3 Advent Year A: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, December 10, 2016
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
You may remember Bill Engvall from the Blue Collar Comedy Tour several years ago. He has a schtick on stupid things people say that ends with here’s your sign. You know, you’ve packed up your house in preparation for a move, boxes are stacked everywhere and your neighbor comes over and says, Ya movin’? And you reply, Nah, we just pack up our house a couple times a week to see how many boxes it would take. Here’s your sign. Or, you pull back into the marina with a boatload full of fish and somebody asks, You catch all them fish? And you reply, Nah, they gave up and jumped in the boat. Here’s your sign.
So when John the Baptist asks Jesus if he is the one who is to come? Instead of giving a definite answer, Jesus basically replies, Here’s your sign. Now I’m not sure Jesus’ tone was quite as sarcastic as Bill Engvall’s, but it is no less pointed and poignant. He replies by listing the signs of the Kingdom”the blind seeing, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead raised, the poor given hope”(here’s your sign) the signs of Christ active in the world. These are not signs pointing to some future event, but signs of the present, the signs of Emmanuel”of God with us.
nd Mary’s song, the Magnificat, remind us that these signs were preordained. God promised these signs, not as future predictors, but so that we might know the Messiah when he makes his appearance. Isaiah tells us that the desert will blossom, that the blind will see and the deaf hear, that the lame will leap like deer and the speechless will sing, that the desert will flow with water and the burning sands will become pools. Mary sings of the proud being scattered, the mighty cast down, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled with good things, the rich made empty. For both Isaiah and Mary, the signs lead to one thing”deliverance into the kingdom. Isaiah speaks of a highway called the Holy Way in which one not only passes safely, but where even fools cannot go astray. Mary reminds us that God will help his servant Israel because of the covenant he has made with her. The signs may not be of the fortune telling variety, but they will certainly tell of the presence of the kingdom of God.
At times, we get caught up in the idea of signs as predictions of the future and not markers of the present. In some ways, I think that is about our need for reassurance”the signs will tell us what is to happen and when it does, we will know with certainty that what we’ve been waiting for has come to pass. Or will we? This need for reassurance seems to motivate John’s question today, Are you the one or are we to wait for another? John knows what Jesus has been doing. Even in prison he has heard the rumors, the stories of healings and miracles being performed. Yet, like the bars of Herod’s prison, John’s doubt keeps him from freely entering into the life he hopes for, that he has been waiting for, the world promised to him by God. The world John lives in is bitter and cynical”he has been imprisoned for speaking the truth and though he works hard to not give into that despair, his question, Are you the one? springs from this seed of doubt.
This same bitter, cynical world is the world of Roman occupation that Mary knows, it is the world of Babylonian exile in Isaiah’s time, and it is our world today”a world in which politics trumps relationships and greed for wealth and power drives our interest. We, too, want some reassurance that the hope we have been waiting for will come to pass”some promise that the Lord is coming”and we forget that the Lord is already here. Advent is that season that reminds us of the already and the not yet”the season in which we rejoice in the incarnation of Christ in his first coming and prepare for his second.
It is a season of preparation and self-examination and that takes practice. Nick Saban says, You don’t practice to get it right; you practice to do it so many times, you don’t get it wrong. That may be true in football, but in Kingdom living, we practice to become righteous for as the psalmist says, The Lord loves the righteous. We practice to become God’s people that we might travel the Holy Way. Isaiah clearly lays out our tasks of practice and preparation: we are to strengthen the weak and make firm the feeble knees, encourage the fearful and remind them that God will come and save us. Our preparation is grounded in our practice of the faithful life, the righteous life. It depends on our active approach to the need in this world. We will have to throw off the shackles of fear and approach the world from a hopeful stance trusting in the God that will come and save us. Preparation for the coming of Christ is no passive exercise. We participate in the signs of his second coming”in the signs of the Kingdom that is already and not yet present with us.
It is not enough to simply say we believe or to wait in anticipation for the coming of Christ, looking for the signs around us. We are the signs of Christ in this world. Our actions grounded in the call and discipleship of our Christianity serve to show Christ in the world. When we work to transform the brokenness of this world, we partner with God in his work of redemption for the whole of creation. Advent is not simply about waiting for God, it is about preparation and participation as we actively seek the signs of the kingdom that are already and not yet.
God never gives up on offering us the realm of Heaven even when we, like John, are imprisoned by our doubt and need for reassurance. God is standing at the door”we wait patiently for his return, but not passively. And when we see Christ and ask, Are you the one? Are you the one who gives justice to the oppressed and food to those who hunger? Are you the one who sets the prisoner free and opens the eyes of the blind? Are you the one who lifts up those who are bowed down? Who loves the righteous and cares for the stranger? Who sustains the orphan and the widow and frustrates the way of the wicked? Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? Jesus will look at the work we have done in anticipation of his return”the hungry we have fed, the sick we have cared for, the courage and hope we have shared through the assurance of God”and he will respond, Look around. Here’s your sign.