The Third Sunday of Advent: A Sermon

Readings

How to do justice to today’s readings? The pink candle in our Advent Wreath signals a break from the penitential purple, so we’ll start there, with Mary’s joy.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, / my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; / for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” God is faithful; God is keeping faith with the promises, whether to the patriarchs, as Mary recalls, or with that vision from Isaiah we heard in our first reading: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, / the desert shall rejoice and blossom; / like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, / and rejoice with joy and singing.” No theory here; Mary’s body is telling her that on a daily basis.

And some years later that fruit of Mary’s body will pick up Isaiah’s words: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

So these readings in the middle of Advent are giving us, as it were, a preview of coming attractions. Mary and her song will be vindicated, not only in Jesus’ ministry, but in the Israel he renews—and Mary lives to see its beginnings. Recall Luke’s words early in Acts: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (2:44-47).

These texts (Isaiah’s vision, Mary’s song, Jesus’ words) help us hear James’ words about patience more clearly. Appeals to patience can be cloaked calls to accept impotence. There’s nothing you can do, so shut up. Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary: “Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” That’s not what James is talking about. This Lord, whose presence has waters breaking forth in the wilderness, streams flowing in the desert, this Lord whose dependability Mary celebrated, this Lord whose mercy Jesus enacted: this Lord is “at the doors.” We can trust that, put our weight on that, be patient. It’s out of our hands in the best of all possible senses.

Alleluia? Alleluia!

And in the middle of all this John the Baptist’s question comes as a real buzz-kill. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It’s an understandable question. We heard some of John’s preaching last week: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). John could have pointed to Isaiah’s vision: “Here is your God. / He will come with vengeance, / with terrible recompense. / He will come and save you.” John’s in prison and could use some of that “come and save.” John’s neck is on the line. Jesus has been very good at the blind seeing, deaf hearing, lame walking part, but not so much at the vengeance/terrible recompense part. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Why is Jesus giving more attention to some parts of that Isaiah vision than others? It has to do, I think, with the cumulative effect of the prophets’ witness. God’s job as judge in traditional theology is to vindicate the innocent and punish the guilty. Israel—like every nation—likes to believe that she’s innocent so God’s job is to vindicate her. So the prophets have an uphill battle from the start, not to argue that Israel is worse than the other nations, but that Israel is no better than the other nations. So calling for vengeance and terrible recompense is perhaps not a good idea. We need God’s justice; we need God’s mercy more.

All credit to John for posing the question. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And if my bumper sticker summary of God’s job description is “Gather the wheat and burn the chaff,” with the natural assumption that I’m among the innocent, I’m going to go with “wait for another.” Or not. Because the other option—which pops up repeatedly in the church’s history—is to confess Jesus and yoke him to the “Gather the wheat and burn the chaff” agenda.

Last week in reflecting on Romans I recalled that by the end of the second century we Gentile Christians were giving Jewish Christians the cold shoulder. That was partly the product of long-standing Jewish-Gentile hostility dating centuries before Jesus. But it also provided a convenient way for us Gentiles to see ourselves as the innocent: it was the Jews who cried “Crucify him!” Not us. We wouldn’t have done that. They’re the chaff; we’re the wheat. However many times we join in the confession of sin, for many of us there’s still a part thinking “Yea, but we’re still the good guys.”

If what I’ve bought into is some version of Jesus plus “Gather the wheat and burn the chaff,” then I’ve got the monumental task of continually persuading others and myself of my own innocence. And there are some days when that feels like a really attractive option, e.g., the period immediately following 9/11. Or I can try to pay attention to what Jesus actually does, and realize—slowly—that Jesus’ coming is good news for me not because I’m innocent but because Jesus came to save and transform guilty folk like me.

That’s the ironic thing about John’s question. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” That looks like a question about Jesus. Turns out it’s a question about us: who do we think we are, what do we think we need?

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