First Reading Isaiah 35:1-10
1The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; 2it 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. 3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” 5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray. 9No 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. 10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Psalm Psalm 146
1Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. 2Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them. 3When they breathe their last, they return to earth, and in that day their thoughts perish. 4Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in the Lord their God; 5Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps his promise forever; 6Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. 7The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; 8The Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked. 9The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!
Second Reading James 5:7-11
7Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
Gospel Matthew 11:2-15
2When John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 4And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” 7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
ARE YOU THE ONE?
One of the things that never ceases to amaze me, is how consciously Hollywood screen writers will take Biblical stories, change them slightly, and write TV shows and movies that become block buster hits. For example, in the motion picture trilogy, The Matrix, the people of the earth are held captive, both physically and mentally, by an evil force, in this case an artificial intelligence, that has taken over the world. Most of those in bondage are kept captive in a utopian dream world, where they perceive themselves as prosperous and enjoy a simulated life of pleasure and ease. However, there is a group, who through the spread of the truth, one individual to the next, have come to understand their captive situation and are looking for the promised one; Neo, who is played by Keanu Reeves.
Prophecies of old, tell of a special person, a messiah if you will, who is to come; the one who will be able to defeat the powers of the evil artificial intelligence and free humanity from its slavery. The co-star of the movie, Morpheus, played by actor Lawrence Fishbone, is the one person who is in charge of finding and announcing this promised one. He searches and at times thinks he’s found Neo, only to be disappointed. As part of the plot, Morpheus is captured by Agent Smith, the enforcer for the Matrix, and is being tortured for information. At one point, Morpheus begins to waver in his belief and begins to doubt that Mr. Anderson or Neo, actually is the one. Now if you were to stop here in the movie’s plot, one could easily see the similarities between the movie and the story of Jesus and John the Baptist.
This morning, here in the midst of the Advent season, it may seem a bit inappropriate to talk about broken dreams and disappointments so close to Christmas. After all, this is Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday we light the pink candle. This Sunday is intended to allow us to relax a bit from the intensity of the season; it’s a time to be jolly. However, we know, not only from experience, but from observation, that not everyone shares in the gayety of the season.
Some are missing loved ones who are no longer with us. Some are separated from their families for reasons beyond their control. With this last point in mind, please do me a favor and say an extra prayer for those who are deployed and away from home this Christmas season, protecting our country. As one who has spent more than one Christmas season separated from the family, I know how difficult this time of year can be. And then there are those who, in a world that glorifies materialism, are struggling financially and may find the pressure of consumerism to be overwhelming. All these, and more, find little joy, if any, and many end up being disappointed, questioning even the very core things they believe. Our friend John the Baptist was one who knew about disappointment.
As John sits in prison, it’s natural to conclude that he’s looking for a “sign”, a sign that the long-awaited Messiah has really arrived. But when you stop and think about it, it’s ironic. John the Baptist is the one who first proclaimed the coming of the Messiah. But as John sits in prison, a good bit has happened to Him since last week’s gospel lesson. Last Sunday we heard Matthew tell of John preaching and baptizing people in the wilderness; calling for people to repent and prepare for the coming of the long-awaited Christ. But now John finds himself in Herod’s prison and his heart is cast down.
You recall John’s message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This was a message that was burned into John’s soul. John wasn’t afraid to proclaim his message to religious leaders and royalty alike. He wasn’t even afraid to proclaim it to King Herod himself. That’s why he was in jail. This wasn’t the King Herod who was the ruler at the time of Jesus’ birth; this was his son, Herod Antipas, who turned out to be worse than his father.
Herod Antipas was so wicked that he seduced and later married his brother’s wife. The Jewish nation was in shock. The two had committed an unpardonable sin according to the Bible. In Leviticus we read, “If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They shall be childless” (20:21). John the Baptist openly condemned the king’s behavior and for that he was placed in prison. While in prison, John must have recalled the way his predecessor prophets of the Old Testament were treated and came to the realization that his career as a prophet was about to end. Worse yet, I’m sure he also realized that his life would soon be over as well. But there was one thing that John wanted to know before he died.
John wanted to know beyond a shadow of a doubt if Jesus was really the Messiah. Who can blame[SK1] him? He had given everything he had, including, in a matter of days, his very life. He wanted, no, he needed to know, has all this been in vain? Has it all been an illusion – a dream? In the wilderness John had believed Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, but in the face of incarceration and almost certain death, he, like anyone else, had some doubts. He needed to know for sure. So, he sent some of his followers to find Jesus and ask Him, are you the one; “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” You see, John the Baptist, for all that he had accomplished and sacrificed, found himself in a disappointing and disheartening predicament. Sitting in that dark, most-likely, underground cell, John was beginning to ask some hard questions.
