Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-15
What are you preparing for, in this season? For those office holiday parties, where you’re not sure these are the people you really want to be partying with? For that ‘givers remorse’: that feeling that sets in after the presents have been opened that maybe you overdid it for the kids this year? For an awkward exchange of gifts, in which you hope she likes the gift you got her, and if it becomes clear that it is not what she had in mind, then you hope that the gift she got for you is not too perfect, ‘cause then you’ll feel like a real schmuck. There’s a question we face of finding a meaningful focus in this season, among everything going on.
But the question can be asked in a different, more cynical way. What are you preparing for? Why are you making such a big religious deal out of December 25? Do you think that the world is going to change on Christmas morning? Do you think deserts are going to bloom? Do you think the eyes of the blind shall be opened? Do you think Christmas morning will see the dawn of world peace? Do you think that the added tenderness that some people feel when they hear the carols and light the candles, when they bring in extra donations to church or volunteer at the soup kitchen—do you think all that will stick? Or will we go back to our default position on December 26, which is somewhere colder and more callous? What are you preparing for? Nothing is going to change, at least not for long.
I ask these questions, because it’s hard enough to know what we are preparing for—what is the true meaning of Christmas. There are so many other things in the mix, many of which are dear to us and fun, but they seem peripheral to the biblical story. But it’s also hard to know what for, why we designate this day as a spiritual high point, as a day different from every other, a holy – day. (That’s where the word “holiday” comes from.) Does the world change on Christmas? Does God change?
And I ask these questions also, because I was struck by Jesus’ persistent, almost annoying questions: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? What then did you go out to see? A prophet?” I don’t know about you, but when someone asks me more than two questions in a row, I start to get annoyed. “Will you let me answer!” (So did it work—did I annoy you with all my questions?)
It doesn’t help that we’re not exactly sure what Jesus’ questions mean. Let’s start there. He is asking the crowds about John the Baptist, whom we heard about last week. John’s message was, God is coming soon to judge the world by means of the messiah; you better repent by the symbol of baptism, turn your life around and live right, because any day now, ‘everything is about to change.’
So all these people came out to John, repenting, and being baptized, convinced that they needed to prepare for something. For some momentous change. They knew that they weren’t right, and their world wasn’t right. The Jews were divided into bickering parties: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, Diaspora Jews. Their divisions were no less serious than ours. Moreover, they were all under the control of a domineering Roman empire that didn’t understand their unique relationship to the one God. The poor were legion, and instead of receiving compassion as God commanded, they were met with disdain by Pharisees and Sadducees because they did not practice respectable religion.
Now John got arrested by Herod Antipas, who was a puppet of Rome. In our reading today, John sends his disciples to ask if Jesus is the one to come, that is, the messiah. That tells us that John did not really know whether Jesus was the messiah. He believed God’s own agent of judgment was coming soon, but even though he had baptized Jesus, he still didn’t know what to make of him. Jesus almost never says, “Yes, that’s me; I’m the Messiah.” Interesting. Instead, he says, “Tell John what you see. Tell him about all the signs of my work: healing, raising the dead, preaching good news to the poor.” These signs recall many of the signs that prophets had described when they hoped for a more godly future. But, interestingly enough, they weren’t necessarily considered things the messiah would do. There are no predictions of the messiah that mention healing, for instance. More typically, the messiah was thought to be an agent of fiery judgment, as John seemed to think, and one who would throw off foreign domination of Israel. That didn’t seem to be Jesus’ bag; maybe that’s why John was uncertain about what to make of him.
So all these people went out to be baptized with big expectations for a fiery judgment, and for a new king David who would make Israel great again. And John’s movement turned into another spiritual fad that came and went; remember est, or “The Secret,” or when Madonna and those celebrities were into Kabbalah? Nothing really changed. But people had been ready, had been prepared for a change.
Now, are you prepared for a change? Would you be ready to go out to the wilderness for some crazy new ritual of repentance? (I suspect some of you were freaked out by the anointing last week.) Are you ready to walk away from the old order, from the establishment, like those crowds walked away from Jerusalem and went out to the wilderness? Are you ready to walk away from whatever in yourself you need to leave behind? Good. We should be ready for change, but also ready to change what we expect change to look like, once it comes.
