New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Messengers from John the Baptist
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus Praises John the Baptist
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 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.’
11 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.
This week has been filled with stories on the news about Nelson Mandela. I graduated from college in 1990, the same year that Nelson Mandela was released from prison. As stories about his life were explored at this time, I realized then what an incredible man he was. I became hungry to learn more about his struggles for freedom from oppression for the majority of the people of South Africa. As I learned then and and has been reinforced this week as his life is reflected for all to see, Nelson Mandela rose from the humblest of beginnings, experienced some of the most extreme hardships that people can face and came from all that to change an entire nation and impact people far beyond the borders of his country. I’m sure he had days, weeks and even years of doubt that his work would have meaning or make any difference at all. And the leaders of South Africa surely hoped that this felon would never make a ripple in the ocean of discrimination. But the legacy of his humble life continues to this day and well beyond his life here on earth.
Today’s Gospel reading highlights a portion of the humble life of John – no razzle dazzle at all. As he spends time in prison for his work paving the way for the Messiah, he himself has doubts about Jesus being the Messiah – the very reason he is living life as a prisoner. Jesus doesn’t really answer the question with a definitive “Yes,” (no surprise there!) but rather he proves it by sending John’s followers back to him with tales of miracles. The kind of acts that can only come from the Messiah. But he takes it a step further by teaching his followers about John himself.
Jesus teaches his followers that the job of John the Baptist is a tough one. No “soft robes” or well dressed man would do for this important job – to go out in the world John needed to “be of the world.” Jesus pays, quite possible, the biggest compliment of all as he wraps up his lesson about John’s important work by telling the listeners and us as readers, that no one was more important among the people. This, right after John voiced his doubts about Jesus and his role in the world. I’ll be that when word got back to John about this, he felt more than a little like a jerk for wondering whether it was all going to be worth it.
There is only one John the Baptist, but the doubt he articulates is real for us all, right? Who hasn’t had those doubts? Even in the face of the evidence of God working directly in our lives and the lives of those we love and live with? Each of us as Christians is called to do our work in the Kingdom of God here on earth – much less substantial than what was required of John for sure, but look how far we can take it when we act on faith in the example of Nelson Mandela! I’m certainly no potential world leader destined to change the face of my country, but every day, I am tasked with waking up grateful, loving the hardest to love along with myself as a child of God, praying for guidance and studying the Word. If each of us committed to these seemingly small thoughts and actions, imagine the way the world would change right in front of our eyes? And the bonus? The building of our faith and the squashing down of our doubts.
As we spend these last weeks in Advent preparation, remember that preparing the way for the birth and coming again of our Savior is not passive in nature. Building our faith to prepare the way – now that is action that will bring about the best gifts of all!
All of our gifts come from you dear Lord, and we stand before you not worthy to receive them. Help us to remember we are worthy of your miracles and tasked with spreading your love in your Kingdom. Our faith in you is stronger than we think and we commit to building it in preparation for your coming. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Necessity for Watchfulness
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
I love the season of Advent. In this crazy, consumerized time of year, it is a refreshing take on preparing for the Christmas season. Many folks don’t celebrate a time of preparation like Advent; from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (Click here), the definition is the period beginning four Sundays before Christmas and observed by some Christians as a season of prayer and fasting. The second definition is the coming of Christ at the Incarnation. In our Episcopal/Anglican tradition, we labor to stay focused on Advent for the full four Sundays before we “green” the church and switch our focus to the Christmas celebration which carries us all the way to Epiphany (See definition here). In our home, we have an advent wreath that we put out each year with the traditional four candles (three purple or blue, and one pink/red, depending on tradition) that we light each Sunday. Our almost adult daughter also has a wall Advent Calendar which builds the pieces of a felt and velcro Nativity. Somehow, the craziness of the holidays stays at bay when we take the time to prepare for the coming of Christ.
Another kind of event that I love is a good old fashioned surprise party! When everyone does all this activity to prepare behind the scenes and the honoree carries on throughout all the preparation without a clue of what is to come at the moment we all jump out with a loud shout of “SURPRISE!!!!” – I just love it! So what’s the connection between a surprise party and Advent? Go with me here…
The season of Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of our Lord. Christmas is a day to remember his birth and the season of Christmas actually starts on Christmas Day, but Advent goes way beyond that. The birth of Jesus is truly a remarkable event – from the virgin, teenage mother, her betrothed taking on a potentially scandalous situation, to a long ride in less than comfortable conditions with a very pregnant mom-to-be; only to be turned away as they seemed to desperately seek shelter for the obvious and inevitable birth. The very unlikely setting for the Son of God’s rather unceremonious birth and then all the special signs, guests/visitors and heralding angel chorus – remarkable details of Jesus’ birth indeed. But Advent doesn’t just have us focusing on the birth of Christ as a singular event. As Resurrection people, we go beyond the birth to thirty some odd years later and the crucifixion, and then to the second definition referenced by Merriam-Webster – the second coming of Christ. Jesus tells his disciples there will be no warning – a literal surprise – as to when He will come again. And tells them, and through them tells us all, to be ready. Not like the honored guest at a surprise party who never sees it coming, but like the host who plans all the details except the biggest details of all – the time and place of the surprise itself.
So Advent gives us a purpose just as the upcoming season of Lent does prior to Easter. Advent slows us down and attempts to keep us focused on preparing the way for the Lord. One of my favorite hymns during this time is from the Taize music tradition:
Prepare the way of the Lord.
Prepare the way of the Lord,
and all people will see the salvation of our God.
We don’t know the time or the place, and being ready doesn’t mean we need to pay any attention to those details. The only requirement from Jesus was to be ready any time. Knowing when and how won’t make us more ready and will distract us from our job at hand: to prepare the way of the Lord. To study the Word, to pray without ceasing and to go out and do the work we are called to do in the world. The celebration of Advent makes us take the time to be mindful of our job in this Christian relationship – to invite Jesus into our hearts, minds and actions; to be thankful for our blessings and grateful for our challenges that bring us closer to him. Don’t skip over the preparation to jump straight into celebration just yet. Be watchful and prepare for perfect healing through Christ.
Giver of Life, I come to you humbly as I prepare for your coming. Your gift of your Son to live and die for me is more generous a gift than I could ever give. The hope of Advent and the coming of Christ to save us all brings all the joy I need to help me focus on preparing my sinful self for seeing you. Thank you for giving us time to prepare. In your gracious name I pray. AMEN.