Speaker: Cynthia Lapp
Wait on the Lord, God’s time is near.
Wait on the Lord, be strong, take heart.
It’s the third Sunday of Advent and we are still waiting. What are we waiting for?
John the Baptizer is waiting, though his situation is much less comfortable than what most of us experience. John is in prison. Ever the truth teller and not one to mince words, John has the audacity to call out Herod for immoral behavior. When you speak out against a tyrant, expect consequences. For John, it means jail time (and later Matthew describes the death sentence.)
In addition to the story about John from Matthew’s gospel, today we also hear words from Isaiah, Mary, and James. This smattering of lectionary texts is like a collage: pictures cut out of their own context and put together to make new meaning. (Michelle’s collage)
If we get too caught up in the need for it to make sense in terms of linear or kronos time, if we think it impossible to separate something from its context, we might miss out on something new. Of course, the original context is important – AND it is sometimes okay to see how the texts talk to each other, how they intersect and interact and enlighten each other even if the people who wrote them didn’t know about each other (or about us) across decades, across millennia. Our own experiences and perspectives inevitably become part of the collage as we try to make meaning of the texts.
We should probably have the flannel graph but since I am not the artist/preacher, we are going to have work with our imaginations, each of us creating our own collage in our minds – or maybe you will get creative and use your phone or bulletin.
Let’s start with Matthew. Imagine John the Baptizer, in a dark prison, and he hears the voice of Mary singing her Magnificat. Just hearing her voice brings light to the darkness. When John hears her words, the fierceness of them, it is as if he is hearing Isaiah himself – “Take courage! Do not be afraid! Look, YHWH is coming, vindication is coming. The recompense of God – God is coming to save you!” (Isaiah 35:4)
Imagine that. A bearded radical, all alone, listening to a young woman, who is inexplicably pregnant. She sings of her conviction that God is present with her and thus with others who find themselves in perplexing, even dangerous situations. God is not only present but this God will turn the world upside down so that the poor ones are lifted up and the proud are brought down. Imagine how Mary’s song inspires John and gives him hope to keep going for just one more day. Imagine one step further that Mary’s song is such a comfort and inspiration that John teaches it to other prisoners, almost causing a riot.
I can’t help adding to my collage a picture from a police ride-along I did a few weeks ago. It was the day before Thanksgiving and there in the security office of the Giant was a man in handcuffs, caught for shoplifting. He gave his address as 2nd and D NW, the largest homeless shelter in the area. All he wanted was to be able to eat, to give a gift to a friend, to live with dignity. But this was not Mary’s longed for day when the lowly are lifted up. It was another day when a poor person is locked up. I wonder how Mary’s song would sound to this man who seemed resigned to toggling between a homeless shelter and jail.
There near the center of the collage is John the Baptizer, in prison. Mary is not his only visitor. James comes as well, with this message – “See how the farmer awaits the precious yield of the soil, looking forward to it patiently while the soil receives the winter and spring rains. You, too, must be patient. Steady your hearts, because the coming of Christ is at hand.” (James 5:7-8)
This message from James might help calm and comfort John when the waiting gets too long, when Mary’s song and dream seem remote. Patience and steadiness can be a strategic position when working for change, when trying to give something a chance to grow deep roots. There is no question but that seed will burst through the ground in dramatic fashion (the arc bends toward justice after all) but nurture in the dark soil takes time. Patient waiting is part of the process.
It is one thing to wait in the comfort of home but in a cold jail cell? John’s wait in prison is more urgent. John needs more information. James says, “The coming of Christ is at hand.” How near at hand? How will we know? When John gets a visit from his disciples and they tell him stories of what Jesus is doing, John wonders if maybe the waiting is over, maybe the time is at hand, right now. So he sends his disciples with a message for Jesus, “Are you the one we have been waiting for? Or should we keep waiting, keep looking?”
Jesus, ever the rabbi, doesn’t answer in a simple way. He quotes scripture. The words of Isaiah describe what is happening. “Report back to John,
‘Those who are blind recover their sight;
those who cannot walk are able to walk;
those with leprosy are cured;
those who are deaf hear;
the dead are raised to life;
and the anawim – the have-nots –
have the Good News preached to them.’
