The sermon I preached at Unity Lutheran Church on Sun., Dec. 15, 2013.
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.
It is the beginning of June in the year of 1964… One month before his 46th birthday… After being transferred the past two years while on trial for “sabotage” from one prison to another, he is now back in his tiny, dark cell on the secluded Robben Island with a life sentence for “treason.”
Though we now know that Nelson Mandela’s life sentence was cut “short,” isolation on an island in a small prison cell with only a mat on the floor for a bed, a bucket for a toilet, the allowance of only one visitor a year for 30 minutes, a poor diet, enforced hard labor, and having to continuously face discrimination because of his skin color even within the prison – all for 27 years: cannot seem like a sentence cut “short.”
This man’s faith was extremely important to him. And the faith that had once led him to confidently and boldly fight for equality and justice for all in South Africa by trying to end the apartheid had now led him to an unbearable sentence in prison. My guess is that there were many times in that little cell on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela could relate to John the Baptist in Matthew 11, our Gospel text for today: doubting and questioning who and where Jesus really was.
This morning we encounter John the Baptist for the second week in a row… Though now, he no longer looks or sounds like the same man we encountered last week: who – with wild-eyes and camel-haired clothes (in Matthew 3:1-12) – so boldly and confidently proclaimed in the wilderness a message of justice for all and called out for repentance from those who were sinners and hypocrites and who claimed they had a special privilege because of their status and heritage while taking advantage of the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the poor.
John the Baptist is now a different man than he was last week – as he sits in his tiny cell: no longer with the assertiveness and the bold voice, but rather with a shaky and doubtful voice, a voice of longing and confusion and of despair. As he waits out his ultimate life-sentence (one that would not last 27 years, but rather only a little less than one year, and would end with his ultimate execution by beheading) – he wonders if he prepared the way for the true Messiah he and his ancestors had been long-expecting. And he wonders whether or not what he did and proclaimed in the wilderness was in vain.
But somehow in the midst of his doubt and despair in that secluded prison cell – as he hears about what Jesus is proclaiming and doing – he decides to seek out answers by going to the source directly. And so out of final desperation, he calls out for his own disciples and tells them to go to Jesus and to ask him: “Are you the one who is to come? Are you truly the Messiah we have been waiting for for so long? Or are we to wait for another?”
It may be shocking for us to see such a transformation this week of the one who was preparing the way for Jesus in the world and who – by Jesus, himself, – was said to have arisen greater than all others who were born of women. And yet, how can we blame John? How can we blame him for questioning and doubting? How can we blame him as he sits alone awaiting his execution in his little secluded cell wondering where in the world was this Jesus – the one who came to bring salvation to the world and to conquer death and evil? Where was this Jesus now?
Don’t we understand where John was coming from? Isn’t it easy for us, as well, to see, trust, and proclaim who and where Jesus is in our lives when things are going well? And yet, don’t we know what it is like to start doubting Jesus the minute things start to take a downhill turn and don’t go the way we expected them to go? …When we unexpectedly loose our job or don’t get into the school we had worked so hard for… when our marriages are failing, our relationships are broken, or we have to watch our children and grandchildren struggle to succeed… when we find out about our terminal illness or our loved one unexpectedly passes away… In times like these, don’t we – like John – begin to question where Jesus is in our midst and sometimes wonder: Is he really the one we have been expectantly waiting for?
And don’t we wonder who exactly Jesus is – if he truly is the Messiah who came to conquer death and evil – when we feel like we are living in our own prison cells, held captive by depression, lack of sufficient health care, or our struggle to pay the bills… And don’t we question who Jesus really is when we hear about others who experience captivity in their own “prison cells”: through mass damages and losses due to a typhoon, or the struggles others go through to gain citizenship and in the meantime fear deportation, or through the loss of a child because a young man entered an elementary school and started shooting?
In times like these, don’t we, ourselves, want to call out from our own tiny, dark cells to Jesus, asking: “Are you truly the Messiah, the one who is to come? Or are we to wait for another?”
For John the Baptist, it is no wonder that he is confused and doubtful about who Jesus is as he sits in his prison cell. John had come from a tradition that expected a Messiah to come into the world with earthly power, wealth, royalty, and authority. In the midst of the oppressive Roman Empire, John and his contemporaries expected a Messiah to ultimately conquer death and evil by overthrowing the Empire and immediately establishing a new kingdom of God on earth. And so we have to understand why John the Baptist was a bit confused and troubled after he had prepared the way for this expected Messiah in the wilderness and he is now sitting alone, locked up in a tiny cell and still has not seen the signs he had expected to see of the kingdom of God. If Jesus wasn’t the one, was there another to come and conquer death and evil? Or does this mean that death and evil have won?
Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I cannot even comprehend what the families of those victims have and continue to go through. And yet I imagine that at times, they can relate to John the Baptist – feeling alone and held captive in the darkness of their own prison cells and wondering when and even if light will ever shine in.
A few days ago, I watched a video created by Alissa Parker, the mother of 6 year-old Emilie, one of the victims of the shooting. In the video, Alissa talks about how sweet, creative, and giving Emilie was. She loved mornings and making art. She loved doing projects. And as the family was working on a project early last December in the house to make a crawl space into a play room for Emilie and her sisters, Emilie came up with the idea of collecting several of her toys, putting them in a box, and giving them to children who didn’t have many toys that year for Christmas.
