|Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C||January 17, 2016||Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C||John 2:1-11, I Corinthians 12:1-11, Psalm 36:5-10|
|First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C||January 10, 2016||First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C||Luke 3:15-17, 21-22|
|The Epiphany, 2016||January 6, 2016||The Epiphany||Isaiah 60:1-6|
|Second Sunday after Christmas, Year C||January 3, 2016||The Second Sunday after Christmas, Year C||Jeremiah 31:7-14, Psalm 84, Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23|
|Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2015||December 24, 2015||Christmas Eve||Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-20|
|Advent 3, Year C||December 13, 2015||Third Sunday of Advent, Year C||Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18|
|Advent 2, Year C||December 6, 2015||Second Sunday of Advent, Year C||Malachi 3:1-4|
|Advent 1, Year C||November 29, 2015||First Sunday of Advent||Luke 21:25-36, I Thessalonians 3:9-13|
|Christ the King, Year B||November 22, 2015||Christ the King Sunday, Year B||Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37|
|Pentecost 25, Year B||November 15, 2015||Proper 28B||Daniel 12:1-3, Hebrews 10:19-25, Mark 13:1-8|
|Pentecost 24, Year B||November 8, 2015||Proper 27, Year B||I Kings 17:8-16, Mark 12:38-44|
|All Saints’ Day||November 1, 2015||All Saints’ Day, Year B||Psalm 137, Psalm 6, Psalm 56, Isaiah 25:6-9, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44|
|Pentecost 22, Year B||October 25, 2015||Proper 25, Year B||Jeremiah 31:7-9, Mark 10:46-52|
|Pentecost 21, Year B||October 18, 2015||Proper 24, Year B||Isaiah 53:4-12, Mark 10:35-45|
|The Feast of St Francis||October 4, 2015||The Feast of St Francis||Matthew 11:25-30|
Third Sunday in Advent, Year A
Sermon Date:December 15, 2013
Scripture: Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-11
Liturgy Calendar: Third Sunday in Advent, Year A
Stuck in rush hour.
I try to avoid this waste of time on I-95 in my travels back and forth to the seminary, but sometimes sitting in traffic is unavoidable.
On one of those evenings on my way home, as I poked along at about five miles an hour, with bright red tail lights like a river of Christmas decorations that stretched as far as I could see ahead of me, I turned on the radio.
And this is what I heard.
A young man named Taylor Muse was talking about his indie rock band, Quiet Company. Taylor grew up in Texas as a devout Christian. His whole life as a young person centered around church—youth group, playing music in the youth group, mission trips, worship—sounded like my youth in the church—minus the guitar—I got a guitar, but never really learned to play it well. But the rest, yes.
But what fascinated me was how our similar backgrounds diverged as adults—because Taylor’s current rock band, Quiet Company, is no longer a Christian rock band. It’s an atheist rock band.
Here’s why. Taylor said that as he got older, he felt less and less connected to his faith. One day he came home and said to his wife, “You know, I don’t think I believe any of this anymore.”
And when pressed by the reporter, he said the reason for his change of heart is that he has never heard Jesus speak to him. Therefore, he no longer believes in Christianity, and has stopped calling himself a Christian.
Now don’t get me wrong. Taylor is still a good person. He’s not exactly comfortable with the “atheist” label. His viewpoints are what we’d call “humanist.”
He’d second the closing paragraph of the humanist writer, A. C. Grayling, who sums up this philosophy of life with the following words in his recently published book, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism.
“Humanism is about human life; it requires no belief in an afterlife. It is about this world; it requires no belief in another world. It requires no commands from divinities, no promises of reward or threats of punishment, no myths and rituals, either to make sense of things or to serve as a prompt to the ethical life. It requires only clear eyes, reason and kindness; and with them a determination to make the world the best place it can be for the flourishing of creativity, good possibilities, and the affections of the human heart.”
And so Taylor’s latest album is all about putting away his Christianity and adapting this new set of beliefs that doesn’t include Jesus, because Taylor hasn’t heard Jesus speak to him.
In today’s gospel, John the Baptist, that fiery prophet who has pointed to Jesus as the Messiah, is locked away in one of Herod’s fortress prisons.
And he’s feeling stuck—in this time of sitting in what must have been a small dark cell, with nothing to do but think, John, as a prophet, must have mulled over the words of all of his prophetic predecessors who predicted the coming of a Messiah, and he’s starting to have his doubts about Jesus as the Messiah who is to come.
And so he sends his disciples to ask Jesus this question. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
I like John’s honesty, and I also like the honesty of Taylor Muse, because they’re both daring to question their beliefs.
