Sometimes it is difficult to have “enduring” faith. For example, if you’re standing in the open door of an airplane about to make a parachute jump, you have to have trust in your instructors, in your training and in the equipment to step out into the air and fall away from the plane. You have to trust that the parachute will open. There may be times when we feel as though we are free falling in our faith. Yet God assures us that we can trust that God is there with us, making sure the parachute opens.
In our gospel for today, John the Baptizer is locked away in a prison dungeon and begins to have second thoughts about Jesus. He wonders if he really is the promised Messiah for whom he prepared the way. What if he was wrong? What if he is in prison for nothing? John is going into a free fall of faith. Maybe it was his discouragement about ending up in jail after having obeyed God’s will that made him begin to doubt Jesus. Perhaps he even doubted his own role as prophet sent to prepare the way. Or, maybe he was disappointed that Jesus wasn’t becoming the powerful messiah that John expected him to be. Worried that his work might have been in vain, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus the question – are you the one, or should we wait for another?
Jesus’ response is perfect. In a few sentences he defines who he is and who John is. He connects all the dots so it is easier to see the big picture. John was the last of the great Hebrew prophets, the bridge between Hebrew scripture, the Old Testament, and the New Testament, the stories of Jesus and his ministry and the emergence of Christianity. The New Testament was never meant to replace the Old Testament; all of scripture is relevant and points to God’s plan for the redemption of the world. John and Jesus are not in competition. As John’s ministry recedes, Jesus’ ministry becomes more visible.
Jesus declares John’s authenticity and clarifies the unique and important role that he played in God’s plan to redeem the world. God is all about reversals; so although the people might have expected the one who was sent to prepare the way for the messiah to act like a royal messenger, John was just the opposite. He lived in the desert and dressed in animal skins like the ancient prophets. Instead of feasting on rich food he ate a sparse diet to remind the people that they lived in a time that called for austerity. Rather than making plans for a grand royal court, he demanded repentance and a baptism for forgiveness. Jesus was adamant that John was an authentic prophet sent by God who fulfilled his mission to prepare the way for Jesus himself.
By referring to our first reading for today from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus also makes the point that John’s mission was to declare the fulfillment of the prophecies in Hebrew scripture and point to his own entrance into the world as a human being. The hope expressed by the prophet Isaiah is that the promised messiah will bring healing, salvation and comfort to all those who are in need. Jesus reassures John that his ministry thus far has been to restore sight and hearing, to cure the lame, to cleanse the lepers, to raise the dead and bring comfort to the poor. He is the bearer of good news sent by God to dwell among the people, to renew their hope. Although not in the messianic tradition of warrior, judge or vindicator, Jesus has come to extend the saving power of God’s grace, especially to the least of the world. John can be assured that his work was not done in vain, and his faith can be strong.
Jesus’ focus on his ministry as that of a healer who comes to make that which is broken whole reinforces our hope of Advent. A major theme in Advent is that all things will become new; all will be part of the transformation when Christ comes again. Jesus’ power has never been meant to be political or military. Jesus did not overcome the political powers that existed in his time nor did he extract revenge for all the wrongs that had been done. If we await his coming again with a desire for retribution we will be disappointed. But if we look to a good vision of Christ as the one who comes to heal every ill, then our hope will be realized.
Movies made for the Christmas season, whether they be old classics like “It’s A Wonderful Life” or newer made- for- TV versions, usually have the same theme. They are almost always about the rekindling of hope, whether the reconciliation of those who are estranged, the healing of those who have endured great pain and sorrow, or the comfort of the dying and those who are left behind. Even though they might seem overly sentimental, they are really telling the meaning of Advent and Christmas by using real life scenarios that we can relate to. The innocent victim is vindicated, the person who has lost love finds it again, and the dying estranged patriarch or matriarch is reunited with their family. Hope is restored and faith endures.
Advent invites us to present ourselves to God, to the Christ who will come again, in all of our brokenness – whether of body, mind or spirit – so that we can be made whole again. We present our illnesses, our struggles, our pain, our sorrow, our inability to cope with life. We offer up our broken memories and nagging thoughts of guilt that haunt us. We relinquish grudges and any desire for retribution or vengeance. On the four Sundays of Advent, we light candles in anticipation, we confess our sins, offer our prayers, sing our praises and partake of word and sacrament, and we begin to find healing. We learn that, like sickness, healing can also be contagious. As we allow ourselves to be restored and transformed by the hope and anticipation of Advent, we reach out to others who are in need of the same restoration and transformation.
Today we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath, the candle that symbolizes our enduring joy. We commit ourselves to keep the mission of Jesus alive. We continue the work of John the Baptizer, preparing the way for one who is greater to come again. We participate in the redemption and salvation that God intends for all people. Most important, we help to restore hope to a world that is desperately in need of it. Amen.