Third Sunday of Advent
Most certainly I tell you, among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptizer; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.
It is said that there has been no year in recorded human history that there has been no war between nations. There hasn’t been a global war for many years, but there is always some battle waging between neighboring countries or clans or kingdoms. If there isn’t war on our continent, there’s war somewhere. Violence between enemies takes lives every day. Perhaps there have been years when those wars were minor with few deaths, but conflict is always a part of life. Unfortunately, it seems that even individuals these days make it a habit to find a reason to argue. It seems we are constantly looking for an enemy.
It is no wonder that we find great comfort in the words of Isaiah, “Tell those who have a fearful heart, ‘Be strong! Don’t be afraid! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, God’s retribution. He will come and save you.’” We want God to do away with our enemies, to punish them for the harm they have inflicted on us. It is particularly strange, though, when the enemies fighting one another both believe in the same God. Take, for example, the wars in England between the fifteenth and seventeenth century. Those wars were about power and control, mostly between family members, but there was often an underlying question of religion.
The question was not what religion, but which type of Christianity would be followed. People were beheaded because they wanted to follow the ideas of the reformers and people were beheaded because they wanted to continue to follow Rome, it all depended on who was in power. The years during Henry VIII’s reign were particularly difficult because he was so easily swayed by whoever was in his favor. If he liked you, he believed you, and you could convince him to implement policies favorable for your point of view. But the minute you did something to fall out of favor, and it could be the silliest thing, you were out and the next guy moved in to implement the policies favorable to his point of view.
Of course, this meant that the average person had no idea what was in favor and what was not in favor at any moment. There was confusion not only in the court, but in the streets. It was the death sentence to disagree with the king, but how do you agree when you don’t even know what he believes today?
I read a lot of historical fiction from that time period in English history. I am fascinated by the relationships of those in the court. One book revolved around Henry VIII’s sixth wife Katherine Parr. While the book was fiction, historical fiction writers try to stay true to the historical evidence of what happened. This particular book showed the constant jockeying between courtesans to be in favor not only with Queen Katherine, but especially with King Henry. After all, if the queen falls out of favor, you better have your foot in the next door. And with King Henry, we know the queens fell out of favor. Katherine did eventually, but she was lucky that Henry died before he could remove her head.
The passage from Isaiah brings light to the real question: who is my enemy? Of course, in those years of battle in England, the religious wars always quietly disappeared while the country was in battle against France. It was easy to love one another as they faced a common enemy. But as soon as one war was settled, the old disagreements rose to the top and the fighting began again.
We are human. The reality is that no matter what we believe, there are always human beings that just can’t get along. We have conflicting personalities. We see the world differently. There are just some people who rub us the wrong way. This happens within the closest groups, even families. As Christmas draws closer, many are dreading the impending gatherings because it is almost certain someone will say something to make someone else angry. There is no way to escape, especially when you are visiting distant family and friends. We are human and even the best of us simply do not get along with all the other humans.
But does that make them our enemy? See, we might not agree about the issues, the big and the little ones, and we may even get into heated discussions with them, but does that make them an enemy? Sadly, I have to admit that I have cried out to God about those who have hurt me. Did I want Him to hurt them? I wish I could say I didn’t...
But when God says that He will deal with our enemies, He’s not really thinking in terms of those neighbors with whom we do not agree. See, we have greater enemies about which we should be concerned, i.e. the devil. When we disagree with our neighbors about the silly things, and even the big things, Satan takes advantage of our weaknesses. He makes us think that those people are our enemies. He wants us to hate them. He wants us to divide. He’s done a pretty good job.
In the days when Jesus was born, the people were waiting for a Messiah, a savior or liberator. They wanted someone who would defeat the Romans and return Israel to the Golden Age of David. They wanted God to take vengeance on their enemies. But the Jews faced the same question as we do today: who is the enemy God intended to take vengeance on? Jesus came to save the people not from the threats in this world but from the threats that keep them from God. Jesus is the Way that will make the desert a land of flowing blessings.
Isaiah says, “The wilderness and the dry land will be glad. The desert will rejoice and blossom like a rose.” Isn’t that a beautiful image? I see these words come to pass happen each year in Texas. If the conditions are perfect, the rains of October and February as well as the cold of December will bring out the Bluebonnets in such numbers that the fields turn to blue. There are other wildflowers, too, and for months the dry, brown landscape is filled with color. Isaiah says, “It will blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing.”
Isaiah was telling the people that something spectacular was about to happen. This promise is given to the exiles as they waited to be released from captivity. It must have been difficult to wait. We know that God is faithful, but when things don’t happen in a timely manner, we begin to doubt. We forget that things happen in God’s time for a reason. Perhaps they weren’t ready. Perhaps they did not fully understand the depth of God’s grace. Perhaps there were still some that needed to be cleansed of the attitudes that sent them into captivity in the first place. The people were there to be transformed, to remember the God of their forefathers and the power of His Word. The promise would be fulfilled when the time was right, when God was satisfied that all were ready to return into His presence.
God’s people would return home with shouts of praise and song. When it happened, extraordinary things would occur: the blind would see, the deaf would hear, the speechless tongue would sing and the lame would dance. They shall see the glory of God. But this promise was not for all men, it was for God’s people. The highway leads directly to the gate of Zion: the unclean would not walk the Holy Way.
Though the words were spoken to those in exile, these words speak also to another day, a future time when God would redeem the world and would transform His people forever. Can you imagine a world as is pictured in the text from Isaiah? We might catch glimpses today, but there are still those who are blind, deaf, dumb and lame. The lions and jackals still roam. Was the world really different when the exiles returned to Jerusalem? People still became sick, children were born blind. By the time Jesus was born, the unclean were still walking into the gates of Zion.