Alissa explained that this was Emilie’s last project.
After Dec. 14 last year, Alissa could not bear to finish or look at the crawl space. And she said every time she saw the box of toys Emilie had been collecting, she felt tremendous pain. She said: “It was hard to imagine a world without that goodness and that selflessness in it. I was so consumed with how evil could be so powerful and felt that evil had won.”
This week in Advent, we light the candle of joy. And yet, in the midst of this dark week in December where we remember this mass shooting – along with all other forms of violence against children in our country, in our own city, and throughout the world – and as we grieve with the world this week over the loss of Nelson Mandela – an incredible leader who fought for peace, equality, and justice, and yet died knowing that there was still so much work yet to be done – it is really difficult to imagine where and how we can find any bit of joy. Like John the Baptist, we are left with a lot of questions, doubts, and darkness.
And yet, in our text in Matthew 11, Jesus does not allow John to just sit alone in the darkness of his cell and wait for his expected fate without answers.
Rather, Jesus listens to John, and without judgment, he sends him a message of hope. However, he does not answer in a way John had expected. Jesus does not say: “Yes John, there is another one to come who will bring about the kingdom of God fully now.” And Jesus does not say: “Yes, I’m the Messiah you expected… and just wait: very soon you will be released from captivity in prison, and you will see the army I will lead in conquering evil and overthrowing the Roman Empire. Just you wait.”
Instead, Jesus tells his disciples to:
“Go and 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.”
In other words, John was expecting the wrong things about whom this Messiah was, what this kingdom of God would look like, and how and when it would be brought forth.
…The kingdom of God is not an earthly kingdom full of worldly power, authority, and force – like what John had been expecting – and it will not be fully brought forth immediately. It has begun to enter the world through Jesus Christ, Immanuel: “God with us” in the flesh, and it will continue to be brought forth through John the Baptist and all of Jesus’ disciples who prepare the way in the world for the coming of the Messiah, the one who brings hope, peace, joy and love to this world.
And John will sense the work and the presence of this Messiah in the world when he hears and sees signs of the kingdom of God: when he hears about and sees light being brought into the darkness of the lives of the blind, the deaf, the lepers, and the poor… the last and the least… those who are suffering the most.
You see, just when we think we know Jesus, our Messiah, and what to expect of him, he surprises us and comes to us in very unexpected ways: coming to us not as a powerful and wealthy worldly king… But as a baby, born of a poor carpenter and a teenage girl, in a dirty barn among filthy animals… bringing us light in the midst of our darkest times and calling each one of us to receive that light and to pass it onto others.
While in his dark prison cell, Nelson Mandela heard and saw these signs of the kingdom of God, and after 27 years, he walked out of prison a changed and transformed man. Rather than seeking revenge, he chose to work for reconciliation and peace – and this work eventually ended the apartheid and led him to become the first black president of South Africa.
Mandela received light in his darkness and he passed it on, urging others to do the same. During his inauguration speech in 1994, he quoted Marianne Williamson, saying:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
You see, when we see and receive this light and when we pass it on, we can find hope in knowing that our Messiah is at work and that the kingdom of God is both in our midst and is still yet to come. And as we hear, see, and share these signs of the kingdom of God, we can and will experience little bits of joy – even in our most dark times.
Though, for a while, Alissa Parker felt like she was held captive in the darkness she experienced after she lost Emilie in the shooting last year, over time she began to hear and see some of these signs of God’s kingdom and was able to find in them some hope, peace, joy and love. She explains in her video:
“One day the oil truck just showed up. I never called for our oil tank to be filled. This kindness given quietly from a family I hardly knew was one of so many. The letters started to pour in. And these letters over and over were more accounts of the power of God’s love. There was an overwhelming response from millions of people: well-wishers, people praying for us, people sending us things. I truly started to feel this obvious strength and power that lifted me… that lifted my family. It was time to finish what [Emilie] wanted done.”
And so in Emilie’s honor Alissa co-founded a school safety advocacy group, she began connecting children in need with art, she supported a group that provided emergency response medical care in Guatemala, and she and her husband finished the project of making the crawl space into a play room for their other daughters. Alissa continues:
“People ask: but where was your God when this happened? Why didn’t he stop it? God allowed others to kill his Son. He allows for us all to make our own choices – good and bad – because that’s the only way good can be in us: if we freely choose it over all else. Evil did not win that day. We will carry on that love like she had. It’s quiet, it’s not on the news. It takes an effort to find it. But what I’ve realized through all this is how strong and how big God’s love really is.”
This Advent, as we continue to expectantly wait for the coming of Jesus – the meek King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, Immanuel: “God with us” in the flesh – let us remember this message of hope, peace, joy, and love proclaimed by Alissa Parker, Nelson Mandela, and John the Baptist, himself. As we continue to feel doubt and despair in the midst of our own dark prison cells, may we call out to Jesus, keeping our ears and our eyes open to hear and see the signs of the kingdom of God in our midst. And when we do see and hear these signs, may we receive the light of our Messiah and accept the little bits of joy that come with that light. And as we experience that joy and are transformed by it, may we also let our own lights shine – as children do – so that others in the darkness may know and experience that Jesus Christ truly is our Messiah, the one who was and who is to come.
Street Violence and Holy Darkness (on messyjesusbusiness.com)
Joy in the Advent World of Ours (on andthebearersstoodstill.com)