Advent 3 Year C
"Will the Real Messiah please stand up?"
The other day, my husband and I were doing some Christmas shopping and we came across what I thought at the time was an unusual item. It was an "Olive the other Reindeer" pop up Advent calendar. (FYI: Olive is relatively new in the Christmas pantheon. and by the way, she is not really a reindeer, she's a dog. But her name is Olive. And she helps Santa) I stood there, looking at the Olive Advent Calendar for a minute, trying to figure out what was wrong with this picture. Olive the reindeer... Advent... hmmm.... then I called my husband over to take a look at it as well. "I thought advent was about waiting for Jesus to come," I finally said. He agreed, and added, "Maybe the Olive calendar is for people who are waiting for Christmas, but who aren’t quite sure what they are waiting for."
The more I think about it, the more I think that statement describes most of us, at least sometimes. We’re waiting, but we’re not quite sure what we are waiting for – or how to know when it has arrived. Certainly this describes John the Baptist, who in our gospel lesson today asks the question, through his disciples, "Are you the One who is to come? Or are we to wait for another?" He’s been waiting for the Messiah all his life. He’s even been preaching about the Messiah, calling people to repentance to prepare for the Messiah, baptizing people in the river Jordan because the Messiah was coming soon. And yet....here he is today, sitting in prison, and he’s wondering, and doubting, "Is he the Real Thing? Or should I keep waiting? Should we keep waiting?"
We’re all looking for the Real Thing, aren’t we? But how do we know it when we see it? Sometimes we’re sure that we have the genuine article, only to be told the what we have been believing in was FAKE, what we have been treasuring was WORTHLESS. I still remember how once long ago I had to (well, I guess I didn’t HAVE TO) tell a group of young women that Betty Crocker was NOT a real person. They were devastated. They had bought CAKE MIX because of her. She had such an honest face. They trusted her. Then they found out that she was just another marketing ploy, like the kindly faced man on the cover of the Quaker Oats box, who used to always say, "Nothing is better for Thee than me." And we believed him, didn’t we? He has such an honest face.
If John the Baptist has doubts, perhaps he can be excused. After all, he is in prison, and he has a lot of time on his hands – time to think about how certain he was about everything when he was out on the road eating locusts and wild honey, and preaching judgment and repentance. The crowds loved him; the leaders did not. And perhaps he can be forgiven his doubts when we consider that he is in prison – probably not the place where he thought this whole enterprise would end up. If this Jesus was the Messiah, he must have thought, what was he (John) doing in prison? Wouldn’t the Messiah have the power somehow to vindicate his servant? If the Day of the Lord was really approaching, as John had preached with conviction, why were the wicked still prospering and people like John the Baptist still sitting in prison?
Then again, Jesus’ preaching seems to have taken a different direction than John’s. Where John preached fire and brimstone, warning the comfortable about the upcoming Day of the Lord, Jesus comforted the poor and the afflicted, promising that there would be a Day of the Lord for them: and that it would be a day of healing, grace and forgiveness. John was waiting for a Day of Judgment, a Messiah who would deal with the wicked once and for all, and permanently. Jesus was proclaiming a day of Salvation, a day of grace, especially for those who needed it most.
So John asks his question, not so far away from ours, "Are you the one who is to come? Or are we to wait for another?" It’s the question for people who are waiting, but aren’t quite sure what they are waiting for. It’s a question particularly appropriate for this time of year, when we see Olive the Other Reindeer calendars and watch heartwarming Christmas specials and hear messages proclaiming from the wilderness: "Buy more Christmas presents! You aren’t done yet!" We’re waiting, at this time of year, but what is it, exactly, that we are waiting for?Are we waiting for just the right present? Are we waiting for a family reunion, all gathered around a warm fireplace, eating and talking and loving each other? Are we waiting for special gatherings with friends who care about us, and who we care for? What is the real meaning of Christmas, anyway? ...Will we know it when it comes? One Christmas special recently announced, "It’s all about family and friends. That’s the real meaning of Christmas." What are we waiting for? Or who? And how can we tell when he has arrived? How can we tell that Jesus is the real thing, the Messiah, the One that we really are waiting for?
This is the answer that Jesus gave John’s disciples: "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." He doesn’t say, "Yes, I’m the Messiah," or "No, I’m not" – he points to what he has been saying and what he is doing – healing, forgiving, raising the dead – and who he is speaking to – the poor, the lonely, the vulnerable, the dying. And then he says: "You be the judge. I make the blind see and I raise the dead. I set free the captive and feed the hungry. I am on the side of the poor and the grieving, on the side of the prisoner and the homeless. Is this what you have been waiting for? Am I the One you have been waiting for?" What is the real meaning of Christmas? What kind of a Messiah are we waiting for?
That’s the heart of the question today. Because there are a lot of different messages being proclaimed this time of year, some of them commercial, some of them sentimental, and some are spiritual. What kind of a Messiah are you waiting for? Because Jesus is the Messiah who makes the blind see and raises the dead, who cleanses lepers and sets the captives free. Jesus is the Messiah who feeds the hungry, and lifts up the poor, who sets free the captives and sits down to eat with sinners. And it seems that this is the way you can test the different messages you hear at Christmas: any Christmas message which includes you and your loved ones but leaves out the poor and the hungry and the lonely – is a FAKE Christmas message, not a real one. Any Christmas message which promises peace to our friends, but not our enemies, is a FAKE Christmas message, not a real one. Really good good news has to be for you and me, and for John sitting in prison, for our children who will be performing here today, and for the children who come to us homeless with Families Moving Forward. Really good news promises forgiveness to those who really need it; God’s presence to those who are really lonely; God’s healing to those who are really hurting; God’s life to those who are really dying. All too often, people who doubt or disbelieve the Christian message do not see enough evidence of its truth in our lives. Are we the Real Thing? What kind of a Messiah do we believe in? What kind of a Messiah are we waiting for?
The news was scandalous, but also all too common. A school shooting; 5 dead, and the shooter.But this time it was different. For this particular school shooting was in an Amish community, where no one could imagine something like this happening. And after this particular school shooting there was an outbreak of scandalous forgiveness. It was the big story, even bigger than the shooting itself. People could not comprehend the action of the shooter; but even more, they couldn’t comprehend the community, which reached out to the family of the murderer with words and actions, words and actions – of forgiveness and reconciliation. How could they do this? They have been praised – and they have been criticized. But this is the kind of Messiah they are waiting for, the kind of Messiah they are preparing for: one who heals and feeds and raises the dead, even forgives enemies. This is the kind of Messiah Jesus is: God with us, all of us, and especially with those who really need him.
What kind of a Messiah are you waiting for? What kind of a Messiah are you preparing for?John prepared for a Messiah who would judge the world; he got a Messiah who opens his arms to embrace the world, who loves us, the lonely, the forgotten, the hungry, and the fakers— he got a Messiah who came to us as a child, and who speaks to us even through the words of children. He got a Messiah who is on the side of the broken and the misfits, not the rich and the successful.
Advent is a time of waiting: and it’s not a bad question to ask ourselves at this time of year, as we light candles and make cookies and sweep our floors and dream: What is the real meaning of Christmas – for you? What kind of a Messiah are you waiting for? What kind of a Messiah are you preparing for?
More thoughts on Betty Crocker here