So, they continued to look for the Messiah. Even John, who leapt in joy in his mother’s womb and did not want to baptize Jesus because he knew that he was not worthy to even touch His feet, wondered whether Jesus was the One for whom they were waiting. In today’s Gospel lesson, John sent his disciples to ask Jesus. He wanted to know if Jesus was the One who would set them free.While it is true that Jesus was the Messiah, He wasn’t coming to set them free from the enemies they thought needed God’s vengeance. Jesus said, “Blessed is he who finds no occasion for stumbling in me.” Jesus was not going to be what they wanted Him to be. He was going to be what God intended Him to be. And that would cause the religious leaders and those who wanted to continue to have power to stumble.
Jesus’ ministry certainly did not make sense to the religious elite of His day. He touched the untouchables. He brought wholeness to the outcast. He gave life to those who were dead to the world. He set the prisoners free, opened the eyes of the blind, and made the lame walk. He did not do good things for the righteous; He did great things for the sinners. It made no sense in Jesus’ day and does not make sense today. Human nature expects reward for goodness, but Jesus gave gifts to the humble. No wonder so many people doubt that He is the Messiah even today.
After sending John’s disciples back with the good news, Jesus spoke to the people about John. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and much more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ Most certainly I tell you, among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptizer; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.’” Once again, Jesus pointed to the Old Testament prophecy to show the fulfillment of God’s promises.
But how could John who was truly a great man be lesser than the least in the Kingdom of Heaven? The point of this verse is that John was of the Old Covenant, a covenant based on a different kind of promise. He was looking for salvation in flesh; the New Covenant promises a greater salvation. The power of the Old Covenant was fire and brimstone, it was destructive and judgmental. The power that Jesus came to bring was of healing and forgiveness, restoring people to God and making them whole. While His work has been complete, we do not yet see the entire fulfillment of this promise. This is the hope in which we live. The day will come when the ills in Isaiah will be gone forever.
The central theme of today’s texts is the ministry work of Jesus in fulfillment of God’s promises. Isaiah tells us that the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will be unstopped, the lame man will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will sing. The psalmist made the same promise.
Matthew tells us that John the Baptist heard stories about Jesus Christ. He was imprisoned by Herod and could not go see it for himself, so he sent some of his disciples. “Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?” they asked Jesus. Jesus answered, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see,” and goes on to list the same promises. Jesus was opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. He was making the lame walk and the mute sing. He was raising the dead. Jesus was fulfilling the promises of the Old Testament in their presence, proving by His works that He was the One for whom they were waiting. Most importantly, Jesus was preaching the Good News of God’s grace.
We are still waiting for the fulfillment of these promises even now two thousand years after the birth of Christ. The blind are still blind. The lame are still lame. The wicked still walk in our midst. But the day will come when God will completely fulfill all these promises. That day will come in God’s time, not in our time. Will it be a day? Will it be a thousand years? We don’t know. What we do know is that God is faithful.
So James tells us to be patient. “Be patient therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it, until it receives the early and late rain.” God knows what He is doing. He is longsuffering. He is forgiving. He wants all to know Him. He wants everyone to walk on the Way. It is all about God’s mercy. He is the One who will make it happen. He has made a plan that will fulfill all His promises, and one day we’ll know what it is like to live in that wilderness that has been transformed into a garden of life. The water will flow.
The water will flow. Actually, the water already flows. While we are still waiting for the promises of God, they were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the Living Water that makes the desert bloom, and He is already doing so through His people. Though He never defeated the Romans, He did defeat the real enemy: death. The devil is still wandering around, trying to convince us to hate one another and taking advantage of our faults, but God is still in control.
James writes, “Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” The language of the New Testament has a sense of immediacy that seems to contradict the reality. Two thousand years is a long time since the first disciples followed Jesus. It is enough to make us doubt what we believe, just like John the Baptist. It makes us ask, “Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?” In this world many people look for salvation in so many places. They cry out to God for all the wrong reasons. They don’t even realize why they need to be saved. They see enemies in every person who disagrees with them, but do not see that the real enemy has been defeated by God.
The psalmist speaks of the hope we have in Jesus. “Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Jehovah his God.” This is not good news the righteous; it is good news for the sinner, because it speaks of looking beyond oneself and trusting in a higher power. That higher power, by virtue of its greatness, must know better how things should be accomplished. We are still waiting for the fulfillment of the promises two thousand years after the coming of Christ because God still has work to do. There are things to be accomplished and we are called to wait both patiently and expectantly while God finishes what He has started.
What are you waiting for? Does your impatience make you doubt the truth of what God is doing? Do you wonder if Jesus really is the One, or if we should be looking for another? The answer is the same for us today as it was for John. “Go and tell the things which ye hear and see.” The blind see God, the lame go forth in faith, the filthy are cleansed, the deaf hear God’s word, the dead are raised to new life in Christ and the poor are given the treasures of the Kingdom. This is truly good news.
This is a time to trust in God as we wait. We might be confused, like John, and wonder if we are really seeing the work of God. Despite our doubt we can know that God’s promises are real and He is faithful. That’s what makes us greater than John. We live in the New Covenant; God has redeemed His people and restored us to Him. He will make the world right, in His time and in His way. Jesus is coming, not just as a babe in a manger, but as the King of Glory. One day God’s creation will be as Isaiah imagines. Do not be afraid. He is here now and will be here then. Even now His Spirit is sweeping across the land, transforming the dry land with His Word.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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