Our time is like John’s time. People are eager for a change. Look at the election: Clinton was the establishment candidate, the one that cool, business-as-usual heads mostly preferred. That didn’t work for her. The passion of the crowds went to Bernie Sanders, and then ultimately to Donald Trump. And here we are in some kind of wilderness, in unchartered territory. It’s not just in the US. A similar mood is prevailing across the world—a risky readiness for anything but business as usual. People, I suppose, are prepared. That doesn’t mean they understand ‘what they are prepared for.’
“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force”—a perplexing verse from today; one of the most difficult verses to translate in Matthew, so scholars say. But I think it makes perfect sense. John encouraged people to focus and express their desire for change. He unleashed pent-up frustrations with the status quo. Before John, people, though disgruntled, were keeping with tradition. Thus we read: “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came.” Until John, people were sticking with the good old law and prophets, with tradition. But now the people have thrown off the old order, and are so ready for change, they are seizing the kingdom of God by force, by violence. If God isn’t going to change things, then we’ll make the world change ourselves.
Jesus is making a common-sense observation, really: when we confess our needs and desires for salvation, for an ultimate deliverance, and we get worked up and excited about change, the results can be dangerous. Violence is ready at hand, should that excitement run into frustration. We will see how much things will change in America, and what kind of change it will be. / John was preparing the people for a great change from God, and this was his great contribution. He fostered repentance, this turning away from the old age. But John didn’t really know what the change coming from God would look like. That’s why he had to send his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for?” And the gospels never tell us that John, receiving Jesus’ reply, was satisfied. The gospels leave John in perpetual Advent.
And so Jesus says of John: “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.” Again, a very perplexing verse, that reads like a Zen koan. I can witness to the fact that the scholarly commentaries do not clear this one up, either. So let’s say this: the one who prepares the way; the one who forsakes the comfort of the status quo and of the well-established institutions; the one who is willing to leads the people into the wilderness; the one who knows what it is to repent, to turn away from the old and turn to something new, is the greatest of those born of women. The seeker, that one who confesses uncertainty; the rabble-rouser, the scofflaw, the rebel, the noncomformist, the insurrectionist. Thomas Paine; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Albert Camus; Simone Weil; Fidel Castro—but even better, Che Guevara; Janice Joplin; Donald Trump (?). All of these prepare a way. They are preparers because it is clear, at least to others, that they don’t know exactly what is coming. It may be a disaster, or maybe in fact nothing will change. But the preparers only know what they are leaving, and that they want something really big, really different to come. They get Advent, at least.
This is the greatest that humanity has to offer, outside the kingdom of God. Not because it always ends well. John is put to death and had very little to show for his impressive moment in the spotlight. His disciples soon scatter to the wind. But the preparer, the nonconformist opens us up to something radical; and whatever else God’s coming is, it is going to be radical. Unexpected. Mind-blowing. When you know at least that you need God, that the world needs God to come and save us, you may not know where to look or what to expect, but if God really comes, you can be sure it won’t be the same old. We need the preparers to open us to wild expectations of apocalyptic proportions. This is the greatest thing an ordinary mortal, born of woman, can do for the cause of the coming God.
“Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” It’s so thrilling to start a revolution. It must be such a head-trip; the rallies, the crowds chanting your name. We sometimes celebrate our radicals and reward them with at least brief fame. But they never seem to really save us, not to the same degree as they raise our expectations and our hopes. They tend to fizzle.
So as great as the radical preparers are, larger-than-life, there’s something almost incomparably great in this kingdom of heaven movement happening around Jesus, this new reality that was coming into being all around Jesus. Jesus doesn’t say, “O, I am greater than John!” He says the least in this new community, this new humanity that I am pointing to and inaugurating, is greater than John. Even the least, even the poorest or least respectable or least noteworthy individual in this new reign of God is greater than the greatest religious celebrity of Jesus’ day, John the Baptist.
