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In the Desert, A Rose

Sunday, December 15, 2019. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

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Just as we are waiting during Advent for the Messiah to come to us, in the pages of Scripture John the Baptist and others were also waiting for the Messiah to come, and they appear to have had certain expectations of what that would be like.  Our passage from Matthew begins with John the Baptist – last week we encountered him out in the Judean wilderness – only now he has been arrested and put in prison.  Last week, in Matthew 3, John preached about the need for repentance, about the coming One who would set things right, who would establish God’s kingdom of righteousness.  John spoke of how the coming One, the Messiah, would establish this kingdom with fire and with a winnowing fork, separating out the good wheat, who would be cherished and kept, from the wicked chaff, who would be burned with unquenchable fire.

We can’t be sure exactly what John had in mind, but it seems possible, maybe even likely, that John expected the Messiah to clean house.  To go through the streets of Galilee and Jerusalem with a sword in hand, using whatever means necessary to establish the kingdom of God and to overturn the kingdom of Caesar.  He would restore the kingdom to Israel, bringing judgment upon the enemies of God, and doing so with righteousness.

Then Jesus came.  And he began to engage in his ministry. He spoke the Beatitudes to the disciples and the crowds.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn.”  He spoke of turning the other cheek to challenge your aggressor, rather than lashing out violently at them.  He spoke of loving your enemies.  He healed lepers, who were deemed unclean by the good religious people.  He healed people who were possessed by demons.  He ate dinner with a lot of tax collectors and sinners, people who were outside the “system,” and about as far from being thought of as “righteous” as you could get.

It’s perhaps no wonder that in Matthew 11, John appears a little puzzled, and sends a message to Jesus asking him, “Um, are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?”  Jesus’ work did not look quite like the sort of Messiah that John was expecting.  John may have been among those who wanted victory now, and it seemed that Jesus was willing to work much more slowly.

According to Matthew, Jesus and John started out on the same page.  In 3:2, John begins his ministry by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  In 4:17, Jesus began his ministry by saying – wait for it – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Word for word.

Both men proclaimed a kingdom characterized by righteousness.  The distinction appears to have been in how the righteous kingdom would be established.  John may have been among those who expected God to impose the kingdom of heaven upon the world, whereas Jesus came to give birth to the kingdom of heaven from within.  John wanted the Messiah to crush the wicked, whereas Jesus came to heal and redeem the wicked.  John expected the day of the Lord to arrive swiftly and decisively and obviously.  Jesus brought the kingdom patiently and slowly.

One of the hard teachings about this passage, and others like it, is that God can sometimes disappoint us.  We may have very clear ideas about what we want God to do, when we want God to do it, and how we want God to act. “God, give me a sign, and I’ll start acting differently.”  “God, if you’ll help me pass this test, I promise I’ll start doing what you want.”  “God, please, just give me a good parking spot at Tyson’s this afternoon.”  And those are just the blatant ones.  Most of the time, we know that these are somewhat silly.

But there are other prayers that are not so silly.  “God, make my family member’s pain go away.” “God, help my loved one recover from their addiction.” “God, bring your justice into the world.”  “God, strengthen and build the common good, and deepen the connections between people on opposite sides of the aisle.”  “God, heal the powers of racism, within us and within our society.”  “God, feed the hungry, and give the homeless a place to live.”  In John the Baptist’s day, one such prayer would have been something like, “God, set your people free from the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire.”

These are the kinds of urgent prayers that throb at the heart of our faith.  They are the kind that we say through gritted teeth and tears.  They are the deepest, hardest prayers we pray.  Some of the time, we get the answer we want.  But some of the time, we don’t.  We may join John in asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Jesus, are you listening to me?  Are you paying attention?

In response to John, Jesus calls on our other text this morning, from Isaiah 35.  Isaiah 35 foretold what God’s kingdom would look like: “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the lame shall leap, the mute shall sing, the deaf shall hear.”  Jesus even adds a few of his own: the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, the poor hear good news.  Jesus says, “These things are happening, here and there, and if you are paying attention, you’ll notice them.  God’s kingdom is breaking in, but it’s not coming by force.  It’s often coming in small, quiet ways, among losses and failures and weaknesses.  If you’re looking for massive, big ways, you may be disappointed.  The big ways tend to be the violent ways of Rome and the imperial powers. God often comes in small, humble ways.  Remember,” Jesus says, “I came as a little child, born in a manger.”

There is a two-fold dynamic to Advent and Christmas.  On the one hand, like John, we need to continue acting and praying for the deep and large changes, for there is great pain in the world, there is much cruelty in the world, there are unjust systems in the world that need to be changed.  But we also keep our eyes alert for the smaller signs of healing, the local signs of newness, the humble signs of liberation and freedom.  Christ comes to us, but it’s not always the way we expect it.  Christ does not come with guns blazing to establish his rule.  Christ comes gently, as a small child born to a young, refugee couple that had to flee to Egypt to avoid the violent brutality of King Herod.  Christ comes to establish his rule, but he does so in divine weakness and humility.  Christ comes to us in our blindness, our weakness, and our failures, the dry lands rejoice, and in the desert, we find a rose.  To God be all the glory.  AMEN.