I’m certain, in John’s mind, things were not working out like he had expected. The truth is, sometimes that happens. Disappointment, questions. Particularly at Christmas. This is not an easy time of year. A few years back there was a haunting country song that went like this, “If we make it through December….” One could say that this was December for John the Baptist. He was hurting in Herod’s prison: he was hurting physically, and he was hurting emotionally and no doubt, he was gripped with uncertainty and disappointment. And it’s important for us to recognize the reasons why he had become disheartened
John was disappointed, first of all, because he had different expectations of what the Messiah would do. He was a product of the consensus of his time. John the Baptist expected the same kind of messiah everyone else expected; a military leader who would drive out the despised Romans and establish the kingdom of God. The messiah would reign as a king in the line of David, as foretold by the prophets, and the nation of Israel would once again be a mighty force in the region. But none of this seemed to be happening.
Rome was still firmly in power. John saw no evidence of armies being recruited or trained. There were no rumors of a new insurrection, one lead by this cousin of his. And now, John sits languishing in prison and must have been wondering why more wasn’t happening. The question of “What’s he waiting for?” must run through his mind over and over again. Why doesn’t his cousin Jesus hurry up and drive the Roman dogs out? Why doesn’t He come and rescue me and free me from this awful prison? You see, John was disappointed because of his faulty expectations. Leo Buscalgia learned about that kind of disappointment as a teenager.
Leo writes, “I remember the sudden appearance under my family’s Christmas tree of the largest present I had ever hoped to see. It stood at least a foot taller than I and was twice as heavy; and wonder of wonders, it had my name on it. For two whole weeks before Christmas, this present towered above all others and it defied any conventional attempts to learn of its contents before its time.”
During the weeks leading up to Christmas, he could think of nothing else but his present under the tree. He imagined all sorts of terrific presents. On Christmas Day his family gathered together. “The main attraction was to be the opening of my present.” Buscalgia remembered. “How many times in the past two weeks I had anticipated this moment. Even as I was opening it, I remember experiencing a vague sense of disappointment, the great mystery was about to end, and I would no longer be able to engage in my soaring dreams.”
His present turned out to be a beautiful handmade desk his uncle had built. “By this time nothing of this world could have satisfied my expectations. I can’t imagine what I had expected. Still, in that disappointment was a lesson which would last a lifetime.” There are times when all of us experience disappointed, not because what we receive is bad, but because we have faulty expectations. I’m willing to bet that there are people in this very room who feel that life has somehow cheated them, but I can guarantee you that if you lost everything you have right now, and then suddenly had it all restored, you would be exceedingly grateful. The problem isn’t what we have, but our expectations.
John the Baptist expected the Messiah to come by storm, but nothing in what He was doing pointed to this outcome. It wasn’t Jesus who was at fault, it was John’s faulty expectations. That’s the first reason he was gripped by disappointment. The second reason John was disappointed was, he was looking for all the wrong signs.
The followers of John the Baptist caught up with Jesus. They asked Jesus John’s question, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” Jesus, quoting the prophet Malachi answered, 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” (Mal. 4:5-6). The day of the Lord had arrived. There was evidence that God’s kingdom had begun. Just look around, Jesus tells John’s followers, see what’s happening.
Centuries before, there was a prophet named Isaiah. Isaiah also prophesied about what would take place when the Messiah would arrive. Isaiah said, “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer” (Isa. 35:5-6). But these weren’t the signs John was looking for. John was looking for something more dramatic; signs of overwhelming power. He was looking for indications of a massive buildup of people preparing for an armed conflict. You could say he was looking for thunder and lightning.
Charles Kuralt, in his travels across the United States, found what looked like a Christmas tree growing in the most unlikely place high in the Rockies. “Trees need good soil and good weather, and up here there’s no soil and terrible weather,” Kuralt notes. “Nothing can live up here and certainly not trees. That’s why the tree is a kind of miracle.” On a barren stretch of U.S. 50, without another tree in sight, grows this Juniper tree. ” Nobody remembers who put the first Christmas ornament on it” some whimsical motorist of years ago. From that day to this, the tree has been redecorated each year. Nobody knows who does it. But each year by Christmas Day, the tree has become a Christmas tree.
