This past Sunday, we had our Lessons and Carols at 10:30, which meant I didn’t preach at that service. Instead, the choir and the rest of the music program did the heavy lifting of expounding on the Scripture through music and song. It was lovely. (I know there’s been a recent kurfuffle on Twitter about the the Anglican choral tradition, but look–if it is authentic to your people, your cultural context and you can pull it off? Go nuts. I personally love our choral heritage…along with the diversity of music that has made up the mosaic of worship in our history. Just don’t get all fan-boy “My fave is THE ONLY WAY” about it.)
I did write a sermon (sermonette?) for 8am, so that they were not left comfortless. Also, I really love this gospel from Matthew, where Jesus praises John the Baptist before he dies.
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
December 15, 2019
Advent 3, Year A
Matthew (what did you go into the wilderness to see?)
Now, by all that is right, we should be talking about Mary this week. We’ve lit the pink candle and we are saying the Magnificat. However, in Year A, we stay with John the Baptist a little bit longer, and so we get this little interlude between Jesus and John’s disciples, after John was thrown in jail.
Recall—Herod The King was a not-nice human. Among his poor decisions was killing his siblings and marrying his brother’s wife. Herod was kept in power by Rome, because he was kinda-sorta Jewish, and he built a lot of cities. so Rome thought the local population would LOVE him. (Like a first century token!)
Lots of devout Jews found him to be AWFUL, however, because of the murdering, the paranoia, and the sister-in-law-marrying. John, in particular-had some objections. So Herod puts him in jail. (He’s going to end up killing him, which John could probably see coming.)
And in this moment of despair, John sends his followers to Jesus, asking if he is the Messiah—the one John has spent his whole life advocating for. It’s pretty moving, really. You can imagine poor John, in a prison cell, in a moment of weakness, and doubt, asking if his whole life has been wrong.
Jesus reacts differently to this request than he does to a lot of the other queries about who he is—he doesn’t dodge or flip the question around. He says “Go and tell John what you see. The lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind receive their sight.” In other words, don’t be afraid to believe this good news. It’s right here.
In Isaiah today, the prophet paints a fairly fantastic picture of what will happen in the future. He’s telling the exiled people of Israel who were carried off to parts unknown that one day, they will get to go home. And when they do, the desert will bloom, and the desert animals will become friendly and cuddly, and all of the natural world will transform with the glory of what God has brought about.
The imagery is somewhat outlandish. Deserts are, by definition, unfriendly, unhospitable places. They want to kill you. Everything out there is dangerous. But Isaiah is UNDETERRED. God is going to make it happen! He insists. Just you wait. Expect it!
And indeed, the exiles of Israel do go home. After a time. Unbelievable as it seems, Cyrus the Persian lets them go home and rebuild.
Unbelievable as it seems, Jesus repeats the words of Isaiah back to John’s disciples, in order to reassure them. Remember that unbelievable thing that God did? It’s happening again.
Jesus’ speech about John is a reminder about expectations. Because expectations are a big part of faith. Isaiah encourages us to expect God to do amazing, impossible things. And Jesus reminds the crowd that when they went to see John, they expected something incredible, even if they had trouble really putting words to it. As people of faith, it is our right to expect God to act, to expect God to make that desert transform. To do the improbable.
This doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility—we have a part to play too. And we do our bit, trying to follow where God leads. But we should expect God to act, and act gloriously to transform our world, even when, and especially when things seem the most dire. Because God does act. And when we learn to expect it, then we can learn to see it. We can learn to see God showing up in marvelous ways, transforming the world around us, and making the inhospitable places safe and lifegiving.