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Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Understanding the Question
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
If I were alone in a desert and feeling afraid I would want a child to be with me. For then my fear would disappear and I would be made strong.
As I forewarned you last week, we are once again spending time with John the Baptist, as we did last Sunday. But never fear, next Sunday we move on to Joseph and get closer to the manger. For today, though, we are back with the guard dog of the Gospel, the messy, unpredictable, always-on-edge street preacher John. But in our scripture from Matthew 11, we see quite a change in him from last week, don’t we? Last week he was busy bellowing out invitations to repent and challenging the religious authorities with vigor. But this week, he seems different. This week he doesn’t appear to be quite so sure of himself or quite so sure of the one for whom he was preparing the way.
No, in today’s reading we see John pacing in his prison cell, unable to see the light of day. He had gotten there by doing what he always did: preaching truth to power. That behavior was always risky, but it was never riskier than when he aimed his challenge at the political power structure of the day. And that was what he had done, and it landed him in jail. Specifically John told King Herod it was immoral for the king to marry his brother’s wife, a message Herod did not receive very well. So the king locked him up, and John’s life was on the line.
Given his tenuous situation, then, we might wonder if, as he paced, John also wrestled with doubt over whether or not it was all worth it. Would all of those days and nights spent preaching and baptizing in the wilderness bear fruit? Had his God-breathed mission to prepare the way for the Messiah succeeded or had it failed? My guess is that he was not so sure, for even though John was imprisoned, he was clearly receiving word about what Jesus, the one whose way he proclaimed, was doing out in the world.
Based on what we read last week in Matthew 3, it is safe to say that Jesus was not following the job description John had mentally written for him. Thus far there had been no revolution against Rome to stop the evil it inflicted upon the people. There had been no thunderous “sinners in the hands of an angry God” kind of preaching from the mountaintop. Jesus had not yet pulled out the winnowing fork or thrown the chaff into the unquenchable fire. Perhaps Jesus was just biding his time until he did those things, but based on what he was hearing, John was starting to have second thoughts. Jesus was not being the Messiah in the way John expected or hoped for. John was not seeing what he thought he would see upon the coming of the Anointed One. So John, courageously, gave voice to his doubt and befuddlement and sent a question to his cousin Jesus: Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
All of the sudden, with that one honest question the distance between us and John collapses. It collapses because we understand the question “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Let’s be honest: we claim that in Jesus our redeemer has come into our time and into our world, but have you seen the news lately? Late last week, a friend sent me a headline from The Onion, the satirical online newspaper. The headline: “Snowstorm in Chicago Delays Hundreds of Morning Murders.” Ouch. While I appreciate satire, that seems too much. But it is probably too much because it holds truth. Some people in our city do want winter to pack a wallop this year, hoping it will slow the violence down. Thus far in 2016, 709 people have been murdered here in our city. And the year is not over yet.
Then on the same day I received that article, I heard a story on NPR about South Sudan. The first line in the story: “There are fears of a genocide in South Sudan, a country just five years old.” I immediately thought about our mission co-workers, the Reverends Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather, who preached with us here in June 2015 and whose work to establish schools for girls and lead peace-building initiatives we have financially supported. While the Smith-Mathers are back in the States for the birth of their third child, three other PCUSA mission co-workers are still there, determined to walk with the South Sudanese in this dangerous time.
From the prayer list your pastors use in our regular prayers, I know that some of you are waiting on a phone call with a diagnosis. Others of you are accompanying your parent into his or her death. People in this sanctuary are between jobs or between safe housing. Others are living with addiction or depression. In short, I understand why a non-Christian friend once told me, “I respect what you believe, but the world sure does not look very redeemed to me. This is as good as it gets?”
All of this chaos is why we deeply understand John’s question for Jesus. Sometimes we just don’t see in our world what we would hope to see, given our trust that God broke into our time and history in Jesus of Nazareth. As preacher James Kay once wrote, “The problem . . . is that [we] cannot see or sense any evidence that God is drawing plot lines together!” (James Kay, Journal for Preachers 1989, pp. 11–16). “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
The need to speak that honest doubt out loud is why I am very grateful for Jesus’ response to John’s question. First of all, he did not say “Can you believe that guy? After all we’ve been through together and my cousin has the nerve to ask if I am really the one?” Jesus did not send back any message of shame or blame or judgment on John’s question. Rather, Jesus simply told John’s disciples to go back to the prison and to let John the Baptist know what they had seen.
To help give them words, Jesus quoted from the prophet Isaiah. When he did that, he reminded John’s disciples and John himself to not just look for what they expected but rather to look for signs of God’s redemption in ways and people and places not expected. He told John to be on the lookout for a word out of place (Barbara Lundblad, www.workingpreacher.com). That need for vision correction must be why Jesus quoted this passage from Isaiah, for this particular passage, Isaiah 35, is a disruptive one. It is a word out of place. For while Isaiah 35, what we heard earlier, is poetry full of newness and restoration, when we look at this larger section of Isaiah, we realize Isaiah 35 does not fit in at all.
Immediately before, in chapter 34, all we hear is the poetry of ecological destruction—how the land will become burning pitch and how thorns will grow over the strongholds while nettles and thistles take over the fortresses. It talks about sulfur and smoke covering the land so thickly that night and day cannot be distinguished. It paints a portrait of absolute devastation.
