Luke 7:18-35 / Advent 3C / 16 December 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
“Are you the One who is to come or do we look for another?” The question comes from the darkness of a dungeon. The voice in the wilderness has been silenced, reduced to sending pairs of messengers to speak on his behalf. The prophet of repentance has been jailed for calling the king to repentance. Prophetic preaching is dangerous work. The one who came to bear witness to the light sits in darkness awaiting a certain martyr’s death.
“Are you the One who is to come or do we look for another?” Many have attempted to probe the mind and heart of John in order to parse the question. Did he doubt? He had good reasons. Where was the axe swinging at the root? Where was the winnowing fork sorting the wheat from the chaff? Where was the baptism with holy wind and fire? Did he point to the wrong one? Are you the coming Messiah, Jesus, the Lamb of God, the one so great that I am not worthy to untie your sandals? Or do we look for someone else?
Perhaps John was sending his disciples for their benefit. Maybe this was the only way he could point to Jesus now. Send his disciples two by two to Jesus and have Jesus speak for himself. Perhaps John knew that the day was fast approaching when his own head would be served up on a silver platter, a reward to his step-daughter for pleasing his lecherous friends at his birthday party with her seductive dance. A request from her mother, Herodius, who hated John with a passion that exceeded her adulterous lust. Herod feared John and was all too glad to get rid of this nuisance. Surely John knew he would not get out of this dark dungeon alive.
John is proxy. As the last of the prophets, John asks the question on behalf of all of Old Testament Israel who was watching and waiting. “Are you the coming One?” He asks it on behalf of Malachi and Zechariah and Obadiah. Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses and Elijah and Adam. Are you the One we saw in type? Are you the One who walked with Adam in the cool of the day, whom Moses heard in the burning bush? Are you the Passover Lamb, the Priest, the Prophet, the King, the Servant who suffers for the people?
“Are you the One who is to come or do we look for another?” Perhaps you have entertained the question in your own mind and heart as you sit in your own version of the darkness. Maybe you are entertaining that question this morning, as we all dwell on 26 people including 20 kindergartners gunned down by a 20 year old man, barely an adult himself, for reasons we will never know or that will make any sense to us.
We know that the world is dangerous, filled with violence and violent people and insanity and weapons. We know that, and at some level, we accept it as part of our lives. But surely the One who held the little ones in His arms and blessed them, the One who said, “Unless you become as little children you cannot enter my kingdom,” the One who raised the widow’s son and Jairus’ daughter from the dead, surely that One could have done something to protect 20 little ones trapped in their own classroom. He could have sent angels, the ones whose faces always behold the face of His Father in heaven. But He did not.
I cannot begin to imagine the grief of twenty mothers and fathers, of 27 families, including the family of the young man who did this, whose grandmother was inconsolable and could not speak to inquiring minds who wanted to hear from her. Wouldn’t you be too, if that was your grandson?
I cannot summon up enough empathy to begin to know how it feels to send a child off to school in the morning with the usual perfunctory kiss good-bye and “I love yous” exchanged and then to hear on the radio or see on television that there is a gunman lose in the school. I can’t begin to fathom the anxious moments and hours as you await the news, whether happy or horrible, of your child’s fate inside that school. I personally do not want to know more than I already know. I want the news to be quiet now. I want the politicians and pundits and public religious people to be quiet. I don’t want to think about it anymore. I want the whole thing to recede back into the darkness from whence it came.
And in the darkest dungeon of your doubts and fears and expectations, you too may be asking the dark question – Are you the One, or do I look for another?
We expect God to act on our behalf. We expect God to act on the side of truth and justice. We expect God to act against evil and sickness and darkness. We prayed in the Litany that He would protect us from “sudden and evil death” and we expect Him to hear our prayers and act on them. Or why would we even chanted the line?
John expected an axe of God’s wrath, a winnowing fork of judgment, a consuming fire, a holy wind. John expected a “messiah” – a strong man, a leader, an emancipator, a warrior and revolutionary, one who would come and set God’s people free. One who would come and restore throne and temple. One who would come to establish the kingdom of God upon the earth where lion and lamb, the carnivore and the herbivore, could lie together in peace and a little child could play near the adder’s den, and go to school, in safety.
John received something unexpected. A baptized messiah willing to stand in solidarity with sinners. A humble messiah willing to eat with tax collectors and prostitutes. A lowly messiah who refused to use His divine power to feed his hunger or establish his kingdom. A meek messiah who endured the beatings of a world who didn’t want him. A crucified messiah who conquered the darkness by diving headlong into the darkness, who defeated Death by being swallowed up into Death, and taking the world along for the ride.
