|Image from PenelopeEpiscopal, via: http://goo.gl/YcTi9b|
SINGING THE (ADVENT) BLUES--a sermon for Advent Three, for worship with the Old Stone Baptist Church of Ballston Spa, NY.
A Tony Award winning Broadway play opens its first scene with a conversation between an old man and a young woman who is applying to be the caretaker for the man's aging and very difficult wife. Curiously, for the rest of the three hour drama, the old man does not appear again, and why that happens would be giving away much of the plot. Suffice it to say, despite the brevity of his appearance on the stage, the old man sets the tone for the play about to unfold.
Likewise, John the Baptist appears at the beginning of the text, the wild eyed and boisterous herald of the Messiah. It is great fun to read these texts, as John electrifies the Gospel early on. When he roars about “broods of vipers” or growls about the unrepentant being tossed aside, he leaves the audience wide awake. He sets the tone, and then Jesus begins to take center stage.
Today’s gospel is somewhere in the middle of the gospel. Jesus is spinning parables, performing healings, and his ministry gaining notoriety. Then the gospel writer brings the lights up on a side stage, a little set with a chair and a small wash basin. Slumped in the chair, the figure in the shadows is the very image of defeat. As the lights come up, you realize it is John the Baptist, though not as you remembered him from earlier.
The firebrand John the Baptist sits now in jail, the prophetic spark seems near extinguished. He spoke a powerful word; he baptized the multitudes, even baptized Jesus himself. Yet, here he is, the forerunner, nearing the end of the race.
Look closely at this once charismatic figure. Is there a tin cup in his hand, that type you can clink on the bars and yell for the guard to remember to feed you? No, John seems to be the model prisoner, a model one if you are the warden, who wants to keep his charges in line. John makes very little conversation. He sits there in his cell and just seems to be waiting. Not much to look forward about. The ink has dried on what shall come to pass. The king has ordered his death. What more is there to say?
From time to time, his disciples appear, trying to bring a bit of food, some fresh water. They try their best to bring something even more nourishing: words of encouragement. They offer these words of support, yet John sits there impassively, that distant look on his face.
There’s grimness to that look, yet we know it, for we've been there ourselves. Despair can settle into our minds, worse than some illness that lingers in the body. The mind works on just a few points, not willing to see beyond the dull future that seems unstoppable in playing out. Impassive is the best description of the look as well as its effect: nothing good shall come my way.
I find this passage an odd choice for the “third” Sunday of Advent. This is the day we light the “pink” candle. Two purples and then the pink candle means we’re almost in the home stretch. The reason the Advent candles are three purple and one pink goes back to the tradition when Latin was the predominate language of the Church. On this particular Sunday, the service would begin with the words: "Rejoice (gaudete) in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice." In the midst of Advent’s call to a penitential frame of mind and devotion, the Church would give itself time to celebrate anticipatory joy. The “rose” candle, as it is more formally known, is a beacon in the midst of Advent’s more downbeat practices, calling the people to ready themselves for the coming season of joy.
So why does John appear today, off in jail and away from the giddy crowds watching Jesus in the midst of his ministry with his parables and healings and sly ways of infuriating his religious opponents? Why should we hear something so dreadful: a prophet broken, feeling discredited, off in the lonely place, awaiting a certain fate? This is not a joyful image. The only words John seems able to muster are ones formed by his discouragement: “Jesus, are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” I imagine we’ve all had that moment where God seems so distant, or that moment when God seems so detached, or that moment when God seems so absent. John’s question comes out of a place of searing honesty. Is there really a point to this? Belief is easy when life is lively, but when pain, suffering, marginalization or death loom, the believer is tested in ways that crumble the quick and easy answers and the questions pile up.
The response Jesus sends back is not the most expected. “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 offense at me.”