“The tree, which has no business growing here at all, has survived against all the odds.” People who live miles away in all directions know and love the tree. “Just looking at it makes you think about how unexpected life on earth can be. The tree is so lonely and so brave that it seems to offer courage to those who pass it” and a message. It is the Christmas message: that there is life and hope even in a rough world.” Isaiah wrote, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.”
The problem is these aren’t the kinds of signs that impress people. We want greatness in a bold way. But that’s not necessarily God’s way. God most often chooses to work in the little insignificant places of life”, like a manger, a carpenter’s shop and a cross. And there’s one more reason John was suffering from disappointment; John was discouraged because he wasn’t being patient; he wasn’t giving God time.
You see, John, like the rest of humanity, wanted action now! And we can sympathize given John’s dire situation. But we must always remember, God’s time isn’t our time. God works at the time of His choosing, and God’s time and timing is always perfect. Afterall, God’s been doing this for a very, very long time. His purpose is just and sure, and His plan is just as unstoppable.
Lincoln Steffens remembers one Christmas while growing up when he wanted a pony more than anything. “I prayed and hoped I would get a pony,” he wrote. “My good little sisters — to comfort me — remarked that Christmas was coming, but Christmas was always coming, and grown-ups were always talking about it, asking you what you wanted.” His parents played games with him, asking him what he wanted for Christmas. “All I want is a pony,” he told them. “If I can’t have a pony, give me nothing, nothing.”
Christmas Day arrived, and the children were up at 6:00 a.m. At first, they were overwhelmed by all the presents. “My sisters had knelt down, each by her pile of gifts; they were squealing with delight, till they looked up and saw me standing there in my nightgown with nothing. Nothing.” The young boy didn’t get the pony he wanted more than anything else for Christmas. His sisters joined him in his agony, running back to their bedrooms crying. He refused to eat anything. He was too upset. He went out to the stable, and his mother came out to comfort him. He noticed his father watching him from a window for a couple of hours. This was his worst Christmas ever – not one present.
Then he noticed a man riding a pony down the street, a pony with a brand-new saddle, and it was a boy’s saddle. The man was reading the numbers of the houses. “He looked at our door and passed by,” Lincoln remembered. That was the last straw. He flung himself on the ground and began crying uncontrollably. “Say, kid,” the stranger asked, “do you know a boy named Lennie Steffens?” “Yes,” he spluttered through tears, “that’s me.” “Well,” he said, “then this is your horse. I’ve been looking all over for you.”
The man told Lennie his excuses for being so late, but the boy never heard them. “I could scarcely wait.” Before too long he was riding down the street on his pony. To this day he says he still doesn’t know if that was his best Christmas or his worst. You see, the pony was always coming. It was Lennie’s impatience and uncertainty that drove him to the brink of despair. I bet each one of us here can recall at time where we felt the same way. We must always remember that God doesn’t work according to our time schedule, but according to His.
There may even be times when God doesn’t appear to be working at all. But I assure you, He is. Certainly, God wasn’t working according to John the Baptist’s way of thinking or on his timetable. But God was working. And He was working right out there for all to see. The fact that we celebrate the life and ministry of John the Baptist, more than two thousand years later, is proof that God was indeed working. And our Bible readings for today are a lesson for each of us.
Are you and I having the same problems John was having? Are we experiencing disappointments because of our unrealistic expectations? Are we falling into the trap of looking for the wrong signs and in all the wrong places to find happiness? Are we failing to be patient as we wait for the Lord to return?
A kindergarten teacher carefully lined up four little “cherubs” for the annual Christmas program. Each carried a huge cut out letter. As they stood side by side the letters would spell “star.” However, a slight mix-up occurred and those present in the church nearly fell out of their pews as the four little performers took their places” in reverse. They spelled out “rats,” not star. Isn’t that the reaction we have when we get our priorities out of order.
The fulfillment of all of the Bible’s prophecies concerning the coming Messiah, born in a lowly stable in Bethlehem, teaches us a good deal about expectations, about signs, and about patience. God began with a simple babe and humble surroundings and He worked slowly, surely. And the good news of this season is that He’s still at work. Isn’t it time we let go of our expectations and let God work in His time and in His way? As we await the Advent of Jesus’ second coming, we need to be patient (James 5:7); Jesus will return as promised. In the meantime, we can’t lose hope. Rather let us boldly sing, Joy to the world, the Lord is come.