A sermon for the third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
Are you the one who is to come?”
Last week the sermon was about the preaching of John the Baptist. This week, John got himself thrown into prison—imagine that. He preached repentance and justice. He told tax collectors to collect only what they owe and soldiers not to extort and abuse people. So, Herod Antipas, a ruler who lived for power and self-indulgence, heard the call for repentance as a challenge and he had John put in jail. Imagine that.
But John heard of Jesus, of what was happening out in Galilee and he sent the question, “Are you the one?” Jesus’ reply was very simple and specific: “the blind receive their sight, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus was not about random miracles and showy acts of power—he is here healing those things that are wrong in this world, that disrupt and destroy the fabric of human life.
Of course, one could speak at length of each of these: blindness, leprosy, deafness, the dead and the poor. All of these can refer to physical or literal conditions or be spiritual or metaphorical at once. But it’s also important to understand Jesus is grounding them in real, physical conditions. Blindness, deafness, and leprosy are all conditions that isolate people—while the person is suffering, others withdraw, out of fear, or indifference, or impatience to get on to the easy comfort in their own lives.
Likewise, Jesus says, “the poor have good news brought to them.” You may remember that Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth of Galilee was on the text, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” This morning, rather than a psalm, the lectionary has appointed the song his mother Mary sang, when she knew Jesus was in her womb: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior: for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” Her description of how God loves his people is this:
“He has shown the strength of his arm and has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
The Kingdom of God is good news to the poor. Specifically, it is God’s promise to those who are suffering or oppressed that God remembers them and will comfort them. There is no comfort to those who are proud, who regard themselves as entitled to comfort and privilege because they have wealth or power. The gate into the Kingdom is narrow—it requires humility—acknowledgement that we are each on the same level as the leper, the blind, the deaf, the poor. Indeed, the isolation of the blind is nothing in comparison to the isolation of those who trust in their wealth. Or in games to get and hold power. That isolation is death. Jesus brings life, which is generosity and humble acknowledgement of the infinite value of all God’s people.
In case you didn’t notice, when Mary’s son and nephew said these simple things, people were not pleased. Both of them were arrested and killed. The reality is, people do not like their wealth or power to be challenged—even by an offer of life.
This Christmas season, we celebrate that God is here in this world, blessing the things of this world. But it is not our wealth that God blesses, it is our generosity and compassion for others. It is in our willingness to learn and to be blessed by the deaf, the lepers, the blind and those we might think of as poor that we receive the gift of life. Jesus tells the disciples of John, “the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.” We receive the blessing of resurrection from the dead, not in our comfort, or even in our focus on being spiritual and good, but in our own brokenness and humility. God brings the blessing of life in our ability to hear with the deaf, and see with the blind. Indeed, I have realized over the past few months that I receive life and blessing in visiting and remembering with and for those who have lost their memory.
From our lesson from the prophet Isaiah: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom: like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” The blessing of God, the majesty of God is in opening life for all people. “Then 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! Here is your God…’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”
We rejoice in the coming of Jesus. He is the one to come, the one who brings us life.