The Hidden Treasure of the Kingdom

self-reflection

The Third Sunday in Advent A 2016

     As you and I face the artificial cheerfulness of another consumer Christmas, today’s gospel lesson may be just what we need to hear!… Confession: More and more, I try to avoid stores this time of year. [Who’s with me? Show of hands!…] This year I especially don’t want to be bombarded with the message “’tis the season to be jolly!…” Nope! And from talking with many of you, I know you just aren’t feeling the joy we’re “supposed” to feel during this season. Some of you are battling disease or depression—either your own or that of a loved one. Some of you are weary of working and trying desperately to stretch your time and money to make Christmas happen. Others among you are grieving as you contemplate Christmas with an empty place at the table. Beyond our personal struggles, many of us are also plagued by constant worry about the state of the world we live in…. My friends, if you’re one of those who’s feeling less than Christmassy right now, take heart, because today’s gospel lesson about John the Baptist and Jesus contains a hidden treasure just for you. Let’s take a closer look, so that we can uncover this gift from God and claim it for ourselves!

     You know, I never thought I’d hear myself saying this, but I think you and I have more in common with John the Baptist than we’d probably care to admit!… Of course, most of us don’t share John’s weird dietary habits, his preference for itchy, smelly clothing, or his fire-and-brimstone way of speaking! J What we do hold in common with John is the pattern of our faith journey, and that runs much deeper than superficial things like outward appearance and personality traits. Like John and every other person of faith, you and I inevitably experience ups and downs as we strive to live as God’s people in this world…. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at what happened to John: When we met up with him in last week’s gospel lesson, he was a free man and a free spirit, hanging out in the wilderness, doing his thing: rocking his camel-hair-and-leather suit, munching on his locust-and-wild-honey power bars, laying into the religious leaders and dubbing them a “brood of vipers,” calling people to repent because the Kingdom of heaven has come near, and baptizing a whole lot of folks in the Jordan River. In that moment, when he was a free man, John had no doubt that his cousin Jesus was the Messiah of God, the One who would baptize people with the Holy Spirit and with fire!…

     Fast-forward several months and eight chapters in Matthew’s gospel to today’s text, where we find a very different John: a rather subdued man being held captive in a cold, dark prison, with nothing to do but think. John’s swagger and confidence have given way to fear and doubt. It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way…. The Messiah was supposed to come with power and might—with an axe and a pitchfork!–to do away with the enemies of God and establish God’s promised reign of justice and peace. Why, then, had he, John, been thrown into Herod’s prison—a place no one ever left alive?! How could this be happening when he’d been faithful in doing the work to which he’d been called: the work of preparing the way for God’s chosen one?… As he paced back and forth in the darkness, John couldn’t see any semblance of the rule of justice and peace for which he’d risked his life. So, when his friends came to window of his cell that night, he sent them to ask Jesus point blank, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?” …John’s question is a good one, and it’s a timeless one among God’s people! Even today, some 2000 years after Jesus walked this earth, when you and I look around us at all the violence and injustice, it’s easy to become discouraged, as we wonder, “When are you coming, Lord? When will your promises finally be fulfilled? When will your Kingdom come ‘on earth, as in heaven?’…”

     Before we look at how Jesus answers John’s question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?,” you and I should note that while John was out in the wilderness doing his own thing he’d missed out on an important lesson that Jesus was teaching his disciples. In chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus taught the twelve to expect they would eventually be persecuted for speaking truth to power. He told them clearly that by following him they would create divisions even within their own families. He also warned his friends not to fear those who have power to kill the body, but not the soul. Finally, Jesus promised that those who remained faithful to his call would receive their reward in the end…. So, when we encounter John the Baptist in prison, we see that Jesus was right: Those who speak truth to power will not win any popularity contests! On the contrary, they may well end up being persecuted and putting their own lives at risk…. That’s precisely what happened to John, and it’s sobering to realize that if you and I are unflinchingly faithful to God’s call in this lifetime, it could well happen to us, too….

     Now we come to the hidden treasure I mentioned earlier: a treasure that lies hidden in Jesus’ answer to John’s question. First, I want you to notice that Jesus doesn’t scold John for his question; in fact, Jesus makes it clear that it’s okay to ask questions! It’s okay for John—and for you and me!–to have doubts, and it’s okay for us to articulate those doubts. God can handle our questions; in fact, God knows the questions of our hearts before they ever cross our lips! As author and theologian Frederick Buechner has written, “If you don’t have doubts, you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants–in-the-pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving….”[1] Wrestling with our doubts is a good and necessary thing, and it can lead us to a deeper level of faith, because doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it’s complementary to faith…. The opposite of faith is certainty. Think about it!… So, it’s a good thing that John asks his pivotal question about Jesus’ identity, because it indicates he’s open to growing in his understanding of who Jesus is. When Jesus hears John’s question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?,” he knows that a door has opened: John has recognized that his old understanding of who Jesus is and what God is up to is flawed, and he’s now ready to receive Jesus’ teaching…. In light of that, Jesus tells John’s disciples to go back to their master with this message: “Go and tell John what you hear and see. Tell him that the works of healing and justice you see in the world reveal who the Christ is! Tell him that for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, the Kingdom of heaven is revealed in the lives of ordinary people!…” That’s the great mystery John hasn’t yet comprehended…. That’s the great mystery many of us haven’t yet comprehended!… Jesus the Christ came and still comes as Emmanuel, God with us. He doesn’t come to eliminate our struggles, but he comes to accompany us through them.[2] Christ comes to bring healing and hope, light and life in the very midst of our darkness….

     Dear friends in Christ, if you are in pain, if you are grieving, if you are struggling in any way in this season, know that God is with you to hold you and carry you through. Even though you may not be feeling it at this moment, God is with you, so dare to hope. Dare to hang on fiercely to your pocket-lint bit of faith. Dare to ask the questions on your heart, because that’s how you open yourself up to the very presence of God in your life and in our world…. Finally, dare to see and hear as God does: with love that recognizes both the pain and the potential hidden deep in the human heart…. What I have seen and heard, I now proclaim to you: Each time you and I see ourselves in the eyes of our neighbor, each time we hear our story on the lips of a stranger, each time our hearts are touched by grace that knows no bounds, Christ comes among us, and you and I come one step closer to the abundant life that is God’s desire for all God’s children, both now and in the age to come. Amen.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC.

[2] David Lose, “John’s Blue Christmas,”


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