But there’s a stark difference here in how they question.
John, of course, had the luxury of more or less asking his question to Jesus directly.
Now I don’t know how Taylor questioned, but as Episcopalians, we’d hold this question up to what we know about Jesus through scripture, through the tradition of the church’s teaching, and through prayer.
The season of Advent, and this Sunday’s scriptures in particular, remind us that questioning our faith is part of our preparation for God’s coming into the world as one of us. And we’re often too busy, or too scared of where our questioning might take us, to question our faith.
“Are you the one who has come, or are we to wait for another?” Or even, is there anyone at all we’re waiting for? Is all of this just a nice story that has no meaning for our lives?
In his answer to John, Jesus reminds John to turn back to all of scripture—not just to the prophecies that have already shaped John’s ministry. Jesus wants John to see the complete picture in order to find the answer to his question.
Not only will the Messiah hold a winnowing fork in his hand and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire,as John has preached to the crowds, but the Messiah to come will also hold healing, light and life in his hands. And the Messiah will suffer.
The hard part of considering all of prophetic scripture is that we may not like the complete picture—judgment and unquenchable fire being two of the things that aren’t particularly attractive in our culture.
And no one likes to suffer. At the time of his question to Jesus, John was suffering in a prison cell for his outspokenness, and he probably guessed that this time would end with his death. Where was the healing, light and life that Jesus brought for John? We know that soon, Herod will order John’s death and his head will appear on a platter for the merriment of the guests at one of Herod’s parties.
In Chapter 34 of Isaiah, right before the poetic reading we’ve heard today, Isaiah’s oracle is about the day of vengeance, the year of vindication for the nations who have turned away from God.
This chapter and prophetic passages like it, probably spoke to John—wouldn’t the Messiah bring this vengeance on the evil doers—Herod, the Roman empire, the very people who were afflicting him?
But in the answer Jesus sends to John, Jesus wants John to consider the very next chapter of Isaiah, the one we’ve heard today, and the one that Jesus references in his answer to John, with its images of healing, light and life, the desert rejoicing and blossoming, the eyes of the blind opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame leaping like a deer, the tongues of the speechless singing for joy, waters breaking forth in the wilderness, streams in the desert,
And most hopeful of all—a highway shall be there, called the Holy Way, for God’s people, and no traveler on this highway, not even a fool, shall go astray.
The message Jesus was sending to John was this—remember, you are God’s person, and you are walking on this highway through the desert, on this Holy Way, even if you’re in a dark and dreary place right now.
And your job right now is to stay on the Highway—to stay the course, even though you’re being held prisoner in Herod’s dark dungeon.
Walking on the Holy Way will give John, and now gives us, the courage to stay the course, to know that even as we walk through the desolations in our own lives, and feel waylaid and imprisoned by them, that ultimately we will not go astray.
Because here’s the thing—staying on the highway will eventually bring us to our destination, and our destination is not only being in God’s presence in the future, but also experiencing the richness of God’s presence here and now.
“Everlasting joy shall be upon our heads; we shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
According to A. C. Grayling, the humanist writer I quoted earlier in this sermon, “other sources of individual comfort and inspiration are far better than religion—they include love and friendship, family life, art, the pursuit of knowledge and the outlook and principles of humanism.”
In humanism, God is gone. And although we experience joy through love, friendship, family life and art, a deeper dimension of joy is missing.
The Hebrew noun for joy not only means the expression of that emotion, but one of its technical uses in Hebrew scripture, according to The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Red Letter Edition, is that joy is “the entire activity of making a feast before God.” Deep joy is an action on our parts, connecting us with God and with one another, as the activity of making a sacrificial feast before God did for the Jewish people.
We make a feast before God when we study scripture.
We make a feast before God when we spend time in the companionship of those in the Christian community, walking the Holy Way in the company of God and with one another, with God as our horizon and our destination.
And we make a feast before God in prayer.
Setting aside time for God in prayer allows us to hear Jesus speaking to us, especially when we wonder and ask the question that John asked Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
So during these last two weeks of Advent, stay the course. Even when you’re feeling stuck, be determined to stay on the Holy Way, because even as we pass through the doubts and the deserts and dry lands of our lives, if we journey along the Holy Way that God has laid out for us, making our feast before God, everlasting joy will soon be upon our heads, and we will obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Red Letter Edition, edited by James Strong, LLD, STD. Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN. 2001.
Grayling, A.C. The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism. Bloomsbury, NY. 2013.