12/15/19 – Waiting and Working

Waiting and Working

December 15, 2019
3rd Sunday in Advent
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Our readings today demonstrate the classic good news/bad news paradox. Each of these reading portrays the kingdom of God in all of its glory. It is the already, but not yet quality of the kingdom that remains unresolved. With the birth of Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God has broken into the world, but its fulfillment that is promised with the Second coming has yet to arrive. The exiles to whom Isaiah spoke, looked forward to a return to their homeland, yet their joy is tempered by the reality that the land has been laid waste and their homes and their temple lies in ruins. The Lord promised Judah’s residents and exiles that their barren land would be restored to fertile fields. Human suffering, sickness, and disability would end. Justice and hope would be restored. Yet, there was a lot of work to be done before this vision would become a reality.

For John the Baptist, the coming of the Messiah that has been promised does not negate the fact that he is in a prison cell with the threat of execution. For Mary, the joy of bearing God’s Son comes with the threat of public humiliation, becoming an impoverished outcast or even being stoned to death. For the early Christians to whom James addressed, the spiritual fulfillment of faith in Jesus Christ is tempered with political persecution and exile. It is hard to feel joyful for what is promised when you are confronted with the harsh reality of present suffering.

From Mary, we hear in her joyful song the acceptance of and obedience to the announcement of the holy birth. Yet the reality was such that she must have also experienced fear and trepidation. How could a young teenage peasant girl be the instrument through which God would enter the world? Who would believe it? More to the immediate problem, how could her fiancé, Joseph, be convinced? Would her reassurance that “nothing is impossible for God” hold up to human scrutiny and doubt? Her song was an echo of Hannah’s song from the Hebrew scriptures. The childless Hannah, desperate for a son, promised God if her wish were granted, she would dedicate her son to God and take him to the temple to be mentored by Eli, the priest. God had miraculously given sons to barren women before, Mary trusted that God had a plan for her child that was beyond her own humble situation. Her own well-being paled beside God’s plan for the salvation of humanity.

Our gospel reading finds John the Baptist, the zealous herald of the Messiah’s entrance into the world, sitting in a jail cell. Last week we read that John had the passion of a newly commissioned soldier, armed with the truth, justice, and the Almighty’s way. John was ready to do battle with the sins of the world. He was going to “drain the swamp” of all the corrupt government officials and religious leaders. Justice would prevail with a new king in town. John carried that glorious vision of Isaiah that a new king would rise up and right all the wrongs and Israel would be restored. John had answered his call to be the Lord’s messenger with ‘strong hands, firm knees and a fearless heart.’(Isa. 35:3) But then he came face to face with worldly power in the form of King Herod.

John confronted the evil in his own sphere. Herod had killed his brother in order to marry his brother’s wife – spectacular disobedience to two of God’s Ten Commandments. John had spoken truth to power and look what it got him. The guilty party held onto his power and wielded it to have John imprisoned and threatened with execution. It looked like John’s role as a messenger of the Good News to his people had been thwarted. How would the Good News spread now? Even more to the point, was there really any good news to announce? I dare say we have all experienced the disappointment of our best efforts for noble causes appearing to have no effect. We have seen selfish and cruel people get away with breaking laws and exploiting the powerless go unpunished and prosper more. We have seen people who profess to be Christian break Christ’s Greatest Commandment with abandon while being praised for their faithfulness. Where is the Good News in that? If a man with the strength of faith of John the Baptist could waver in his conviction, what hope is there for us?

In his anguish, John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus: ‘Have I been spreading fake news? Are you really the one or should I have been looking for another Savior?’ Jesus doesn’t give him a doctrinal creed upon which to swear allegiance, he just tells the disciples to look around with eyes and ears open to the evidence at hand: “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.”

You’ll notice that these signs to which Jesus points were not in heaven but on earth. These things that God had promised were already happening – the blind were given sight, the lame were walking, and the lepers were being healed. The kingdom had already come. Those that have not been in full community have now been brought into the circle of human fellowship. You’ll notice that all of these signs have to do with the well-being of another. This is the hope in which we are called to participate.

Jesus addressed those who had sought John out in the wilderness: “What did you go to see? Was it to see “A reed shaken by the wind? “King Herod used a reed as his personal symbol.

“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.”

The crowds were looking for something the world, particularly the political empire of Rome, could not or would not give them. Jesus corrected the expectations people had about John, pointing out that he, Jesus, was also not what they were expected the Messiah to be. Yet, he healed the sick, fed the hungry and freed the oppressed and welcomed the outcasts. Those that had been as dead to God’s blessings were given abundant new life. What greater, more hopeful sign could they ask?

