Sermon by The Rev Patrick J. Wingo, December 15, 2019

If you look at both Gospel readings in the middle two Sundays of Advent, you could come to the conclusion that John the Baptist is jerking us around. He seemed so sure of himself in the reading last week, when he told us about the One who was to come. He was certain that the Messiah was on his way, that the “winnowing fork” was in his hand to clear the threshing floor and burn the chaff. He told us to prepare, to repent, that the Kingdom of God was near. His urgency, his harshness, made us sit up and take notice.

If you closed your eyes, listening to last week’s Gospel, you could see the imposing figure of John the Baptist, dressed in camel’s hair and leather, his hair and long beard blowing in the wind, the clouds gathering behind him. Something was up, and he knew it.

There was no question about his authority, his certainty, his clarity, and we were ready to prepare the way of the Lord by he time he was finished with us. How quickly things change.

This week, the voice crying in the wilderness has become the voice of doubt, lying in prison cell. This week, John’s certainty has become fragile, his authoritative voice has vanished. He had gotten himself in trouble by preaching his message of repentance to King Herod, who promptly had John thrown in prison. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” John thought. “Jesus was supposed to lead a revolt and establish his kingdom, and rule over the earth. He was supposed to clear the threshing floor and burn the chaff like King Herod. And now everything seems so complicated and different than I thought it would be.”

I think I know how John feels. Maybe you do too.

We make our plans, dream our dreams, work hard, have some fun, do the things we’re supposed to do. Everything’s going along fine, Joseph somehow things don’t work out the way we thought they would. Or maybe everything’s not going along fine. Maybe we have done plenty to contribute to the mess ourselves. Either way, we wish we knew how to find God.

Where is God in all the complicated, busy mess that our lives sometimes become? The fact that today’s Gospel reading starts in a prison cell is probably an appropriate metaphor for many people. How many people do you know who would describe themselves, in one form or another, as being in prison?

She feels trapped in her job. He can’t get out of a bad relationship. They are locked in a continuing cycle of anger and apology. The child has lost his way. The elderly parent is gripped by chronic pain.

And so it makes perfect sense that some people avoid church during the holidays, or that some people come to church out of habit but don’t experience any connection. It makes sense that some might doubt the power of God to transform, or more pointedly to have no confidence in the authenticity of the people of God. It makes sense that some people feel jerked around. It makes sense that we might blame ourselves for feeling so far away from a sense of the groundedness and holiness of life.

And it made sense for John the Baptist to doubt as well. To John’s suddenly complicated world view, Jesus sent a relatively simple answer by quoting the Prophet Isaiah, the same text we heard this morning: “Look at the signs, John. The signs of God’s presence are there. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the poor hear the Good News. It’s all there.”

This is a message that had been given to the people of Israel many time in their history. Today’s reading from Isaiah was a great example. This passage was written in a time of pain and sadness for Israel, when the Assyrian nation had overwhelmed Israel and taken the people away into exile. The same thing would happen 150 years later to a different group, when Babylon took Judah into exile. In both of these instances, the prophets foretold of a time when Israel would be restored, and the beautiful language in today’s passage tells what that time will be like.

When God restores people, when God redeems people, physical ailments no longer drag them down; the dry places in the world and in our lives become lush with life. The prophet envisions a wide road full of God’s people, traveling toward a new and redeemed Israel, a place where the people worship God only, and no longer put themselves in the position of being vulnerable to outside attack because they are faithful to God.

There is an important little phrase in that Isaiah reading.

Isaiah is describing the Holy Way, that wide road for the redeemed of God, and he writes, “the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, will go astray.”

Isaiah is saying that people who are not worshippers of God won’t even be there, but he acknowledges that there will be people, “fools”, as he puts it, who, in spite of the ways that they may have messed up their lives, will be there. And the implication is that although they have been foolish, as worshippers of God they will travel the road of the redeemed and they will be protected from going astray again. We should find great comfort in that statement, because all of us can probably point to times in our lives when our foolishness took us far from God, and yet God did not abandon us. And even when it felt like God abandoned us, the signs of redemption were there.

And that is where John the Baptist probably was in his life—kicking himself for perhaps foolishly taking on the powerful, vengeful King, who threw John into prison because Herod’s stepdaughter asked him to.

“What a fool I am,” John must have thought, which then led him to that place where he wasn’t certain that Jesus was even the person John thought he was. “Maybe I should keep looking for the Messiah,” he thought, and he sent that very question to Jesus. “Should I, cousin? Should I look for someone else?”

And the message came back:

“Look at the signs, John. The signs of God’s presence are there. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the poor hear the Good News. It’s all there.”

Indeed, it’s all there. If we look, the signs of God’s presence are there. Forgiveness between family members; the healing of broken bodies, or broken hearts. The signs are there, for example, in the self-giving act of a 12 year-old boy I met a few years ago, who, when he was given a present, wanted to give it to someone even poorer than himself, which was already way below the poverty line. The signs are there when lives are transformed, either suddenly or over time. The signs are there when a parish church reaches out in the community, when the people of a parish church seek to love one another in spite of their differences.

For us who live in a time of innumerable distractions, it is an easy thing to, as John put it, “look for another” when our lives are in disarray and we feel lost and alone. In a consumer society, when the going gets rough, the tough go shopping, and so we must currently be in the roughest time of year. It can happen anytime, and almost anything can replace Jesus in our lives. But even in the midst of traveling the roads that lead us away from God, if we look at the signs of God’s presence and respond to them there will always be a new way to return to God.

To become, as Isaiah puts it, one of those with everlasting joy, the redeemed. Because the truth is that no matter the place of exile, no matter the prison in which we feel trapped, no matter how foolish we were, or are, or will be, the signs will always be there.

Because God works in this world, in more ways than we can imagine. And in this darkest time of the year, a dark time in our world, and who knows, maybe a dark time in your life, the message of Advent is that Christ is coming—to you, to us, to the world—as he has again and again and again.

May every heart prepare him room.