Advent 3 Year A
December 11, 2022
“And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Last week Michael preached a fine sermon about the weird,
camel hair cloaked prophet, John the Baptist
who came out of the wilderness,
beard dripping with honey and caked with crusts of locusts,
to begin a fire-brand ministry.
People from all over Judea came out to see John, as he was quite the sight, and his preaching was powerful.
John shouted, “REPENT,” “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”
John proclaimed, “the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Now fast forward 8 chapters in Matthew’s gospel—
where we read from today.
Lots has taken place since John baptized Jesus.
Jesus’ ministry is booming; he’s got a following that dwarfs John’s.
Jesus is traveling all over Galilee and into the Decapolis.
He and the 12 disciples, gathered hundreds at first,
and later thousands more by proclaiming the good news of Christ.
John the Baptist is in prison.
He’d infuriated Herod, criticizing the tetrarch’s lavish ways
and disapproving of Herod’s unlawful wife.
John sits in chains awaiting his fate.
John has a death sentence upon his head.
Meanwhile, Jesus continues on, spreading his mission.
I haven’t spent time in prison. I suppose not many of you have either.
I’ve visited jail a few times, to counsel with folks.
I’ve written letters to those who’ve lost their freedom
for one reason or another.
I have a friend who worked in the prison system for years
and she can tell some stories. But even she got to go home at night.
Much of what I understand about the lives of persons in prison
comes from reading a book or watching a movie.
I suppose the same is true for most of you,
but I know a few of you men have served on Kairos teams—
Kairos are spiritual weekends spent with our brothers in Christ who are incarcerated. My father served on a few Kairos teams in prison,
telling me it was one of the most moving experiences of his life.
I would have loved it if he shared more.
Kairos teams go into prison, stay overnight, eat, talk, sing, and worship.
The only story my father shared with us from his experiences
was about Bishop Stough arriving at Kairos one time
and accidently locking his keys in the trunk of his car.
As the bishop entered the gates and greeted the warden,
he told him he had a problem. All his things were locked in the trunk.
The warden said, well sir, you’ve come to the right place.
I got a hundred guys here who can help.
Dad said he watched a fellow, an inmate, come out of the gates a few minutes later.
He walked right up to the car, felt around the edges of the trunk,
and popped it right open. Like magic.
They all had a good laugh, a good story to tell;
but much more importantly, they all had a newfound bond of hope.
Kairos is a ministry of hope.
This past October, we held our 10th annual Red Mass here at St. Luke’s–
a liturgy to pray for all those who work in the justice system—
lawyers, judges, officials—
We had a wonderful speaker, Judge Gaines McCorquodale.
At the service, we’d asked a man named Tom Perry,
who knew our speaker, to introduce him.
And he did a nice job. But I wish you would have been here for lunch,
when Tom stood up to talk about his Kairos experiences.
He told us about the incredible friends he’d made,
those imprisoned and those free men who he served alongside.
Tom told us about how most of the men in prison
are just trying to keep their noses above water
in the river of remorse and sorrow they have
for themselves and especially their families.
Tom gives his time to Kairos, all of which work with men on death row.
You could hear a pin drop, it was so quiet in Bradford Hall
As Tom told us of two of men, who’d become his best friends in life,
how he’d visited with them so many times,
holding hands and praying with them, before they died.
Kairos in Greek means the right moment—a perfect opportune time,
Which Christians like Tom use to offer others the love of Christ.
I don’t think you or I can really imagine
what it must be like to serve time in prison.
The fear, the despair, the anger, … questioning one’s self.
John the Baptist felt all of this. Locked up in Herod’s dungeon,
John hit his lowest point in life; his fear and anger get the better of him.
He begins to doubt himself. He begins to doubt Jesus.
It is important to remember in this story
That in the long and heralded tradition of Hebrew prophets,
John was an ascetic.
He lived on a bare minimum of food and slept in the desert.
He’d followed the law of Torah faithfully,
and he kept himself far away from Jewish leaders
who he saw living in hypocrisy.
John’s austere lifestyle was intentional.
He denied himself the comforts of life,
because he knew he was called to preach repentance.
Now he is sitting in prison, hearing the stories of Jesus’ prospering ministry.
Some of the stories don’t sit well.
How Jesus eats with sinners and speaks openly with women.
Jesus breaks the rules of the Sabbath; he touches those who are unclean and heals Gentiles too.
In his despair, John asks, How can this be the Messiah,
the one who is to come to fulfill the law and the prophets?
John cannot see through his fear and fury.
So, John sends his followers to ask plainly of Jesus if he is the Messiah.
Despair is pernicious. It eats you from the inside out.
Your soul may beg for hope, but your mind wants to hang on to the anger.
“You are not what we expected.” John is crying out,
much like we might question God when we are angry or fearful.
We cry out,
‘Where are you? When will you hear my prayer?’
‘How can this be right?’, we ask.
So much has been made of the way
Jesus receives John’s question and answers him.
It is not a straightforward answer.
Jesus doesn’t say yes, of course, John, I am he.
Jesus doesn’t argue back. He doesn’t condemn John’s doubt.
What Jesus does
is help John glimpse the seeds of the kingdom that are being sowed—
Go and tell John what you hear and see, Jesus tells the men:
“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.”
This is Jesus telling him, John, my friend, my coworker in faith,
remember what God has been promising all along
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
When God’s kingdom reigns on earth.
Remember Isaiah’s words:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
Then Jesus does something remarkable.
He offers John a blessing:
“blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
You see, John was too attached to his own expectations
of what the Messiah was to be.
Like the peanuts cartoon, when Lucy and Charlie Brown are irate,
they have those angry scribbles in the speech bubbles
over their heads,
John could no longer see straight.
John had forgotten to trust in God
whose love is the glue that holds all creation together.
We need this insight too.
Letting go of our expectations and trusting God
is the wisdom that guides us, in our seasons of Advent –
whenever those times of fear, waiting, and questioning come in our lives.
We need the reminder that we have a loving God
who seeks to heal and share in our lives,
and wants us to join now in this work of Kairos, to offer hope.
Thanks be to God.