James’ community of early Christians had seen, or experienced themselves, persecution on account of their faith. James’ advice was to be patient. Not the message we like to hear. Couldn’t God do more than that for these faithful members of the flock? James, throughout his epistle, provides a picture of what a life living in the hope of God’s kingdom looks like. If we go back to chapter 4 in James, we read more specific instructions, particularly in terms of how we are to treat our neighbors: “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another speaks evil against the law and judges the law … who are you to judge your neighbor?” In other words: hating others divides and destroys us. Caring for all people heals our brokenness and saves us. James summarizes with: “Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.”

James condemns making wealth and personal privilege the center of one’s life and the primary object of one’s hope. The hope of which James speaks is not hope as the world gives. It is not a hope that competes against one’s neighbor’s well-being or fuels enmity in any way. It is a hope grounded in justice for the less fortunate and less privileged and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Quite simply, our joy is embedded in the community. Otherwise, James warns, “you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.”

Patience is a virtue most, if not all, of us struggle to achieve. The word “patience” comes from the same Latin root word as “suffering.” I can testify that patience does feel like suffering to me. But, I must also testify that God has certainly been patient with me. Patience is a divine virtue and fruit of the spirit as the bible tells us. Let us remember that God’s suffering with us and for us is God being patient with us. Patience costs us something. It cost God, God’s own Son. Remembering God’s patience with us should help us to be patient with our sisters and brothers, even with ourselves.

We know no more about the timing of the second coming of Christ and the day the kingdom of God will fill the earth than the early Christ-followers. Jesus and the New Testament epistle writers tell us to be patient and continue working for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom. It is a matter of staying on the path Christ walked for us. James tells the fledgling church: “Strengthen your hearts.” The exercise needed cannot be accomplished alone and at home. The strengthening of the heart James is talking about happens first in the corporate worship, study, and fellowship the church provides. No one should ever be an exile in the church. The church is to be both sanctuary and school for Christ’s disciples. Patience in suffering is required to go out into the world with values in conflict with kingdom values. This patience is experienced and encouraged by the Christian community that protects and cares for one another. “Doing good” for the neighbor within the community strengthens the believer to go out into the world and do good for neighbors outside the congregation. In a nutshell, James tells us not to be in such a hurry, just keep seeking the kingdom of God first, take care of one another and God will fulfill the promises in God’s own time.

Jesus’ statement: “11Truly 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” sounds like a putdown, but Jesus was not negating John’s critical position. Prophets play a very important role in God’s salvation plan. Prophets shine the light on transformational truths and encourage our walk with God. But it is those that walk that path every day in all circumstances that will make the vision a reality. Jesus was not belittling John the Baptist’s role, he was elevating the role of the simple, faithful disciple to retain the vision of the kingdom of God, to commit to obedience like Mary, and to persevere with the saints like the early Christian church members.

For Christ to be our one and only Lord and Savior and our greatest joy we must be both patient and persevering. Christ has walked the path to the kingdom of God ahead of us. When we discern what God would have us do, we ask the questions:

Is this action just for all people, especially those that have been denied justice?
Is this how I would want to be treated?
Does this lift up the lowly – the sick, the hungry, the foreigner, the prisoner or does it add to their pain?
Does this demonstrate and bear witness to the kind of love Christ has shown us? Does it “magnify the Lord”?

When we act according to these criteria we are not alone. God will strengthen our weak hands and make firm our feeble knees and encourage our fearful hearts. Even when worldly powers, and the crowds who swear their allegiance to them, push against us, God’s superior and eternal power will one day see the opposition scatter like dust in the wind.

Isaiah tells us there is power in maintaining the vision. Mary sings to the joy of walking humbly and obediently with God on the path of salvation. Jesus points to the eternal value of the daily walk of discipleship. James assures us there is wisdom in the waiting for the seeds we have planted to bear fruit for the harvest of God’s kingdom. We are not waiting idly, but working in the between the time of the already but not yet kingdom. It is the kind of patience that keeps tending to new growth of the harvest we may not recognize now or see any personal profit. Yet there is reaping in the waiting if we have but eyes to see it. When we do, we experience the joy of our faith that cannot be diminished by the devices and desires of the world.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is news backed up by thousands of years of witness to God our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. If we pay more attention to God’s steadfast love and fulfillment of promises, we would be less likely to be taken in by the fake news deceivers thrust upon us to lead us astray. May our hearts and minds be strengthened by the love of Christ, the wisdom of the scriptures, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2019, All Rights Reserved
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