jesus. James uses the analogy of a farmer to explain what he means. A farmer must wait patiently for his crops to grow; he cannot hurry the process. But he does not take the summer off and hope that all goes well in the fields. There is much work to do to ensure a good harvest. In the same way, followers of Jesus must wait patiently for his return. They cannot make him come back any sooner. But while they wait, there is much work that we can do to advance God’s Kingdom.
Both the farmer and the Christian must live by faith, looking toward the future reward for their labours. Don’t live as if Christ will never come. Work faithfully to build his Kingdom. The King will come when the time is right. As we continue to reflect during the Season of Advent, the message of James is just as appropriate for us today as it was when he first wrote it.