Yet then, without explanation, Isaiah 35 just breaks in. Surprise! One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Lundblad, wrote, “It is as if the Spirit breathed ‘Put it here, before anyone is ready. Interrupt the narrative of despair’” (Barbara Lundblad, www.workingpreacher.com). That is exactly what it does. The passage Jesus quotes about the blind seeing and the lame walking comes from this poetry of the dry land being glad and the desert rejoicing while the crocus is singing. The whole poetic chapter totally interrupts the speech of despair and the portraits of devastation. The poetry of Isaiah 35 provides a word that is absolutely out of place with everything else around it.
And that is the precise passage upon which Jesus draws in his response to John: “Go and tell John what you see . . .” Jesus was trying to interrupt John’s speech of despair, his own portrait of devastation. Go and tell John what you see. Remember, all John could see were the four walls of his cell, the dreariness of his captivity, the impending end of his life, and the myriad of ways Jesus was not being who John thought he would be or doing it the way John thought he would do it. It is quite likely that in his captivity John had lost his ability to have disruptive vision, to look for a word out of place.
The Preparer of the Way, John the Baptist, could no longer remember to look for the unexpected and to watch for the poetics of the impossible rather than to simply give into the prose of the probable (Charles Campbell, The Word on the Streets, p. 125). John had forgotten how to look for a word like Isaiah 35, a word out of place, which is exactly what Jesus, the Messiah, was by his very being! Jesus himself was a word, a Living Word, completely unexpected, totally out of place, who refused to fit in and who took joy in disrupting conventional religious thought and practice. Locked in his despair, John had forgotten how to see that kind of disruption anymore.
Have we? In these days have we forgotten too? Have we forgotten what it means to follow Jesus by looking for the word out of place, looking for God’s activity of redemption, God’s revolution to break forth in ways, in people, in places unexpected? Maybe you haven’t, but I almost have. I’ve come really close. Especially during this fall political season, I’ve realized that I have gotten completely mired down in the speech of despair and the portraits of devastation that are so readily available and all around, so much so that cynicism, unproductive anger, and apathy have come dangerously close to taking root in my soul.
But then, seemingly out of the blue, we, here at your church, receive an email from a stranger who later told me I could share it with you. The stranger is a pilot based on the West Coast. He sometimes comes to Chicago and has to stay a couple of nights in the city. The first time he came into this sanctuary was a couple of years ago. He was doing some Christmas shopping in the cold during one of those layovers, so he stopped in here to look around and warm up. He loved what he both saw and felt when he walked into this place.
He came back to Chicago again last week. And this time, he made a special effort to come back here to Fourth Church and to see if we were still open and warm—literally and figuratively. He reflected he was, once again, deeply moved by the experience. He saw folks who desperately needed the warmth this space provides as they sat and slept and quietly visited with each other. He appreciated the fact that the lights were on, the Advent decorations were hung, and the doors were unlocked. He wanted us to know he was sending us a monetary donation because he realizes that offering literal sanctuary costs money.
And then he opened my eyes to the disruptive word we consistently proclaim, even when we do not see it for ourselves. “Fourth Church is a light in the city of Chicago,” he wrote. “In the midst of the frenzies of Macy’s and Tiffany’s and the bustle of this modern city, your church is a clean, warm, and peaceful oasis. While many churches in major cities are mostly closed up except, perhaps, on Sundays, yours is open and inviting. It is truly a blessing.” His note reminded me that what seems normal to those of us who call this church home is actually not all that normal or necessarily expected.
Our willingness to offer hospitality to everyone interrupts the speech of despair and the portraits of devastation for more people than we can even imagine. Because open doors and open hearts are a part of our DNA, we are actually being a word out of place. A beautiful, desperately needed, disruptive word. So much so I am convinced that whenever the decision was made to make sure this church was a welcoming space for all, it was as if the Spirit breathed into those decision-makers whispering, “Here is your chance, Fourth Church. Here is one way you can constantly interrupt the narrative of despair.” When we recognize that truth about who we are, even when it takes a stranger to remind us, we are able to hold more tightly onto the poetry of the impossible and to refuse to give into the mere prose of the probable.
That is just one word out of place that we experience in this space. These baptisms are another word out of place, you know. In a world where people assume you get what you deserve and that you must prove your worthiness, you must almost earn your right to exist, we baptize little ones. As we do so, we are saying to that one, “Before you do or don’t do anything in your life, no matter what happens to you or who you become, the most important thing about you is that you are a child of God, deeply loved, and nothing will ever change that.” It is like the Spirit breathes over that water saying, “Do it here, before the child is able to understand what is happening. Interrupt any narrative of despair that is trying to take root.”
Friends, we are not all that different from John the Baptist. And like Jesus reminded John, part of our call is also to be those whose eyes are trained to look for a word out of place, to see God’s activity of redemption, of revolution, sneaking its way into this world in unexpected ways. Our call is to be those who try and live more in God’s poetics of the impossible rather than in the dull worldly prose of the probable. Our call is to be those who pay attention so we can participate in the moments when the Spirit breathes, “Here, do this. Say this. Live this. Interrupt the narrative of despair.” Be a word out of place. The world, even the church, is desperate for it.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” We understand John’s question. But we live by Jesus’ response. What disruptive word do you see and live? Keep at it. Don’t stop. Amen.