“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew 11:3
I stopped by a garden center this week to pick up a couple of decorative items for the season. As I walked from the parking lot to the entrance, I could hear the beginning of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” playing through their sound system: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. From now on your troubles will be out of sight…”
I got to the door just as the second verse started: Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the Yuletide gay…” A man was exiting as I was entering, and so I paused to let him pass, just as the song got to the line “From now on your troubles will be miles away.” He was singing that line softly to himself, and as he did, he paused outside the door. A shadow passed across his face. His shoulders fell, and he made a little sound – hmm – a sound of resignation.
I said, quietly: “If only that were true, right?” He nodded, gave me a sad smile, and he walked away without saying anything more.
I don’t know that man’s story, but I do know this. His troubles, whatever they are, are not miles away. They’re very close by. And that particular song was reminding him of the difference between what he was hoping and what he was living.
Our friend John the Baptist is back this week. It’s hard to keep track of this guy, and it doesn’t help that our assigned readings keep jumping around in time. Last week we found ourselves earlier in the Gospel of Matthew. John was out there in the desert, pacing and preaching. He was urging folks to repent. He was baptizing hordes of people. He was calling the religious leaders a brood of vipers. He was getting people ready for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – preparing the way for the messiah.
Today we fast forward, and we find John in a much different kind of wilderness, both physically and spiritually. Today we find him in prison. He’s gotten tangled up in some royal politics. John had been bold enough to tell King Herod that it wasn’t right for Herod to steal his brother’s wife. Herod was a petty and vindictive man, so he received that criticism about as well as you would expect. Eventually, you may recall, Herod will have John beheaded.
What a change. From the wide-open desert to a prison cell. Here there are no crowds to inspire. There’s no fresh air to breathe, no river in which to baptize. There is only isolation and a loss of identity. In this moment John knows the difference between what he had hoped and what he is living.
I hear a heartbreaking uncertainty in the message John sends to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Out in the desert he had been so sure. He had pointed to Jesus as one more powerful than himself. “I am not worthy to carry his sandals,” John had said. But now he doesn’t sound so confident. Are you really the messiah, Jesus? Are you the one? How can I be sure?
This turn from confidence to uncertainty is even more moving when we remember how intertwined the lives of John and Jesus have always been. We learn in the Gospel of Luke that John was a bit of a miracle baby. His parents Zechariah and Elizabeth were older and had been unable to conceive a child. Even before Mary gets her visit from an angel, Zechariah, who is a priest, encounters his own messenger. An angel shows up one day in the sanctuary to tell him that he and Elizabeth will be parents after all. The angel says that this child will have a holy purpose: He will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will help people turn toward God, to turn from disobedience to wisdom. He will prepare the people for the Lord.
Elizabeth is six months pregnant when Mary gets her own surprising news, and that’s the first place Mary goes. She runs to Elizabeth, where she is welcomed with open arms. The baby that Elizabeth is carrying – baby John – leaps for joy when Mary shows up. John and Jesus are connected even before they are born.
And of course John baptizes Jesus in the river Jordan. He doesn’t feel worthy of doing so, but it was the role given to him, and he does not run away from it. John had been given the job of preparing the way for Jesus. He embraced that role with purpose and with power.
So we really can’t blame him for feeling so disillusioned. He’s simply done what he was given to do. And now he’s not sure what to believe.
Maybe you’re at the point in this season when you are feeling that difference between what you’re hoping and what you’re living. Maybe your expectations for how wonderful you would feel at this time of year aren’t quite being met. Maybe you’re longing for something more, and try as hard as you can, you can’t seem to shop, bake, wrap, or decorate your way there. Maybe, like me, you are tired of all the gun violence and angry that yet again it has taken more lives, this time very close to us in Jersey City. Or maybe things are generally going well, but you wonder what else is out there waiting for you. Maybe you’re doing the things you’ve been given to do, day after day, at work and at home, but you’re having trouble seeing what it all means.
