Can You See and Hear God’s Presence in Your Life? Advent 3(A)

[RCL] Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11; Psalm 146:4-9 or Canticle 15

We are well into the third week of the Advent season. Advent is a season of waiting, expectation, and preparation for the coming of the Messiah.

But who is this Messiah? Do we have any preconceived idea how we would like this Messiah to be?

John the Baptist seems to have certain ideas.

In today’s Gospel, after hearing what Jesus did, John sends his question to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

It seems John may have doubts about the identity of Jesus.

But in the Gospel of Luke, we know that John the Baptist jumped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb before both he and Jesus were born when the two mothers met. (Luke 1:41) In last week’s Gospel, John introduces Jesus as, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matt 3:11)

John the Baptist knows perfectly well who Jesus is. So, why is he questioning?

Well, remember, John is in prison! Has his imprisonment has caused him to doubt Jesus?

The Messiah is not saving John from prison, and the one who is supposed to take away the sin from the world is not taking away the sin away from Herod. Would you blame John the Baptist or anybody to doubt in such situation?

After hearing the question, as usual, Jesus does not answer directly but tells John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.” (Matthew 11:4-6)

We see that the doubt of John the Baptist gets his disciples to be mindful of what Jesus does. The doubt of John the Baptist is pointing people to pay attention to see and hear Jesus.

Uncertain, scary, and helpless times can shake one up and cause doubts in one’s faith. Today’s Gospel is a good reflection of our spiritual journey. We can be like John the Baptist. When we are moved by the Holy Spirit, we vow to follow God. It is very clear and true. Or when we receive blessings, we are sure Jesus is our Savior.

When we face adversity and disasters, we question if Jesus really is the Savior. We question why bad things happen, why God is not there for us, and doubt even if God really exists. We tend to think God only exists when we are in good times. That is our preconceived idea of our Savior and why we are in doubt when things do not go our way. We are wrapped up in our own world and cannot hear or see God’s presence.

Nevertheless, being in doubt may get us closer to God. John the Baptist may be in doubt but his questioning points people to question God also. Then people pay attention to hear and see, find God’s grace and bring back the good news of Jesus to the doubter.

Doubting is part of our spiritual journey. However, the process may seem unbearable. We need to point each other to hear and see God’s grace to keep our faith. Sometimes we do have to wait in uncertain, and anxious moments before the truth comes out.

Advent is a season of waiting, expectation, and preparation for the coming of the Messiah. We are blessed that we know the certainty of the birth of Jesus. Yet, we are still waiting for the second coming of the Messiah. This time of waiting can be anxious and fearful time.

There is chaos in different parts of the world. We have our fair share of chaos causing disappointment, anxiety, fear, and anger in our own country right now. Enough people question the presence of God.

Will we be able to not be distracted by our own self-centeredness, and anxiety or our own pre-conception about God but look for God, and go and tell people what we see and hear about the presence of God?

As Christians, during Advent we are to slow down, reflect, and pray while waiting for the coming or our Lord. We need to reflect on what it means to be followers of Jesus our Lord, and our seeing and hearing of our Lord.

In a sense, we all have experienced what Jesus said:

The blind receive their sight.

The lame walk.

The lepers are cleansed.

The deaf hear.

The dead are raised.

The poor have good news brought to them.

If we are baptized, aren’t haven’t we experienced these things?

Through baptism, weren’t we once blind and deaf, but now can see and hear God’s good news?

Weren’t we once crooked but now could stand straight?

Weren’t we once uncleaned, but now cleansed by God’s Holy Spirit?

Didn’t we die to our previous life and now live a new life?

Didn’t we, the once poor in spirit, receive good news?

Truly, if we keep our eyes and ears open, we will hear and see plenty of God’s mighty work literally and metaphorically even in bad times. We will be able to go and tell.

It is time for us to share the good news and hope with others especially with those who are in doubt.

Br. Curtis Almquist of Society of Saint John the Evangelist writes in one of his daily meditations that:

“All of that stuff that isn’t right yet in us and in those whom we love will be satisfied and healed, but most likely it won’t all happen in this life. And in the meantime, sometimes a very mean time, we continue to come back to Jesus to be reminded of his real presence with us, and his provision to meet our immediate and ongoing needs.”

We are waiting in uncertainty but we are waiting in hope because of Emmanuel – God’s presence with us.

In the last few weeks, we have been reading from the Prophet Isaiah. He has been bringing the good news of Emmanuel to us.

Today Isaiah says:

“They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’ … And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Yes, the Lord shall return.

