[Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 2:1-11]
O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Thyself. Amen.
As many of you know, the beloved actress Florence Henderson passed away very recently. She was, of course, best known for her role in one of the most iconic sitcoms of the 20th century, in which she starred as Carol Brady, the “lovely lady who was bringing up three very lovely girls” when she married Mike Brady, a handsome widower who was “busy with three boys of his own”. And, as the rather catchy theme song tells us, “That’s the way they all became the Brady Bunch.”
The Brady Bunch started filming over twenty years before I was born, so as I’ve been watching it online, some cultural references and jokes are lost on me. I’ve especially been confused by some of the technology. But I find that the themes and lessons of the episodes are pretty timeless.
There was an episode– I think it was in the first or second season– where Marcia and Jan Brady come into the bedroom they share with their younger sister Cindy to find a frustrated Cindy very intently searching for something. They join her in her search. This goes on for a couple of minutes, with the audience chuckling in the background, until Jan finally asks Cindy the obvious question, “Now, hold on just a second. What are we looking for?”
That’s a pretty important piece of information to have, don’t you think? If you’re looking for something, it helps to know what it is that you’re looking for. Otherwise, how are you supposed to know when you’ve found it?
In this season of Advent, I suppose an appropriate corollary to that would be that it helps to know what it is we’re waiting for, what we’re anticipating, what we’re hoping and longing for. If we are confused or unclear about what we are waiting for– or have the wrong idea entirely about what it’s going to look like– how can we possibly hope to recognize that thing when it is in our presence?
Jesus makes a similar point in response to a question from St. John the Baptist in the Gospel of Matthew this week.
John is in prison for calling out (rightly) some of King Herod’s behavior. He has questions– one in particular, which he sends one of his followers to ask Jesus for him: “Are You really the one we’ve been waiting for, or are we waiting for someone else?”
This is the same John who leaped up in his mother Elizabeth’s womb as Elizabeth greeted her cousin Mary, who had just become pregnant with Jesus.This is the same John who was the voice in the wilderness crying out last week, warning all who would hear him to repent, and to prepare the way of the Lord. This is the same John who affirmed Jesus’s identity when he baptized Him in the River Jordan.
John knows who Jesus is– he has known since before either of them were even born– he knew when their mothers were still pregnant with them. But his spirit has been all but broken by his experience of incarceration. He is discouraged and doubting, exhausted, and afraid. He has been beaten down emotionally and spiritually to the point where he is beginning to question everything he has ever believed.
Have you ever been in a situation, as a person of faith, that was so heartbreaking and difficult and painful that you sincerely wondered whether God was even really there at all? (I would guess that most of us have been there at some point.) This is the place from which John asks Jesus, “Are You really the one?”
Even as he speaks out of his pain and his grief, buckling under the weight of imprisonment on his soul, let us not make the mistake of discounting John or not taking him seriously. Jesus certainly took him seriously– He asked John to baptize Him, did He not?– and I don’t think Jesus discounts him in this exchange, either. John has asked an important, honest question, and Jesus answers him with an equally honest and equally important question.
“What were you looking for?”
If you look at the Psalm we just read today– which would have been very familiar to John– as well as a number of other messianic prophecies in the Hebrew scriptures, we can see a number of promises made about who the Messiah is and what he’s going to do. One of the promises that shows up over and over is the release of prisoners and captives.
And yet, here John is, sitting in prison as the supposed Messiah is walking the earth.
Not only that, but today, two thousand years later, we still have prisons, and a prison system so royally screwed up that it would almost be comical if it wasn’t so heart-wrenchingly sad. In over thirty states, human beings are still executed by the government. One of my two dear friends who is currently incarcerated faces that fate– he has been on death row for nearly twenty years. The other, who is serving a relatively short sentence, will soon face the struggles of re-integrating herself into the free world and rebuilding her life in spite of a system set up to essentially guarantee recidivism and re-incarceration. As I read their letters and hear them tell me about what their lives are like in prison, I can understand what John the Baptist is getting at: “Whatever happened to setting the captives free, Jesus? I thought that was on Your to-do list.”
This is what I imagine is going through John’s head as he questions what he knows to be true about the identity of Jesus. And I don’t see his doubts and questions as indicative of a lack of faith on his part– quite the opposite. Often, I think we make the mistake of understanding faith to be the absence of doubt– we think faith means being 100% sure of things– 100% sure that God is real, and that God is God, and that God loves us and cares about us, and that His promises are true.
I don’t presume to be able to put a number on how sure John the Baptist is about Jesus’s identity as the Messiah is in this passage. Last week, I’d say it sounded pretty close to 99 or maybe even 100%. This week, I don’t know. Could be 90, could be 50, could be 35, could be 10– that’s not really important.
What’s important that, even in the absolute pit of despair, even in prison, John is still reaching out. He is still wanting to be in conversation with Jesus. He is still asking the questions that are in his heart.
And you know what? Even if he is only 1% sure about who Jesus is, the fact that he has managed to hold onto that 1%– that grain of faith– despite the horror and desolation and total brokenness inflicted on him by his incarceration is one of the greatest acts of courage and hope and, yes, faith that we are shown in the whole of scripture. If there is one moment that sums up what it means to live into Advent, the season of hope, perhaps this is it.
What are we waiting for? What do we hope for? In what promises do we put our trust? The prophets answer those questions for us, as does Mary in her Magnificat, which we will read next week. Jesus Himself tells us in His first sermon, quoting the prophet Isaiah, what His life and ministry will be all about.
So I suppose the million-dollar question Jesus might ask us today isn’t so much what we are looking for, or what we are hoping for, but whether we will choose to continue our hoping and our waiting, even when it seems nonsensical to do so. Can we, like John the Baptist, look around us at the evil and misery and injustice in the world and still have the audacity to claim our Messiah, and put our faith in His coming and in the fulfillment of His promises, even if that faith is only the size of a mustard seed?
Pope St. John Paul II famously said, “We are the Easter people, and ‘Alleluia!’ is our song.”
And I agree with that.
But we are also the Advent people. We are the ones who sing, “O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel” even in situations that seem irredeemable. We are the ones who, in times of utter desperation, still have enough hope to wonder whether God is really there rather than writing Him off entirely. We are the ones who, as everything grows cold and dreary and the darkness threatens to swallow us up, keep lighting candles and proclaiming the coming of the Light of the World.
We are the Advent people, and “Rejoice, rejoice; Emmanuel shall come to thee, o Israel,” is our song.