The writer Ross Gay talks about it in stark terms: “It astonishes me sometimes…how every person I get to know—everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything—lives with some profound personal sorrow.”[i] He lists some examples that have touched people in his own life: “Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back.” He says it again: “Everyone, regardless…of everything.” He goes on to describe that sorrow as a great wilderness. It makes me think of the imagery in today’s Isaiah reading – the burning sand and the thirsty ground longing for nourishment.
Your longing may come from a different place. Financial pressures. Family squabbles. Worry about your kids. Pure exhaustion. And that difference between what you were hoping and what you are living might lead you to some doubts and some questions, especially at this time of year when everyone and everything keeps insisting that your troubles should be miles away.
Notice how Jesus responds to John. Jesus points to tangible experiences: “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.” Jesus doesn’t launch into a sermon or a long theological discussion. He simply points to what he is doing – healing people, sharing the good news with those who need to hear it most, bringing life to places of death.
Jesus is urging us in the midst of our longing and our sorrow to look for places where beauty and holy wonder are sneaking in. Sometimes we have to look closely or we might miss it. But it’s there. Those moments of human connection. Those ways that we give and receive love.
God works in and through our sorrows and our hopes to bring about the transformation that we also hear about in Isaiah: “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God… For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”
This transformation often happens in countless small ways – one drop at a time, if you will. It happens when you have bought and wrapped gifts for the families we have supported through our Giving Tree. It happens when you have donated toiletries and other needed items to the Hoboken Shelter. It happens when you serve in so many different ways that make our worship welcoming and beautiful. It happens when we pray for each other and care for each other.
Try one small thing this week. Think of one person who could use some water in the wilderness. Share some hope with that person. It doesn’t have to be something dramatic or big. Send a text. Give them some cookies with a post-it note. Drive them to the doctor. Call them.
Ross Gay also passes along some wisdom from one of his students, who planned to become a teacher and described how she wanted her classroom to be. This student, Bethany, thought about each person as carrying with them a kind of wilderness. And she asked this question: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?”[ii]
What if we joined our wildernesses together? What if we make sure that no one is alone in their sorrow? What if we point each other toward the moments where we experience the holy breaking into our lives? That’s how the water begins to flow in the desert. That’s how our thirst will be quenched. It won’t be because there is no sorrow or no uncertainty. It will be because God has created us to be in community with each other and to offer healing and hope in tangible ways.
Look around this wilderness that we share. Our troubles are not miles away. They are right here. But so is our God, who says do not be afraid; you shall have joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 3:2
I know there’s often angst at this time of year about how to greet people. Do we say “Merry Christmas”? “Happy Holidays”? “Season’s Greetings”? Well, this morning we have our answer. The correct greeting is clearly “Repent, you brood of vipers!”
This is the time in Advent when John the Baptist always makes an appearance. It’s another way in which our sense of time gets distorted during this season. Last week our readings pushed us to think about the second coming of Jesus, which seems like a distant unknown, even though we were urged to “keep awake!” This week we’re back to his first arrival, only this time we land in the story just before Jesus makes his debut as an adult in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is about to begin his earthly ministry, and John has come to get people ready for the ways that Jesus will shake things up.
This scene takes place out in the wilderness – the place where people in the Bible often go for clarity. The wilderness is – well, wild – but in many ways it’s less chaotic than the distractions of the city. I lived for a year in the high desert of Arizona, and there’s nothing like the wide-open spaces there, especially the sky at night. Far from the light pollution of the city, you can see for miles. You feel like you’re looking at the face of God. So the wilderness makes sense to me as a place to prepare for the arrival of Jesus.
What John is saying and doing in the wilderness might seem kind of crazy, but that hasn’t kept people from flocking out there to hear it. People are coming from all around to be baptized by John. But pay attention to what John says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
“Repent” is one of those words that makes us flinch. Maybe it’s because we imagine someone yelling it at us, pointing a finger in righteous indignation, trying to make us feel shame or guilt. Or we think of the guy holding a sign near Penn Station warning us to repent because the world is about to end.
One of the main reasons we don’t like to talk about repentance is that we don’t like to talk about sin. It’s hard sometimes to tell the truth about ourselves, about our capacity to hurt other people, including those we love the most.