In this response, Jesus offers a glimpse of the gospel being brought to bear on the world. It is not the conventional answer hoped for in certain understandings of the Messiah’s coming prevalent in the day. People thought the Messiah would bring about a political and military upheaval which would restore Israel. Even after his resurrection, Jesus contends with his disciples’ hope for something great to happen. Instead of dominance and power, Jesus gives them the call to go out in his name and share his word.
Now here in Matthew 11, we get a foretaste of what this gospel story is about. We learn that God has indeed come, and the Messiah is about the work of God. The ways that the story plays out might not have perfect endings as we would want for ourselves, yet in the end, the gospel story points to an ending that shall surpass the old story of “life and death”. The gospel plays out in a world well acquainted with the jailhouse blues, yet the Resurrection beckons with a different song, soaring above our longings and our loathing, and our angst in life and our cries in the night.
Two stories of belief in the midst of remarkably difficult circumstances give witness to this faith:
Gardner Taylor, long considered the dean of African American preachers, recalls the difficult days he spent with the family of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr. In late June 1974, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta was in the midst of worship when gunshots rang out. A gunman aimed for King, yet it was Mrs. King, the church organist, who was killed in the gunfire.
As Gardner Taylor and other colleagues came from around the nation to support the King family, Taylor recalls the way the Ebenezer Church members pulled together with its singing hymns of faith, led by the choir who had been in the midst of the tragedy just a few days before. The church resonated with hymns of faith, sung in full knowledge of their loss, yet giving testimony to the beliefs that helped them make sense out of yet another tragedy in their congregation’s life. That same week, Taylor was a visitor to the King family home. He recalls:
Midst the tall Georgia pines, in the King family home, touched with the strange stillness of death, I sat with Martin Luther King, Sr., on Tuesday evening. He bit his lips and said, “They killed Martin, [my other son] A.D. is dead, and now they’ve killed Bunch [his wife’s nickname]. “ He stopped awhile. Then he said, clutching my hand, “A.D.’s third son came to me the other day, and he said is going to preach [or, that is called to ministry].” Then he looked at me and said, “They won’t be able to kill us off.” (Gardner Taylor, Fifty Years of Timeless Treasures, Words of Gardner Taylor, vol. VI, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2002).
Even though one chapter seems to come to a close, the Christian faith affirms there is more to the story. Belief can be shaken, souls can be troubled, yet in the midst of life when it comes crashing down, the gospel claims life’s heartache is not the last word. Our lives will have an unfinished quality to them (i.e. we will still know failure and loss, pain and suffering), yet our trust in the greater framework of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection offers a hope far more resilient than we might lead ourselves to believe.
Another story of hope and joy in the midst of tragedy comes in the writings of Dietrich Bonheoffer, a German theologian. Branded an enemy of the state for his writings and his efforts in a plot to assassinate Hitler, Bonheoffer spent the last years of his life as a political prisoner of the Nazis, executed just days before Allied forces liberated the camp.
In the midst of his imprisonment, Bonheoffer wrote prodigiously, keeping up with his theological writings and his correspondence with friends and family. A collection of his letters and papers from this period of his life continues to attract new generations of readers. These writings are particularly powerful, given Bonheoffer wrote in the midst of a prison sentence with full knowledge that his time was not long for the world.
The editor of new critical edition of this body of “prison” writings observes that Bonheoffer wrote during his time of imprisonment with “concern [for] a future of a humanity beset by oppressions, violence, and war; his desire was that the next generation would inherit not only a more faithful and relevant church but also a more humane and just world” (John W. de Gruchy, “Theology for Dark Times: Rereading Letters and Papers”, Christian Century, October 19, 2010, p. 33).
During his incarceration, Bonheoffer was asked to write prayers for his fellow prisoners to use during the holiday season. One of these prayers is particularly powerful:
Lord Jesus Christ, you were poor and miserable, imprisoned and abandoned as I am. You know all human need, you remain wth me when no human being stands by me, you do not forget and you seek me, you want me to recognize you and turn back to you. Lord, I hear your call and I follow. Help me!
(Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer Works, Vo. VIII. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010, 195).