Advent 3A — December 15, 2013

Heaven and Earth in Little Space

Matthew 11:2-11
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.
My brother and I had a brief phone conversation this week about Christmas and, like me, he’s hit the wall in terms of how much gift shopping he’s up for doing this year. We agreed that the adults among us would forgo buying presents for one another and instead make donations to charities with the money we would have spent.  But we agreed to give modest presents to each other’s children.  I wondered out loud about what sort of gift cards or lip gloss my nieces might like and my brother, in typical BOB fashion interrupted say, “You know what, Suz?  Don’t over think it.  Just give them cash.” 
I know that doesn’t sound very ho-ho-holly-jolly, but he’s right.  So the girls are getting cash from Auntie Susan, but meanwhile I have been thinking about how I might create one of those “Big fancy wrapped box with a check cleverly hidden inside” so my nieces will still have the fun of unwrapping a big gift – which, let’s face it, is always fun no matter how old we are.
I think all of us enter into the Christmas season with big dreams, always imagining that this will be the year in which we get everything just right.  We will manage to pull off something like a perfect holiday.  This will be the year that everyone in the family gets along.  This will be the Christmas in which nobody gets the flu and everybody gives and receives the perfect gift. 
Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life” put it this way, “You know that saying, you can really tell who somebody is in a crisis?  You can really tell at Christmas too.  That’s because Christmas, more than any other day in the American year, is a day when we’re all handed the same stage props.  The same tree, the presents, the meal, the relatives, and the same expectations.  And then we all try to create, more or less, the same kind of day.  It’s like hundreds of millions of people all set to work doing exactly the same art project.  And not just any art project, but a very high stakes art project, an art project everyone cares about getting right.  And in that setting, the choices people make never seem clearer.”[1]