We understand sin theologically in several ways. Sin means doing what is wrong according to the law of God. Sin creates systems that oppress or harm entire groups of people. Martin Luther tells us that sin turns us inward toward ourselves and away from God. Sin is, in one translation, “missing the mark” in the way an archer misses her target. Sin is all of those things. And yet it is also something more than a moral failing.
I am intrigued by the way writer Debie Thomas describes sin. She writes:
[Sin is] anything that interferes with the opening up of our whole hearts to God, to others, to creation, and to ourselves. Sin is estrangement, disconnection, sterility, disharmony. It’s the sludge that slows us down, that says, “Quit. Stop trying. Give up. Change is impossible.” Sin is apathy. Care-less-ness. A frightened resistance to an engaged life. Sin is the opposite of creativity, the opposite of abundance, the opposite of flourishing. Sin is a walking death.[i]
It helps me to think of sin as that which makes us resistant to being changed. God’s creativity has no limits, and God created each of us with a unique combination of gifts to offer the world. Bear fruit worthy of repentance, John says. Repentance is not just an internal process. It will be revealed in how people see us live.
The Greek word for “repent” means to “turn in another direction,” and that’s one way to think about it. Building on Debie’s definition of sin, to repent would mean to turn toward the possibility that God wants something more for us, to turn toward the promise that God can change what we thought was impossible to change.
Repentance gets caught up for us in a fear of judgment. And while we don’t like to talk about judgment either, Jesus is described in scripture as that righteous judge who comes, as we hear today, to separate the wheat from the chaff. In other words, Jesus seeks to preserve what is useful for making bread and feeding people and to get rid of what needs to be discarded.
A couple of folks reminded me this week that judgment is not something to be feared.[ii] Judgment does not have to be terrible. Someone who judges fairly sees us with a clarity that means we are truly known and understood. When someone who deeply loves us is the one doing the judging – seeing us exactly as we are – it opens the way to growth.
Jesus is that kind of judge. He sees the wheat in us, sees how we can nourish others. He sees what can be harvested for the common good, for creative and life-giving generosity to the people in our lives and in our communities. He is able to transform what is destructive and to bring out what is holy and creative in us.[iii]
John says that he baptizes with water, but Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. If you’ll allow me to nerd out for a moment, there’s a term from metallurgy that I learned recently.[iv] Metallurgy is the science of metallic compounds– how they’re made and how they can be transformed to produce other substances like alloys. The term is called annealing. It’s the process of heating a metal to a specific temperature so that it softens and becomes more pliable. It’s also a kind of cleansing process because it gets rid of what can weaken the metal at the same time that it allows the metal to be shaped into something that is both strong and beautiful.[v]
That struck me as one way to imagine what Jesus does with that fire of the Holy Spirit and with us. Maybe it’s a kind of annealing, shaping us into something more strong, more beautiful, more loving, and more giving than we thought possible. The 20th century theologian Thomas Merton said it this way: “Advent is the beginning of the end of all that is in us that is not Christ.”[vi]
Advent is the beginning of the end of all that is in us that is not Christ. What remains is reflected in a prayer we use during baptism, one that draws from the Isaiah passage we heard this morning. Isaiah talks about the fear of the Lord, but think of that fear not as terror but as awe – awe for what the Lord is able to do with us and with creation. Awe that God can imagine a world in which wolves can live with lambs, alongside leopards and goats, calves and lions, cows and bears, children and snakes. A whole host of natural enemies living peacefully with one another.
I ask you to join me in that baptismal prayer again this morning. Let us pray:
We give you thanks, O God, that through water and the Holy Spirit you give your children new birth, cleanse us from sin, and raise us to eternal life. Sustain your people here today with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[iv] Thank you to Trey Graham for introducing me to the term in this beautiful piece about sacred music: https://treygraham.substack.com/p/aswim-in-the-unbearable-exquisite?fbclid=IwAR1J4YH-xUpb7iDy9QKMqWexzhtgEwAiXB7PJlAZDN3rO_2Hi62nN8VrG28
[vi] With thanks to the Rev. Elaine Hewes for this quotation and for her powerful insights on today’s texts, found in the latest issue of Currents in Theology and Mission: http://currentsjournal.org/index.php/currents/article/view/208