Hanging on to Hope

Matthew 2:2-11
Revelation 21:3-4
3rd Sunday of Advent
Rev. Tricia Dillon Thomas

John the Baptist is not really a character I had paid much attention
to. I thought he was rather strange, eccentric. Called those he
was sharing the good news with, a ‘brood of vipers’ (and I knew
that model of ministry wouldn’t hold up very well in a newly
chartered church in LWR). I knew he wandered the desert, I knew
he ate, what my husband likes to call a combination of salty
and sweet—locusts and honey, I knew he had a really bad choice
of wardrobe on a pretty big day. I mean, really, camel hair,
leather belts…he couldn’t dress it up a little more for the baptism
of…OUR LORD!? I knew he preached repentance and that he
was preparing the way for the Lord. And I know the Lord did
indeed come, and John baptized him, and witnessed the heavens
tear open as God declared Jesus “beloved.” I know these stories,
but everyone kind of falls to the shadows when Jesus is around,
so I hadn’t really given too much thought to the character of
John. I met John, anew, however when I came to today’s
scripture. So let us hear together how the spirit is
speaking to her church…

Read Matthew 2:2‐11.

This is such an interesting passage. It seems to be a passage about
identities. Who is John? Who are we? Who is Jesus?

I don’t know if you caught that first part, so listen again: “John sent
his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come,
or are we to wait for another?”

That seemed strange to me at first. That John, who preached in
preparation for the Lord, baptized the Lord, and watched as our Lord
was declared beloved, would all of a sudden be asking, “Are you for
real?” Of all people, John should have known Jesus was for real. He
prepared the way for him. What changed?

The first verse reads, “When John heard in prison what the
Messiah was doing…” What’s changed, is that John is in prison.
He’s been put in prison for a variety of reasons, specifically
because John told Herod it was wrong for him to marry
his niece; but generally because John was considered a prophet,
and the good news he preached didn’t seem so good for the
wealthy and powerful. He was threatening to them. So
Herod had him arrested.

But being arrested in John’s time is different than being arrested
in ours. And John knows this. He knows prison isn’t a
punishment in and of itself, like in our society; he won’t stay
there to serve out a term.

Prison, in John’s time is a holding cell for one of three actions:
exoneration‐he can be let go; exile‐he can be forced to flee
the country; or execution‐he can be put to death. John led a
faithful life (Jesus, in fact, calls him the greatest prophet ever
born later in the passage), and John knows his faith forced
him to take stances that put him at great risk of
losing his life. And that’s what’s changed.

The question John asks, “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for?”
all of a sudden has urgency. Are you for real, John is asking?
Are you the Messiah? Because I have lived my life in preparation
for your coming, and the time has come for me, and I need to know
that you are the real thing. That there is not another. That you
are the one that is to bring in a new heaven and a new earth.

This past week Gretchen and I studied this passage together. And
when we talked about what John was really asking Jesus, she said,
“Isn’t this the question we all ask when it comes down to it?” John
is suffering; he is scared, powerless, removed. He wonders, we all
wonder when we near the end, did I take the path I was supposed
to? And Gretchen’s right, when the urge for clarity is high, even the
most faithful turn to God and ask, “Are you for real?” This life I’ve
led. It’s been hard, and I’ve tried to be faithful, was it worth it?
ARE you for real? ”

Have you seen the Movie, A Christmas Story? It’s a really funny
movie I grew up watching, and most of it is focused on the
antics of an elementary aged boy named Ralphie who really wants
this one present for Christmas. So fast forward, it’s Christmas
morning and Ralphie can hardly contain himself. His parents
finally give the go ahead, and he and his younger brother tear
through the boxes. Wrapping paper is flying and we see Ralphie
and his brother open their first gift. It’s something like underwear
and socks. Present two, again paper flying, anticipation high,
and wah‐wah‐wah…matching bunny suits that his mother
makes them immediately try on. Time goes by, and we watch
Ralphie and his brother open all their gifts.

After Ralphie has opened his last present we can tell he is really
grateful for his gifts, but what he really wanted is missing. And
he turns to his father with eyes that seem to express his yearning,
and his father says, “What’s that over there behind the tree,
Ralphie?” Ralphie races over reads the tag and sees it is for him.
The anticipation of the entire story line boils over as Ralphie tears
the wrapping paper away from the gift he had waited for all season.

Immediately after addressing John, Jesus turns to the crowd
who has overheard this conversation, and asks, “What did you go
out in to the wilderness to look at?” Jesus is referring back to
Matthew 3 when the crowds (even the Pharisees and Sadducees)
meet John in the wilderness to hear him preach.

Why were you there? He asks them no less than three times:
What did you go there to see? A crazy miracle worker? No?
What then did you go out to see? A king? No?
What then did you go out to see? A prophet?

What did they go out to see? What were they hoping to find in the
wilderness?

What do we go out to see? Why do we come to church every
Sunday? What are we hoping for? Is it the fellowship, the classes,
maybe it’s to hear great preaching…it’s not that we aren’t grateful
for this building, or these people, or these classes, or even the
preaching. We are, we are thankful for these gifts, but we come
because we yearn for something more. Like Ralphie, we raise our
eyes towards our father because we yearn for what we’ve been
given a glimpse of.

In our passage Jesus answers John by telling John’s disciples
to return and describe what they have seen and heard: 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! This might seem an abstract answer to those
of us not rooted in the scriptures, but by announcing the
fulfillment of these things, Jesus is confirming that he is
indeed the Messiah as was written by the prophet Isaiah.

In advent we prepare. John prepared the world for the coming
of the Lord. And the Christmas gift came; it came in the
form of a baby.

Christmas is a season of waiting and anticipation. We hope
that the morning will open our eyes, will bring us clean hearts.
But our hope is sometimes mired by the ambiguity of life.
As Gretchen confirmed, when the time is near, the
frivolousness melts away, and what is important becomes
urgent.

So Jesus answered John, I am for real. Look at what you have
seen and what you have heard. And while it is comforting
to know that Jesus dwelled on this earth and took on the
suffering of this world, it’s not where our hope lies.
This Christmas miracle is only a glimpse of what is to come.
Jesus the Messiah, the Emmanuel, showed us what the kingdom
on earth can be.

Here these words from Revelation:

READ REVELATION.

Because we have seen and heard, we need not fear, but hope.

I love this picture. It’s a collage done by Judi. This is what I
hope for.This is what I imagine when our Lord comes again.
That like the scriptures promise, we will dwell with God and
we will be God’s people. And God will embrace us, and wipe
away every tear, and death, and mourning, and pain, and
crying, will be no more. Friends, this is where we place our
hope. This is Christian hope. In the promise of Christ’s return.

In Christ’s ministry we’ve seen the lame walk and the prisoner
set free. And so we wait. We wait for the day when all will be
made whole and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Amen.