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Third Sunday of Advent, 2022
Imagine it is dark. You have spent the whole day working in the hot sun, no protection from its blazing rays as you work the fields. What’s worse, they aren’t your fields, but those of a master, another human who owns you, and force your labor to meet their needs, wants, and desires. You rest, only you know the work will continue tomorrow, with little promise of respite. You are a slave, because of the color of your skin, and there seems little chance that your plight will end. And yet…you sing. You sing words of hope, of redemption, of exodus. You sing, “When Israel was in Egypt’s land – Let my people go – Oppress’d so hard they could not stand – Let my people go – Go down, Moses – Way down in Egypt’s land – Tell old Pharaoh – Let my people go.” You are an American slave, and it is many years until you will see freedom. Unfortunately, it may be hard for some of us to imagine, because many of our ancestors may have been the ones who forbade that freedom. Yet the longing, the sorrow, the abject struggle to reconcile our suffering with the God who is there is supposed to be the plight of every Christian, and the song that awaits redemption is meant to be all our song. A song that asks, when Lord, when will you do what you’ve promised, when will you make the world right again?
This is akin to what John the Baptist felt, what he experienced, as he sat in prison. He was there because he preached the coming of God’s kingdom, and it offended many people. He was the greatest of the prophets, proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, and of the kingdom of God that would bring freedom to God’s people. And what did he receive for his voice, for his powerful proclamation that the kingdom was coming? The horrified jeers of the quote faithful unquote, the religious establishment that believed themselves to be the “truly faithful.”
John sat in jail, the all-too-frequent victim of speaking the truth to power. And so, John, in doubt, fear, and weariness, all his efforts tugging at the weaknesses of his faith, made him raise the question: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ From John’s point of view, like the American slave, it was hard to imagine help was coming, and at that moment of darkness and despair, it was hard to imagine that Jesus was tha help.
Jesus responds by acknowledging that what John has suffered for the Kingdom of God was not in vain. He is the one to come, and he will do what God has promised. “‘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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’” These miracles are the proof positive that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. But, he is not the Messiah they, even John, may have expected. When Jesus declares that they are blessed who “take no offense at me,” he is clueing us into the reality that his establishment of the kingdom is different from what we expected and desired. What we are seeing here is what is known as inaugurated eschatology, which means that the age to come where God reigns is here, inaugurated or begun by Jesus, but it is not finished or consummated, because quite obviously evil and suffering still reign here and now.
Jesus introduced to the world the kingdom, and it grows and in it peace, and hope, and yes, joy can be found. But these are found through suffering, through persistent faith, through the dark valleys of life, because we still await the final act of the drama, we yet await the final healing act of God that is ours with the second coming of Christ. Right now, the kingdom grows, in and through us by the power of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. But we still sit in the shacks of our lives, praying for that final redemption, and pleading through our suffering yet with hope that we too will be made free someday.
This is what Jesus means in vss. 7-15. John the Baptist is the greatest of the prophets, but even more blessed is the lowest person in God’s coming kingdom, namely, us. That, however, is despite the fact that the kingdom of God is one that “has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” We live in a world that expects our salvation in very different terms than this kingdom of peace, healing, and suffering. We crave dominance. If you doubt, than I will merely mention the many self-proclaimed Christians who in our own society openly seek exactly that. A book was recently released, which I have not read, but in reading some thorough reviews certain things are disturbingly clear. It is a book that says Christians should separate from society, seek violent overthrow of the government to establish a “Christian state,” separate people by ethnicity, and look to a strong leader to establish Christian principles by force. If these statements about this book are true, then it is damnable heresy and has nothing to do with the Gospel of Christ.
Jesus did not come to us in the soft robes of the rich, with displays of power, and seeking domination by force. That is why people will take offense; because Jesus is not a purveyor of the violent power employed by those around us. I was disturbed by the doe-eyed messianism that surrounded President Obama from the progressive side, and equally disturbed by the angry posturing that has accompanied the messianism surrounding President Trump. Both are the errands of fools, because the elements of the kingdom that we represent are stated quite clearly here by Jesus himself: “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.” Any message of the kingdom that does not make these central is worthy only to flush.
There is no joy in violence. There is no joy in domination. There is no joy in following human messiahs. Joy, true joy, is in seeing the love of God in Jesus Christ, the inauguration of a kingdom that brings sight, strength to limbs, cleansing, hearing, LIFE, and the raising up of the poor. Joy is present there, what Mary says in the Magnificat, when God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” But this joy does not come without cost here, now, in an inaugurated but not consummated Kingdom of God. No, like John, who was soon to be beheaded on the whim of a king, it comes with suffering. That is because our generation is much like the one of Jesus’ time: “ ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” John, and Jesus, have shown the way, but many don’t want that way. The flute is played, but we don’t dance because we don’t like the song, of mercy, peace, and love. They wail, but we don’t mourn, because we love seeing those we hate be destroyed.
The kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Joy, is one we inhabit, one we receive joy from, when we see it for what it is: the haven, the hospital for the sick, those who sin and are subject to death, who know and acknowledge it, and seek the God whose promise is to heal and restore even us. We can be joyful now, not because we “win,” but because we know that God in Christ and by the Spirit is able to take us through the Valley of darkness, through our suffering, and bring us to the home he has promised. We take joy because the Kingdom IS HERE, in US, and that small piece of it present in us will be a part of the glorious tapestry that is the final completion of God’s work in the world. So…Be Joyful: Because Christ has begun work that cannot be stopped, and one that despite all worldly appearances will do exactly what God has promised, which is not the violent dominance, but Healing of the whole world. Your suffering need not be an excuse for self-pity or lashing out in hatred, but to sing in the words of another Spiritual from our enslaved brethren: “There is a balm in Gilead To make the wounded whole; There is a balm in Gilead To heal the sin-sick soul. Some times I feel discouraged, And think my work’s in vain, But then the Holy Spirit Revives my soul again.” Amen.
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