John’s disciples go back to the prison to deliver the good news that healing and justice are near. Is this quote from Isaiah also a coded message to John? It goes unsaid but surely John knows that Isaiah also wrote, “proclaim release to those held captive and liberation to those in prison.” (from Isaiah 61) John’s disciples say the reign is near but what does it mean to him, still in prison?
Jesus’ quote from Isaiah can be reassuring and it certainly fits with the understanding of healing 2000 years ago. But we think about “disabilities” differently in this century. Today the deaf community has its own language and culture; many are not interested in being “healed.”
What if we add to the collage an additional sign of the reign of God drawing near: society is healed so there is welcome and room for all people, no matter their physical abilities, or health status, or economic means, or country of origin or gender or orientation or religion. What if Jesus said – “Report back to John that there is accommodation and welcome for those who can’t walk and those who can’t see. The people with power are letting loose of the tight hold they have on defining what it means to lead and they are sharing not only power but material goods as well. The ‘have-nots’ are stepping forward without fear to practice a new kind of leadership.” That sounds like a far off dream to keep developing and live into.
There in the center of our collage is John, in prison, holding onto the vision of Isaiah as he struggles to survive prison life. On one side is Mary and nearby is James; they both offer words of comfort and challenge. Off to the other side of the collage are John’s disciples, carrying the message and inquiry to Jesus.
And then because we are imagining, and not limited to flannel graph or paper, the center shifts. Maybe it is done light or color or an increase in space that shifts our attention. Somehow, the center is no longer John in prison but Jesus talking to the crowd. Jesus grabs the center and says that though John is important, is a prophet, is in fact his beloved cousin, John is not more important than any of them in the crowd.
Jesus challenges the people to be honest with themselves, to look inward, to be aware of their own expectations, however unrealistic or hopeful they are. Jesus says, “As great as John is, status has no meaning in God’s reign. Any one of you, who have thought you were small can deliver the message that John carries, any one of you can prepare the way.”
For the past several years this congregation has been involved with the Congregation Action Network, supporting immigrants and trying to prevent deportations and detentions. For the first year or more I was not sure of my role or what to do so I just showed up. But now after two years, it seems like just showing up isn’t quite enough. I am taking the next step.
In January, I will go to the border with other clergy from around the country who are trying to understand our role. We will “meet with community members, explore how colonialism and white supremacy have shaped public narrative about border communities and see first hand how this has led to policies that criminalize brown and black people.” Thank you for your prayers, for supporting me as I try to find my place in preparing the way.
Waiting together, as those who are trying to follow in the way of Jesus, we prepare the way for the reign of God. It is not easy. It may be upside down and disruptive, even to our own lives. Isaiah’s vision and Mary’s song remain – and are not yet accomplished. And they keep being created anew. Let’s add to our collage, Mary’s song as rendered by public theologian and transgender activist, Robyn Henderson-Espinoza.
My soul is alive with thoughts of God.
What a wonder, Their liberating works.
Though the world has been harsh to me,
God has shown me kindness,
seen my worth,
and called me to courage.
Surely, those who come after me will call me blessed.
Even when my heart weighs heavy with grief,
still, so does hope abide with me.
Holy is the One who makes it so.
From generation to generation,
Love’s Mercy is freely handed out;
None are beyond the borders of
God’s transforming compassion.
The power of God is revealed
among those who labor for justice.
They humble the arrogant.
They turn unjust thrones into dust.
Their Wisdom is revealed in
the lives and truths of those on the margins.
God is a feast for the hungry.
God is the great re-distributor of wealth and resources.
God is the ceasing of excessive and destructive production
that all the earth might rest.
Through exiles and enslavement,
famines and wars,
hurricanes and gun violence,
God is a companion in loss,
a deliverer from evil,
a lover whose touch restores.
This is the promise They made
to my ancestors,
to all the creatures and creations,
now and yet coming,
and in this promise,
I find my strength.
Come, Great Healer,
and be with us.
John waits and wonders even as he prepares the way. Isaiah waits, and Mary and James. Jesus says to those wait attentively – the wait is almost over. As we wait, let us walk in the way of Divine Wisdom and know that the reign of God is near at hand.