Celebrating Joyfully in the Face of Despair

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Today is Gaudete Sunday, celebrated on the 3rd Sunday of Advent. During this season, our Advent prayers and reflections have echoes of Lent as this was, in the early church, a time for fasting and withdrawing, of standing back from the busyness of life. We still seek to do so today.

Advent is intended to help us focus on three aspects of God: the physical birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, on the way we receive Christ in our hearts, and on our preparations for the second coming of Christ. Our vestments are rose coloured; the 3rd candle we light in the Advent wreath is pink.  The different colour is intended to help us pay attention and to evoke a clearer response to God’s invitation and encouragement to experience God’s joy as we give thanks for all God’s blessings.

My deep joy is at being here with you today, as I reflect on the blessings of a loving God who orders our lives in unimaginable ways and fills us with hope, faith, love and peace particularly at this time of year.

Matthew’s Gospel reading for this Sunday tells us about John the Baptist languishing in prison, wondering, doubting, waiting for the Messiah to act! John sent word by his disciples to ask Jesus,

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? (Matt. 11:3)

The paradox of knowing while doubt is our constant companion, led to the questions asked by John and often also, by us.  We wonder amazed, how could John even ask the question?  John saw the Spirit descend upon Jesus at his baptism (John 1:32); he heard God declare, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’ (Matt.3:17).  John preached clearly about a Messiah who would baptise with fire. (Matt 3:11-12).    John knew what sort of Messiah he wanted and what he thought the world and God’s people needed.  He was waiting impatiently for Jesus to act. 

Yet John was in prison and where was the Messiah? He had not come to John’s rescue. John’s apparent doubt was not a crisis of faith, but seeking clarification for his faith. He believed what the prophets had written, but he was checking whether they pointed to Jesus. John was not simply asking if Jesus is the ‘One’, rather he was asking, what will the Messiah look like?

Jesus’ answer does not show he’s successfully meeting the requirements of a Messianic job description.  Rather, Jesus points to some of the prophetic promises he has filled.  Jesus is redefining the character of the Messiah as compassionate, loving and healing as he paraphrases Isaiah, bringing justice to the world: the blind now see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.  I suspect John would have noticed what Jesus didn’t say.  Jesus’ paraphrase of Isaiah 61:1 in his answer to John’s disciples, leaves out the phrase: ‘He has sent me…to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.’ 

This tension in Jesus’ answer affirms he is the Messiah, while telling John he will not be rescuing him from Herod’s prison.  This royal son of David will not be overthrowing the oppressive Roman conquerors of Israel.  Knowing John would be personally hurt by his response and apparent lack of action, he gently adds, ‘Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’  (Matt. 11:6)   

For some, this time of year is really challenging and joy is hard to grasp, the Messiah can be hard to see.  Thanks for abundant blessings can stick in our throats as we experience hardship, sorrow and despair. Around the world, the terror and oppression experienced by all who are imprisoned, literally, spiritually and emotionally remain a present, real suffering. The leap of faith to give thanks in all circumstances can seem too big an ‘ask’ from God. 

Jesus is very aware of John’s dreadful situation.  He doesn’t tell John off for his questioning of his role, Jesus praises him to the crowds. 

Among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist…and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. (Matt. 11:11, 14).

John is the subject of biblical prophecy, and yet, …in the kingdom, Jesus says:  the least are greater than John – the greatest man in all human history. (Matt. 11:11) Jesus reminds us – to know the Messiah we need only look at Jesus and his actions.  No one can decide the identity of the Messiah based purely on ‘evidence’ because this can always be disputed.  A decision to see Jesus as the Messiah comes rather from the leap of faith. 

Jesus highlighted our ability to look away, always to find excuses, to ask for one thing, then want another.  Jesus asks the crowds, what on earth did you expect to find?  You go out to the wilderness, you go to the palaces, and on each occasion, you then demand something else.  John’s questions are legitimate. They are not idle speculation.   But let us be in no doubt, God’s revelation in Christ is paradoxical, hidden or nonsensical and so, are frequently offensive to those who demand facts, evidence and appropriate behaviour according to the world’s rules and human expectations.  

I found a quote from John Calvin speaking to the persecuted church in France:

Let us remember that the outward aspect of the Church is so contemptible that its beauty may shine within; that it is so tossed about on earth that it may have a permanent dwelling place in heaven; that it lies so wounded and broken in the eyes of the world that it may stand vigorous and whole, in the presence of God and his angels; that it is so wretched in the flesh that its happiness may nevertheless be restored in the spirit.  In the same way, when Christ lay despised in a stable, multitudes of angels were singing his excellence; …when the sun failed, it was proclaiming him – hanging on the cross – King of the world; and the tombs opened were acknowledging him Lord of death and life.

The story we heard today opens with John in prison.  We know God’s prophet of wisdom has suffered violence.  Jesus, wisdom incarnate, our Messiah, is compassionate, loving and active in his faith, but he too is the victim of cruel and calculated evil as the presence of good often stirs up the resistance of evil. 

In the face of evil, our grief and despair is profound.  Yet in such places, our deepest joy is brought forth by God’s imminent birth on earth, our acceptance of God’s presence in our lives and our gathering together as God’s family, and for me to be with you, my own new family, to prepare for God’s coming again.  Let us be joyful together in God’s presence.

The Lord be with you.

Reference:

Jarvis, C.A., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds]. 2013. Feasting on the Gospels.  Matthew, Vol.1. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.

Lucy Morris
Lucy Morris
Anglican Priest, International Speaker, Published Author, Social Justice Advocate and Activist.

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