Sooner or later you come to a time in your life when you have to stop drifting along and you have to raise some serious questions. Sooner or later you get to a point where the important things are the things that seem to matter.
It may have come to your attention that today is my sixtieth birthday. I have to say that I no longer consider sixty to be really very old at all, yet having a sixtieth birthday does sober a person up a little. And I have been encouraged in my reflective mood by several people who have remarked this morning – in what I’m sure they meant to be a kind way – that at sixty I am actually more than twice as old as they are. Thanks a lot for that, everybody.
And yet, it doesn’t have to be a birthday that pulls you up very short. Sometimes we reach this point when we become ill, or when someone we love does. Sometimes something happens in our work that calls the future we’d planned into question. And sometimes our serious times are the result of good news – there’s a pregnancy in the family or a sudden great opportunity. Whatever brings them on, our times to be serious give us the chance to find some things out about ourselves. They bring us the need to inquire closely into the truth before it’s too late.
And this time for serious questions is upon John the Baptist in the passage from Matthew* we read this morning. Last week we heard about John at the height of his powers, out in the wilderness preaching and defying the authorities of his day. But by this week in Advent** John has been arrested, and he is in prison waiting to be executed. John is forced to fall back and to examine his life.
As part of that examination he sends disciples to Jesus, and they ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John had to know if all his preaching of preparation was in fact fulfilled, or if perhaps his life had been misdirected. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John the Baptist, at the end of his life, sends friends to ask Jesus if he is the one who will redeem the chosen people. Is Jesus the messiah, the one he spent his life waiting for and preparing to receive?
And something like this question is in the hearts of people all around us today. As Christmas gets closer, even people for whom faith is just a vague memory find themselves asking: Is this Jesus, after all, the one in whom I can understand what the world means and what God offers me? Or should I be looking for some other meaning of life? Is Jesus the one who has come to save us, or is there another? Or should we be, after all, trying to save ourselves – with whatever form of meditation or self-improvement, with whatever investment strategy is popular at the moment?
Actually, John is right at the center of the problem that all of us have as human beings: Is Jesus the one for us, or should we be expecting to find someone else, something else, some other power in our lives? And since this is a common and compelling question, we should pay close attention to the answer that Jesus gives to John’s disciples.
Jesus doesn’t offer them any secret messages from God, he doesn’t open the heavens for them or teach them a special theological insight. Instead, Jesus shows them that he is the chosen one of God by pointing to the places in the world where he has done God’s work in acts of kindness, acts of mercy. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” says Jesus. “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.”
Jesus is not the kind of messiah who leads an army, and he doesn’t spend all his time preaching in the Temple or planning strategies against his adversaries. Jesus’s claim to be the messiah rests on his fulfilling the prophecies of the Old Testament by touching people where they hurt and making them whole, by bringing the good news of God’s love to those who have the least to hope for. Jesus is the messiah because in him God’s power is brought right to where people are, right to where people need that power and long for it in their lives.
Is this Jesus the one for us, the one coming for us? We confess he is, here when we’re together, and we love him and follow him because somehow, in ways we cannot fully understand, he touches us in places where we need help. But we are too often tempted to forget that what Jesus means to us matters.
When people ask us about Jesus we try to explain who Jesus is in the abstract, and we wind up using big words and big concepts. And if we can do it we wind up quoting at length from the scripture or the confessions. But Jesus himself, when the disciples of John the Baptist asked him, told who he was by pointing to the power to bring healing to the poor. And we can witness best to Jesus when we open our lives to reveal how poor and weak we are and yet how much we believe God loves us. We can share the power and love of Jesus best by telling the truth – that we are, on our own, pretty often blind and confused and frightened about living, and yet Jesus comes to us and makes it possible for us to love one another and to do God’s work, even as we are starting fresh and starting hopeful every day. Luther said, to know Jesus is to know his benefits. Jesus is the one God sent to bring mercy into the world, mercy and power and healing.
And part of knowing Jesus is knowing that his work is not finished. Jesus is the one for us, the one on whom we stake our lives, and we look to him to show us day by day where we can do acts of mercy and power and healing for his sake. God is not done with creation, and God gives us our turn at tending the sick and blessing the poor and at preaching our version of the gospel so that those who are dead and stuck in life can share our joy and the peace that Jesus means to bring. Because of what Jesus does for us, we do also. And in our doing we find ourselves like John the Baptist in this, too – that we take our turn at preparing the world for Jesus’s coming.
Advent is the season to redirect ourselves to prayers as well as to service because the Lord Jesus is coming. The one who was the little baby in Bethlehem, the one who is for us and in us and leads us, this one will come again at a time when pain and tears will end and when we will see him in all his loving strength.
As Isaiah saw it, the Lord will call us to himself along a highway where all is fruitful, where all is gladness and singing and shouting for joy. Already the kingdom is coming. And already it is part of our daily lives, because we are given the eyes to see the signs of God’s love at work. May that precious love grow in us and through us always.
And may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus now and for ever. Amen.
* Text for this sermon is Matthew 11: 2-11
** This sermon was shared during the Bishop’s Advent Eucharist Service on December 14, 2010.