Traditionally the third week of Advent is joy. When we can see and hear God’s presence – Emmanuel, in good times and bad times, and know God is coming again, isn’t that joyful? Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Ada Wong Nagata is Priest in Charge and Director of Jubilee Community Center at Church of Our Savior, Manhattan, a bilingual congregation with English and Cantonese in Chinatown New York. Ada served seven years as Convener of Chinese Convocation of Episcopal Asiamerican Ministries (EAM), recently finished her term. She is a board member of Li Tim-Oi Center, an Asian Ministry Center of The Episcopal Church. Ada earned her Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School in 2015. Ada loves hiking and often goes on meditative walks.  

Download the Sermon for Advent 3(A).

Expecting the unexpected Messiah, 3 Advent (A) – 2013

December 15, 2013

Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

What happens when our expectations don’t get met? How about when it’s our expectations about God that don’t get met?

A few years ago, Steve Johnson, a wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills, voiced his surprise on Twitter when things didn’t turn out the way he hoped during a football game. After Johnson dropped a potentially game-winning touchdown pass during overtime, the Pittsburgh Steelers won the game 16-13. The New York Daily News reported that Johnson blamed God and tweeted:

 “I praise you 24/7!!! And this how you do me!!! You expect me to learn from this???How??? I’ll never forget this!! Ever!! Thx Tho.”

If your theology says that praising God causes God to reward you by favoring your football team, then what if you drop the ball?

Maybe Johnson should just be commended for the honesty of his prayer, for being in communication with God about his questions and doubts.

Maybe his expectations were not met. Either God wasn’t keeping God’s end of Steve Johnson’s deal, or Johnson’s world had just shrunk, with God operating outside the box he tried to fit God into.

Or maybe God doesn’t like Buffalo.

John the Baptist’s world had shrunk. Literally. The one who was preparing a way in the wide-open wilderness is held captive in a prison cell. The one who baptized the Son of God in the Jordan River is dependent on his jailor to bring him a cup of cold water to drink. The one who was so sure of who Jesus was, now wonders, Are you the one who is to come? Really?

Matthew writes, “When John heard what Jesus [the Messiah] was doing  …” Actually, what Matthew could have written is, “When John heard what the Messiah was not doing …”

Jesus was not following John’s outline for his ministry. Jesus was not following John’s mission statement for him, his step-by-step plan for successful Messianic ministry. John had told people the axe was lying at the root, ready to chop down the unworthy trees. He had promised the chaff would burn with unquenchable fire. But Jesus didn’t seem to be pointing the finger of judgment. There was no smoldering woodpile of sinners. And this must have meant more than mild disappointment for John: He was at that very moment sitting in prison, awaiting his own beheading because he had dared to stand up and challenge King Herod for Herod’s unrighteous marriage. If Jesus were looking for some chaff worthy of burning, he could start by lighting a match to King Herod, and get John out of prison.

Instead, Jesus is pronouncing forgiveness, healing the sick, bringing Good News to the poor. Was this really what Jesus was supposed to be doing? Are you the one who is to come? Or should I hope for someone else?

Sometimes Jesus said and did some strange things, or certainly unexpected things, or things that aren’t what we hope for. And because of that, John asks, and the disciples ask, and we ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for someone else?”

Each of us has expectations about the kind of Savior we want. Some do want a brimstone and fire-breathing Messiah who points out where everyone else is going wrong. Some of us want a Jesus who will champion our favorite cause, who will assure us that God is on our side of the issue.

Or maybe we want a gentle shepherd who will not demand anything of us, but only assure us that he loves us.

Sooner or later, though, our ideas of Jesus bump up against reports of what he is doing, either in Scripture or the world. Jesus – the real Jesus, the real Messiah, Lord, Shepherd, Savior, Friend, Redeemer – will at times upset our expectations. And he will ask, “Do you want to follow the living Christ, or do you want to worship your idea of who he should be? Do you want the thrill and hope and challenge of a life with the living Christ? Or merely the comfort of worshipping an idol of your own making?”

John wondered if Jesus was really the one in whom he should hope. So he went to Jesus to ask. John couldn’t get there in person, so he sent his disciples. But John went to the source instead of just muddling along, or making assumptions, or staying in the dark about who Jesus is.

We are invited to do the same – go to Jesus with our questions, concerns, wondering. Participate in the ways Jesus has given to his church to know him better. Gather in community. Study with other Christians and wonderers. Pray. Take communion. Worship. Praise him – even when you drop the ball.

Maybe Jesus wasn’t exactly what John was expecting: He brought fire – but it was the fire of the Holy Spirit. He sought out sinners – and forgave them. He really let the unworthy have it – but what he let them have was grace. Grace upon grace.

John couldn’t see it for himself, locked away in his prison cell, so he asked; and in reply, he received a beautiful vision: “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.”

 

 — The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.