Are you the One…?
A sermon preached by Sue Cook at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA, Advent III, December 11, 2016.
Richard Rohr’s daily meditation recently opened with this aphorism:
I am a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through, listen to this music.
—Hafiz (c. 1320-1389) 
“I can hardly walk this morning. The metal cuff that binds my right leg to this chain has cut deeply into my ankle, and still, still I cannot stop pacing. The animal skin that once covered all of my body has worn so thin that it no longer protects me from the chill. The wintery air finds its way into the torn seams – much like a sinuous snake. It is cold and I know not where or when the asp will strike and take me down. I am bone weary of this confinement.”
And this is where we meet up with John the Baptist on this 3rd Sunday in Advent.
Pacing. I cannot stop imagining John pacing back and forth, endlessly straining that heavy leg-iron which further restricted his freedom of movement. He was, in fact, no better than a chained beast. His prison cell is dirty and dark, no matter the hour. His free wheeling public life, ministering to the Jewish communities in the Judean countryside as the forerunner of the Messiah seems like a long ago dream. John was well known, famous in fact with a following of his own. He was the prophet, baptizing and preaching repentance to many crowds, even baptizing the Christ Himself, and now all of this was over.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her own sermon on this biblical text, “According to Matthew, John the Baptist and Jesus started out on the exact same page. When John first appeared in the wilderness, his message was direct, “REPENT, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus responded to that message, joining John in the river Jordan.
And then, John was arrested.
And the question that nags at him now, toys with his moods, rushes in where silence cannot be found, even in the dead of night is, “Are you the one who has come, or are we to wait for another?”
John was born to bear witness to the promises of the Old Testament declaring that the long- awaited Messiah was truly coming. This was the very reason for his miraculous conception and birth. Every bone in his body, every fiber of his being, each thought and insight he preached, concerning the coming of the Kingdom of God, seemed to have been planted within him the moment his mother embraced the newly pregnant mother of Jesus. I suggest that this may be why he leapt in his mother, Elizabeth’s womb.
And now some 30 years have passed and he is facing what might aptly be termed, the dark night of his soul.
Consider this: Who among us, over the age of 30, might not look back on their lives and wonder how in heaven’s name, we found the courage and passion to jump into the river of our middle years with such fervor? If we knew then what we do now, would we have had the courage to respond to the Divine call? But that’s not the way it seems work.
In my case I am sometimes astounded at the projects I took on with complete faith and trust in their/our successful outcome. I was absolutely propelled by a force coursing through my veins that seems to have existed since my birth, and my instincts were oftentimes right back in those days.
But, of course, they weren’t all successful, all of the time–Some projects and goals that were personally very important to me failed miserably. It was then that my frustration and angst knew no bounds. Like John the Baptist I intuitively and literally had known that my life was to include certain key elements and when they did not materialize as I had imagined them – well I was not just a little disappointed. I was devastated. My expectations and spirits were dashed. I was left feeling cut off from my source of inspiration. All my fiery belief in my life’s mission, if you will, evaporated like the morning mist. I was cold and alone and in a prison of my own making. I simply did not understand. Had I lived my almost 30 years of life in vain?
Memories of his life in the wilderness and his work as a wandering preacher may have kept John company and brought him solace in the early weeks and months as a prisoner, but now its been over a year and he worries about the stories he hears of Jesus from the few visitors allowed into his cell.
John’s doubts and fears hold him captive; these thoughts grow in strength and force, so much so, that he could not stop himself from forming and then asking for an answer so that he might know the outcome, know the truth. Who of us is not tempted to read the end of a mystery? I have trained myself, not to do so, but when I was younger and I had less of a grip on my emotions…it was an irresistible urge.
Instead of raising a miraculous army to overcome and destroy the hold of Rome upon the Jews, Jesus was, according to the words of John’s own friends and followers, performing miracles with the poorest of the poor, lepers, the lame and the deaf…even with a Roman centurion.
Good God, how was this going to accomplish the long awaited freeing of the Chosen People?
One of the Baptist’s own disciples is sent out to ask Jesus the question, “Are you the one who was to come, or are we to wait for another?” leaving John in his cell to wait, wait and see whether he had spent his life in vain.
Jesus neither claims nor denies that he is the Messiah…rather he proclaims that the kingdom of God is at hand. “Go tell John what you hear and see: The blind receive their sight, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes not offense at me.”
He may also know that this litany of miracles follows a pattern set by Isaiah over 600 years before now. It is captured in Canticle 15, titled the Song of Mary, or the Magnificat.
It is also in the first reading this Sunday – these familiar themes emerge: the eyes of the blind are opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame leap like a deer.
Jesus’ reply to John references not just this passage from Isaiah but others as well. One wonders if John is waiting for Jesus to fulfill Isaiah 61:1, “liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Perhaps this most personal of dashed hopes causes his doubts to rise.
And so we, gathered here on this cold morning, well into Advent and with the celebrations of Christmas merely days away, are also being asked to consider our own response to Jesus’ statement reflecting the coming of God’s Kingdom.
Well I must admit that on one hand it is a bit of a bother, but on the other hand, we are stopped right here, right now, amid the chaos and hubbub of our pre-Christmas lives, so we might as well take a moment to reflect on our own concerns, perhaps our own expectations of how things were supposed to look, even a recent life event which leaves us feeling more grief than glory at the prospect of the coming of the Messiah, our Lord and Savior.
Four years ago I sat in these pews and felt pretty sad. It was the first Christmas following the recent death of Ann, my partner of many years. Bittersweet memories of a life shared and now a life gone, permeated my experience on that Christmas Eve. Oh the music was beautiful, and the crèche a familiar place upon which I rested my gaze. Knowing the Eucharist was a part of the liturgy brought me solace.
And still, my mind wandered to thoughts of where we had traveled over our 35 years of living together and for some reason, as I sat here that night, they rested on images of the accumulation of our shared Christmas ornaments – some of which I had been collecting since my own childhood. We had even had a temple of sorts built to keep all of the boxes of them high and dry. It was a miniature of our own home.
It is funny the things that arise in our mind’s eye when we are intentionally silent, and simply sit with ourselves.
It is then that we might find ourselves considering such questions as John posed so long ago:
Where is this promise-land? The one filled with people of good will? Where will I find this miracle of Christmas?
The question asked by the imprisoned John the Baptist lives on in the journey each of us has embarked upon as seekers of the Truth. “Are you the one who was to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Where is it and with whom will our body, our minds, our very soul find the peace of the promised One?
In closing I would like to share a very short story with you.
Martin, the Cobbler, is Leo Tolstoy’s story about a lonely shoemaker who is promised in a dream that Christ will come to visit his shop.
The next day Martin rises early, gets his shop ready, prepares a meal and waits. The only one who showed up in the morning was an old beggar who came by and asked for rest. Martin gave him a room he had prepared for his divine guest. The only one to show up in the afternoon was an old lady with a heavy load of wood. She was hungry and asked for food. He gave her the food he had prepared for his divine guest. As evening came, a lost boy wandered by. Martin took him home, afraid all the while he would miss the Christ. That night in his prayers he asks the Lord, “Where were You? I waiting all day for You.”
The Lord said to Martin:
“Three times I came to your friendly door, Three times my shadow was on your floor. I was a beggar with bruised feet.
I was the woman you gave to eat.
I was the homeless child on the street.”
Watch out! Christ may be closer than you imagine.
1 Source: **(Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, V, 2). ‘Not Thirsty-Bible Studies’