Last week, we met up with John the Baptist, this larger than life figure bursting onto the pages of Scriptures.  John proclaims the kingdom of God, preaching brilliantly with fire and passion about the one who is to come after him.  Talk about high expectations!  John’s narrative is not about the arrival of a baby in a manger, but of a powerful Messiah with a holy ax in one hand to chop down the rotting tree of Roman domination, and a winnowing fork in the other hand to chase out the brood of vipers running the synagogue.   Unquenchable fire and brimstone — that’s how John imagines God’s entrance into the world.   
But today, Matthew directs our attention to an entirely different scene.  Out of the wilderness, away from the crowds of followers, sitting alone in a cramped, dark prison cell, John the Baptist is beginning to have his doubts concerning Jesus. In a dark night of the soul moment, John wonders – now what?  How could John have been so mistaken?  The Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah that had seemed so clear to John on the banks of the Jordon now is clouded with questions.  And John finds himself doubting everything he had believed about Jesus.  If Jesus is the One they had been waiting for, what does it mean that his most ardent follower is sitting in jail?   It as if John has gotten to the bottom of the glittering, gigantic gift box and is sifting through tissue paper, searching for the hidden treasure of the Messiah, and has come up empty-handed. And in the darkness of a prison cell, John asks the question, “Are you it, Jesus?  Are you the One we’ve been looking for, or should we begin looking for someone else?”  Because from where John is sitting, things are looking pretty doubtful.
It is so easy to get caught up in the big expectations of preparing for Christmas that I think it’s easy to forget that the incarnation is a small, quiet event.  We imagine that we are preparing our hearts for a King, but what we are preparing for during Advent turns the image of kingship on its head.  We are preparing for God who takes on the flimsy, vulnerable human flesh of a newborn baby.  God could have gone big.  Maybe even God imagines at this point in history that God should have gone big.  But instead, the Holy One of Israel creeps into human existence in a form small enough to dwell within the darkness of a human womb that belonged not to the queen of an emperor, but poor, unmarried teenager. 
Like that lovely line from the ancient Christmas carol that says Mary carried within her body, “Heaven and earth in little space.”
A curious truth about the story of Jesus’ life is how so few people recognized and accepted Jesus for who he is.  Think about it.  According to Matthew’s gospel, the wise men knew.  The woman with a hemorrhage knew.  A Roman centurion knew.  The crowd when Jesus enters into Jerusalem knew, or at least appeared to know for a day or two.  Did the disciples really know?  Well sort of.  But Matthew makes sure we know at least some of the disciples doubted (Mt. 28:17).
The problem with God’s anointed ones is that they so seldom turn out to be what people have been looking for. They do not say the things people have been waiting to hear or do the things people have been expecting them to do. God-called leaders like Moses are hard to follow. God-chosen prophets like Jeremiah are next to impossible to live with. It often turns out that what God’s idea of a God-anointed leader and what humans’ idea of a God-anointed leader should be are two vastly different things. God’s own Messiah could be so, well, so offensive. That is, he could say and do some very un-messianic things. Such as forgive sins. Heal on the Sabbath. Ride roughshod over time-honored traditions and prejudices. Treat women with respect. Commend hardship and suffering. Although John is the only person we know of who actually blurts out the question, the odds are good that the question was asked many times by many people: Can this Jesus possibly be the promised Messiah?
In typical fashion, Jesus doesn’t answer John’s question directly but invites John to answer his own question.  Jesus sums up the mission of God’s anointed – to heal, restore and to preach.  It is a mission that does not sound nearly as glamorous or as dramatic as John described.  It is as if John invited us all to come to a Christmas party with champagne and caviar and when we get there, all there is to eat is bread and cheap wine.  Because what John can see from his prison cell is a world that hasn’t changed much since his prophecy on the shore.  Certainly there have been no earth-shaking changes to daily life.  The Romans are still in charge.  God’s people are still held captive and no great king has emerged from the root of Jesse.  Jesus just has not met John’s expectations and, to be honest, many days Jesus does not meet ours. 
But Jesus says, “…blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  Blessed are those who look at Jesus’ ministry on earth – his concern for the poor, his healing of the outcasts, his ability to call out life where there seems only to be death – and see the movement of God in small moments of grace.  Blessed are those who do not confuse the power of God with any earthly power.  Blessed are those who can handle their expectations of God being overturned completely.
Blessed also are those who realize that small, selfless acts of love deeply matter in the kingdom of God.  Even as we whine and moan about the secular trappings of the Christmas season – and I’ve been guilty of that as anyone – if you take the time to look a little more carefully at the commercials and the mall decorations, it becomes pretty apparent that marketers are all trying to tap into to has always been true about human beings since the beginning of time.  What human beings long for more than carefully wrapped gifts are genuine relationships filled with love and peace.  What the commercials don’t dare to tell us is that being called to participate in Jesus’ mission of love is the only gift we really need and the only preparation that really matters.
As Jesus speaks in this particular moment in time, the crazy, wonderful prophet is sitting in a dank prison cell doubting his faith in Jesus. Yet Jesus considers John the greatest among human beings.  John doubts Jesus, but Jesus still believes in John with all his heart.  If nothing else, this passage confirms that the power of our faith in Jesus is not nearly as important as is the incredible power of Jesus’ faith in us, the wonder of his love for us and his persistent claim on our lives. 
Blessed are those who trust that our small steps toward seeking the Christ child have the power to topple the most powerful forces on earth.  Armed only with love and peace and sometimes even our doubts, we can trust the mission that Jesus has set out for us – healing the broken, preaching the good news to the poor, reconciling enemies, loving our neighbor, feeding the hungry.  Small steps that matter.  Every single day of our lives. 
Pope Francis was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2013.  That news received a lot of attention this week.  Some of the attention paid to this surprising Pope has been pretty cynical.  Many point out that what Pope Francis has been doing is pretty much symbolic and won’t do much to change the Catholic church. 
And yet, this humble, simple man has captured the attention and imagination of the whole world, even non-Catholics, even non- Christians.  When Pope Francis kisses the face of a disfigured man or washes the feet of a Muslim woman, he challenges all us of far beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church.  And so far, people around the world are responding with curiosity and even joy to this man who says, “Don’t just preach; listen…don’t scold; heal.”
I am going to read a big chunk of what Time Magazine wrote this week about the Pope because it summarizes nicely, I think, about the blessedness of thinking small:
“(Pope Francis) has done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music. Tone and temperament matter in a church built on the substance of symbols—bread and wine, body and blood—so it is a mistake to dismiss any Pope’s symbolic choices­ as gestures empty of the force of law. He released his first exhortation, an attack on “the idolatry of money,” just as Americans were contemplating the day set aside for gratitude and whether to spend it at the mall. This is a man with a sense of timing. He lives not in the papal palace surrounded by courtiers but in a spare hostel surrounded by priests. He prays all the time, even while waiting for the dentist. He has retired the papal Mercedes in favor of a scuffed-up Ford Focus. No red shoes, no gilded cross, just an iron one around his neck. When he rejects the pomp and the privilege, releases information on Vatican finances for the first time, reprimands a profligate German Archbishop, cold-calls strangers in distress, offers to baptize the baby of a divorced woman whose married lover wanted her to abort it, he is doing more than modeling mercy and transparency. He is embracing complexity and acknowledging the risk that a church obsessed with its own rights and righteousness could inflict more wounds than it heals. Asked why he seems uninterested in waging a culture war, he refers to the battlefield. The church is a field hospital, he says. Our first duty is to tend to the wounded. You don’t ask a bleeding man about his cholesterol level.”[2]
The people in Scripture who recognized Jesus as the incarnation of God in the form of human flesh needed no warning, no preparation, no glorious signs, no cajoling or arm-twisting.  They simply accepted what Jesus gave to them. They did not insist that Jesus fit into their ideal of what a Messiah should be.  Instead, they allowed Jesus to change their ideas about who God is and God’s deepest desire for God’s people.   To prepare for Christmas as Jesus would have us prepare is as simple as this and as difficult as this – to receive God’s gift of love to us in Jesus and then to go do the hard work of loving the world as much as he does. 
The Messenger (Mary Oliver)
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird — equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect?
Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium. The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes, a mouth with which to give shouts of joy to the moth
and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam, telling them all,
over and over, how it is that we live forever. 
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Ira Glass.  “This American Life – Christmas and Commerce Transcript.”  Originally aired December 20, 1996.