1The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. 3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you."
5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
47"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" 4Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.' 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Advent and Christmas stand apart from the normal flow of time. Memories of Christmases past flow into the present in ways that add depth and richness to the season. We remember time gone by, and the lines between years blur.
I remember riding a new tricycle in my grandparents’ basement one Christmas when I was two or three. I remember the walls and the doorway at the end of the hall; I feel the plastic of the seat and wheels; I hear the rattling, rumbling of that big spinning wheel muffled by the carpet.
I remember Christmas pageants at my elementary school. I remember children’s voices reading Luke in the King James Version from the towering pulpit in the huge sanctuary. I remember bells in the choir loft and the thrilling vibration of the organ. I remember Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in a manger on top of the white marble dais. I remember clip on ties and cheering parents.
I can’t sort out those memories: one year runs into the other. Was I an angel or a shepherd? Did I read scripture from that pulpit when I was 8 or 6? Maybe my tricycle memories have blended into other memories because I remember what the house looked like. Maybe I really rode that tricycle at my other grandmother’s house at Thanksgiving or in the summer time.
Memory is a funny thing and these holy days are especially prone to blending together and running into each other. Each year brings celebration and family and friends. Some years bring loneliness or grief or sorrow. Christmas carols and childhood expectation color our memories one way while grown-up rushing around and holiday stress add a darker shade to the picture.
Our Advent readings have the same kind of overlap and chronological messiness to them. Last week we heard John’s proclamation on the banks of the River Jordan, a scene that happened when John and Jesus were about thirty years old. We read that story each Advent not because it leads up to the birth, but because it prepares the way for the advent, the arrival of Christ’s ministry.
This week we hear from John again, but this time Jesus is well along in his ministry and John is in prison. John announced that someone more powerful is coming after him, someone who will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John knew someone was coming; he expected the Messiah and his ministry was preparing the way for that Messiah.
Some time later, we don’t know how much, John is in prison and he starts to hear reports about Jesus. In some ways Jesus’ ministry fits with the Messiah John expected, but not in every way. John wants to know if Jesus is the real deal. He can’t go talk to him himself, so he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus the million-dollar question: “Are you the one who is to come or should we wait for another?” Are you the king God sent to redeem creation? Are you the beginning and embodiment of God’s kingdom coming to earth? Are you the savior we’re waiting for?
Jesus doesn’t answer with a word, not a yes or a no. The answer shows up in Jesus’ ministry. The kingdom of God is not about talk, but power, so words only capture part of the truth. The proof of Jesus’ identity is in his actions. So Jesus tells John’s messengers to report what they 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. "
John called his audience to show their repentance in action, not just in words. Jesus shows God’s kingdom and his identity not just in words, but also in actions. John wanted repentance to bear fruits in justice: sharing food and clothing, treating neighbors justly, and one of the proofs that Jesus is the Messiah is that the poor have good news brought to them.
Jesus comes to bring redemption to the oppressed, healing to the sick and broken, freedom to the captives and new life to those trapped in the fear of death. Jesus comes to redeem people and creation, to make the desert bloom like the crocus and to create streams of living water. Jesus comes to free us from the isolation of our consumeristic culture and the walls of separation we put up out of fear and habit. Jesus comes to give us new lives of love and service, new lives of justice and peace and joy.
John wants to know if Jesus is the real deal, if the redeemer he is waiting for has finally arrived. If the redeemer is here he can face prison and even execution with a joyful heart because God’s salvation has arrived. John sent messengers to find out what was going on and we can imagine that when they told him the news, he was relieved.
This is an Advent reading too, not because it sets up the story of a baby in a manger but because it helps us to understand who that baby is. The organization of the Advent readings doesn’t have much to do with the natural flow of time, but it unpacks the timeless story of redemption. That story began with God’s creation of a wonderful world and flows through an eternal covenant with Abraham. It’s a story that follows the twists and turns of political developments and prophetic calls to repentance. A story that is as complicated as human history and a simple as the eternal word of grace.
These readings all help us put together the promises that lead to that stable in Bethlehem. They prepare us to be surprised, and they make sense out of that surprise. They open our hearts to be amazed and they remind us that the amazing grace of Christmas has always been God’s plan for the world. The story doesn’t start with a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, and it doesn’t end there either. But the life of Jesus is the hinge of history. Christ’s birth begins the fulfillment of a promise that will end with the redemption of the whole world.
The next chapter of the story is ours. We follow a Messiah whose signature is healing and bringing good news to the poor. That means our ministry will look similar; our ministry as a church and as individuals will have a lot to do with healing and with bringing good news to the poor. That doesn’t just mean the economically poor, though it certainly does mean that. It also means those who are hungry for community, those who are starving for companionship, those pressed down by the tyranny of their possessions.
We follow Jesus so we carry that good news into the world. We carry good news when we invite a friend to church to hear the story of God’s amazing love. We carry good news when we lay a healing hand on some hurting stranger’s shoulder, when we tell a sick friend that God isn’t finished with her. We carry good news when we sit by someone’s bedside and hold a hand tightly. We carry good news when we tell a scared child he is not alone and he does not have to be angry at the world.
The need for good news has never been greater than it is right now. The world feels crazy sometimes. It feels like things are out of control. There’s so much hunger, so much violence, so much sickness. It’s easy to feel hopeless about the future of our world. Even when we forget all the trouble in the wider world and keep our focus to our everyday life we still sometimes feel out of our depth. We find ourselves overwhelmed with work and bills, with deadlines and family drama.
We look at church attendance numbers and wonder if people still want to hear the good news. Frankly, people might be especially ready to hear the good news today. Many of our friends and coworkers grew up with church but have drifted away. Maybe they moved and never managed to find a new church. Maybe they went through a hard time and didn’t find the support they needed in church. Maybe life got in the way and they stopped making time. They might not even realize they miss the community and the good news. Maybe your invitation is just the nudge they need to come back to church.
Others in our life may not have ever grown up with church. They may not know the stories at all; they might not have heard that God loves them, that God became a child in a stable for them, that God went to the cross to save them. Just sharing the truth of a loving God can literally change their life. Maybe you are the one to share that good news with one of your friends.
One thing that’s clear from this passage is that the good news is not just words, but actions as well. Preaching along with healing; telling the story as well as comforting the hurting. When people know that we are kind and loving they’ll be more interested in hearing the message we share; sometimes they’ll even ask us what makes us the way we are. Actions speak louder than words when it comes to the good news.
Sharing the good news is scary. I still find ways to avoid sharing sometimes because I’m worried about rejection or being seen as “pushing my faith.” When I overcome my fear more often than not the person I share with is relieved, or grateful, or happy to be connected with something beyond themselves. Like anything else that’s difficult or scary, sharing faith gets easier with practice.
Start simple; this season is a great opportunity to practice. People often talk about holiday plans at work, ask if they have somewhere to worship on Christmas Eve. If they do, that’s great; if not, why not invite them to Laurelton? If people complain about the rush of the season, maybe they would like to come with you to our meditative evening service next Sunday night. As much as any words you might share, remember the healing power of love and kindness for the stress many people feel this time of year.
Time flows differently in this season, but the story of God’s love in Christ continues to invite people in and to heal the brokenhearted. We see Christ’s hand in our call to heal others and to bring good news to all who are in need. Like John’s messengers, Jesus sends us out to tell others what we have heard and seen. All the layers of our Christmas history are woven together with the love of God’s word made flesh; let’s offer that good news to our neighbors.
Thanks be to God.