“Are you the One who is to come or shall we look for another?” The two disciples dutifully ask the dark question of Jesus. And in that hour, at that very moment, before their very eyes, Jesus did many signs – healing the sick, the lame, the demonized. Messiah-signs. “Go back and tell John what you have seen and heard. Tell John about the blind man who can see, the leper who can return home to his family, the lame man who is dancing, the poor who hear the good news. Tell John what you have seen and heard.”
And say this to John too: ‘Blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me.'” Make sure John hears that last sentence. Be sure you hear it. “Blessed in the one who is not scandalized my me.” Blessed is the one who does not stumble over my apparent weakness, my unwillingness to use power, my apparent impotence against the forces of darkness, my power perfected in weakness, my victory hidden in defeat. Blessed is the one who believes in spite of what he sees, who sees life in my death, who sees the kingdom in my cross.
The darkness of the dungeon and the silence of the Scriptures forbid us from seeing John’s reaction to the news when the two disciples returned to tell John what they had seen and heard. Did he smile? Did he laugh? Did he shed a tear? Did he dance for joy? Or like Mary at the manger, did he quietly ponder these things in his own heart?
Jesus called John “the greatest born of woman.” A prophet and more than a prophet. A messenger of the Lord, a voice in the wilderness, a witness to the Light. A hard-edged unyielding man who would not bend to the blowing winds of his time. A wilderness man whose skin was rubbed raw by camel’s hair and who munched locusts when he was hungry. An ascetic who renounced the world, who wanting nothing to do with the world’s food and drink, whom the religious rejected as “demonized” or as we would say, “crazy.”
Even in the darkness of the dungeon, even as he utters the unspeakably dark and doubting question, “Are you the One?” John is great. John leveled mountains, he filled in valleys, he paved the road for Jesus. John was not the Light but the Light’s witness. The pointer, the guide. He must now decrease; Christ must increase. He is the moon shining with reflected light in the darkness of night. Christ is the sun shining in the brightness of day.
How different Jesus is from His cousin John. No camel’s hair but soft, swaddling clothes and a comfortable tunic worth gambling for. No locusts and wild honey, but a friend and table companion to tax collectors, hookers, and losers of all sorts. Not a wild man of the wilderness, but a carpenter from Nazareth. Not frightening and threatening, but humble, meek, and lowly. A gentle, beggar of a king whose kingdom is not of this world.
But don’t be fooled or scandalized. Beneath Jesus’ weakness is power. Under His bruised heal is the crushed head of devil. Under the wounds of His hands, His feet, His side is the healing of the nations. Under his crown of thorns is the healing of Sin’s insanity. Under His cry of abandonment and dereliction, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” is the embrace and love of God for a world gone mad and hurtling at the speed of light to an appointed day of destruction.
The end of this week marks the shortest day and longest night in the northern hemisphere. The darkness deepens, Lord with us abide. The darkness is even a bit deeper in tragic death, in the death of innocents like the babies of Bethlehem and the children of Newtown, Connecticut. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?” Where is the Light that we may see and know and understand and believe? Are you the One who is to come or shall we in our darkened despair look for another?
Jesus comes to us in the Advent darkness. He comes with Word and Sign. A cleansing bath of Baptism. The Body and Blood that bring forgiveness, life, and salvation. The Word the speaks a greater truth than the truth of your sin, your doubt, your despair. Light in the darkness. You are forgiven, my child, you are free. Your God has not abandoned you but has embraced you in these most God-forsaken of times. The Light has not gone out but shines in the darkness beckoning you, “Come to me, all you who are burdened and weary and frightened and alone and despairing. And I will give you rest and peace.”
Tell John what you have seen and heard. He inclines his ear from the darkness of his dungeon, waiting to hear good news from you. He is the bereaved parent, the anguished teacher, the frightened child. He is your neighbor and friend locked in the prison house of sin and death waiting to hear what you have seen and heard from Jesus, that his sin is covered, that he is justified, that there is light in the darkness and life in death, and meaning in suffering, and gain in loss all thanks to Jesus. Tell John about the signs – sinners cleansed from the leprosy of sin in Baptism, the dead raised to life by the word of forgiveness, the hungry and thirsty refreshed in the Body and Blood of the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.
Blessed is the one who is not scandalized by the cross of Jesus. Blessed is the one who has not seen and yet believes. Blessed is the one who sees the dawning Day in the darkness. Blessed are you, trusting that Jesus is the One who is to come and you need not look for another.
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Come soon, Lord Jesus!
In the name of Jesus,