Advent is a time for us to focus on the coming of Jesus in three ways, his first, his present and his final Advent. Today, this Third Sunday in Advent is known also as Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of Joy. We have lit a pink candle to celebrate this particular Sunday in Advent. Our readings from Isaiah, the Song of Mary and the Gospel reading from Matthew 11:2-11 speak of joy, rejoicing in God our Saviour; and, we take this time to remember the mission of John the Baptist and his connection with Advent as John helps us to understand the paradoxical nature of faith.
Someone recently asked me who I wanted to win the general election in the UK and my answer was – people who will bring God’s peace and justice, and God’s Kingdom a little bit closer for that country and for the world. However, the challenge being given to me in the question was about which Party did I want to win? How do my politics stack up against the person who was asking the question; what are my priorities? Who do I want to win and who do I want to lose?
Matthew tells us the story of John the Baptiser who was in prison for speaking out about Herod’s marital arrangements. John sends word to Jesus asking him if he was ‘the one to come or are we to wait for another?’
We might wonder how John could even ask, given he was the one who baptised Jesus, he saw the Spirit descending, he heard the voice from heaven declare: ”This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt.3:17).
We heard in last week’s reading, John promising his listeners, the Messiah would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire, he would use the winnowing fork, gathering the grain into the barn, but the chaff would be burned with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:11-12).
Jesus responds to those who brought the questions from John: ‘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.”
Jesus is quoting Isaiah 35:5-6 and then 61:1.
“The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dear hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
You can see it in the Isaiah reading you heard this morning. But John would also have noticed what was missing in Jesus’ response. Jesus’ paraphrase of Isaiah 61:1 leaves out the phrase: “…He has sent me…to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”
This ‘now and not yet’ tension in Jesus’ answer affirms he is the Messiah while clarifying he will not rescue John from Herod’s prison. This royal Son of David will not overthrow the wicked human rulers over Israel. Knowing John would be personally disillusioned by the response and lack of action, Jesus offers him a gentle blessing:
“Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (v.6)
Jesus does not rebuke John for his apparent doubt. He praised John 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.” (vv.11,14).
In his answer to John, Jesus is defining the character of the Messiah as a compassionate and healing Messiah who enables the blind to see and the lame to walk. But Jesus also points out, as we reflect on the answer and reassurance, no one can decide on the identity of the Messiah, based purely on the evidence as the evidence can always be disputed.
A decision to see Jesus as the Messiah comes not only from analysing the messianic data but also from the steps we must take in faith.
As I go back to the question asked of me earlier about the UK election, I remembered this conversation because of Jesus’ question to the crowds:
What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?
Jesus highlights our confused thinking, our desire to hedge our bets and to see and want contradictory things, whether its about climate change, a change in political leaders or about the Messiah and our faith in action.
We are never satisfied and in the following verses Jesus points out the hypocrisy and defensiveness of those who want the world to be as they desire for their own needs: ‘you mock John for being an ascetic and accuse him of having a demon; you then accuse the Son of Man of gluttony and drunkenness and being a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
You and I can’t have it both ways, however hard we pretend and when the result doesn’t come out the way we imagined it, we blame everyone except ourselves.
In the case of the UK election, whoever has won will never be perfect and whoever has lost is always wrongly denied the opportunity. Human success does not meet everyone’s needs.
Jesus will never fit our world’s or our own expectations when we think of a ruler coming in power and glory, busting John and others out of prison, and to quote the Song of Mary, ‘scattering the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty…’
Such a dream will always be at odds with others who see themselves as rulers, privileged, hanging on to entitlements and protecting their status quo. Such a dream will never suit the broken, the terrorised, the oppressed, the poor and the distressed, because it will never be enough, it will never carry enough punishment and vengeance.
Jesus gently points out the discrepancy in our human wants, our desire to hurt when we are hurt, the longing for retribution and to be made whole again.
Henri Nouwen, a well-known theologian reminded us about the difference between joy and happiness. While happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is ‘the experience of knowing you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war or even death – can take that away. Joy can be present, even in the middle of sadness.
As we reflect on Gaudete Sunday, this third Sunday in Advent, we remember and experience the joy of Jesus’ coming, the Messiah who heralds God’s kingdom, here and now.
We realise God’s kingdom does not come in the power, splendour and glory of human achievement, but in the theology of the cross, in humility, poverty, suffering and the lack of worldly power.
The paradox we now struggle with leaves us reflecting on God’s revelation in Christ, hidden under the sign of its opposite counter cultural message and experience, which we will always find offensive.
Jesus was offensive because he extended fellowship, communion and grace to sinners, and those who were viewed with distrust and rejected, eating with whoever invited him to dinner.
God’s Grace frequently meets resistance, good and evil struggle, good people make mistakes, bad people are redeemed, politicians and power can make for good and for ill.
We ourselves acknowledge we have often met resisters and those resisters to change are ourselves.
Our disappointment in what has happened when our longings are not met is a human experience.
The experience of knowing you and I are loved unconditionally means we can rejoice in God, our Lord and Saviour, in spite of the mess, chaos and fear around us as we see the coming of the Messiah, the first time, the present time and his final Advent.
The Lord be with You.