For proof of that, Jesus could point to the mighty acts, the signs that he performed, that we already mentioned: healings, raising the dead, bringing in the poor and the ostracized lepers. The kingdom of God happening around Jesus was so near, so palpably present, that its signs were undeniable. Whether we explain them supernaturally or not, there was a power drawing people together around Jesus, a power that was changing lives and creating a new community. But not a power like the world knows; a power of compulsion; a power of inflaming the crowds; a revolutionary power of great men who supposedly move history; all of this is power unto violence. You can’t take the Kingdom of heaven by violence.//
It’s Advent. We are preparing. ‘What we are preparing ourselves for’ is something radical to come called God—that’s what. But what’s going to happen on December 25th? Is Christ going to come again? Will he come as if for the first time? Or maybe it will be the final coming? We should hope so. But probably not. Our time will probably not be, come December 25th, a time like that of Jesus, when the Kingdom of God was so very near that it was palpable and accompanied by evident signs. You can find communities on the edge, communities struggling for justice, where the Kingdom of God is nearer, more palpable. But Jesus and his time remain our definitive benchmark.
So what are we preparing for, if nothing is really going to change at Christmas? Well, maybe I’ve misled you with all this stuff about the liturgical seasons, about Advent being the time for this and that and then Christmas is the time for this next thing. All of these seasons are about what is always true, always happening, all year ‘round. It is Advent all the time. We are always still in need of God’s coming, of a final and consummated salvation. We are always in exile, looking as Isaiah did for God to pave a path of desert booms so we can find our way home. It is always Advent.
And it is always Christmas. Jesus Christ is always present, always born among us. And with him, the kingdom of God is always here. The signs may not be so evident: the blind are not receiving their sight, nor the deaf their hearing, nor are the lame walking, nor are the dead raised (but you are mostly staying awake); I’m not even sure we are preaching good news to the poor. But it is true; Christ is present, and the kingdom of God is here. So how do we let ourselves feel that presence of Christ, when the signs are so weak as to be practically invisible? /
What are we preparing for? We are preparing for Christmas because we in our human limitations need to set aside a special day to really focus on just that presence of God’s kingdom that is in fact always here—always everywhere. We need to try as best as we are able in our limited, human way to see with God’s eyes what is here. God’s vision sees everything all at once with a richness and intensity that we never can. God sees our desperate need for deliverance, more than what we can ever admit to ourselves, for we would despair. We need Advent to be a season in which we try to peer into those depths of need, but drawn up from despair by the promise of Christ’s coming. / God sees our pathetic failures and faults, our betrayals of the very noble calling to which God has called us, more than we can ever know and confess, for we would become immobilized by guilt. We need Lent to be a season in which we earnestly take stock of our fault, drawn up from guilt by the triumphal mercy of Easter.
And God sees us make our little strides toward goodness, not as we in our self-doubt might see it: as well-meaning but lame and largely ineffective efforts. No, God sees God’s own Holy Spirit working in us. God sees Christ in us, in us as the church. When the Bible says that we glorify God, that is what it is talking about. Our little efforts, as seen by God and received by us in faith, are really the work of God. When Gloria celebrates what is best in all of us in the course of a long and boring meeting; when Dennis, when he’s not mouthing off, speaks so beautifully about the holy joy of serving in missions, as did so many others during their presentation; when little Liam makes these oracular pronouncements like a spiritual prodigy (before running off to make mischief); when something keeps compelling the tireless work of the Masons, the Women of the Church, the Trustees; when the youth allow themselves to be vulnerable and in that vulnerability, discover real insights. Christ is doing these things in us. God sees a beauty in our actions that only God could possess and generously bestow. / We could and should be doing better. God sees our faults better than we do. We could and should be doing more. God sees our limitations and our captivity better than we do. But God also sees God’s kingdom in us.
So if you really want to prepare for joy [point at candle] at Christmas, put this at the top of your Christmas list. Prepare to see, if only on just that one day, the kingdom of God in even the least of us, and in the least of our efforts, in the infinite glory with which God sees us.