I’ve had a few weeks off while my clergy colleagues preached Advent 1 and 2.   Good to back.  MP+


Trusting The One Who Is To Come: A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent.  Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 11 December, 2022.   Readings (Yr A) for this Sunday:  Isaiah 35:1-10, Canticle 18 (Luke 1:47-55), James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11.




“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”


Today I want to talk about what our expectations are of Jesus, and how they may not match with what Jesus offers and with what Jesus asks of us.


Last Sunday we heard ”The voice of one crying in the wilderness”, the voice that Isaiah said would come to tell us to make ready for the coming of the Lord.    That was the voice of John the Baptist, a voice that was loud and proud, the voice of someone confident in his vocation, certain of the one far, far greater than he.


This Sunday we again hear John’s voice, but how different this voice is!   It’s a voice carried from prison by John’s friends, a voice that we can more likely relate to, a voice that’s uncertain, a voice in which hope seems just slightly tinged with by doubt.    “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  (Mt 11.3).


If you’re puzzled why John has gone from the wilderness last Sunday to prison this Sunday, it’s because we’ve fast forwarded some years in the story.    Jesus is well into his travels and ministry, but meanwhile John has been arrested for criticizing King Herod, who had unlawfully married his half niece.    As  Matthew tells us later on, John will never leave prison, and will soon be executed (Mt 14:1-12).


Prison in the ancient world was a terrible place.   Prisoners were entirely dependent on their friends and families for food and care, which is why Jesus himself says that one of the duties of his followers is to visit those in prison (Mt 25.36).  John must have had visits from his own disciples and followers, times during which they must have debated who Jesus was and whether he had brought the kind of salvation that they had hoped for.


Like many of his generation, John must have expected that the Messiah going to be another King David who would free his people, a champion who would cast down tyrants like Herod and Pilate.  John himself had stood on the banks of the Jordan promising such a Messiah, one who was coming with fire and with an axe.   But as Jesus’ ministry played out, it became apparent that the Messiah was a teacher and a healer.


“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another” asks John from prison?    As John languished in some dank, dark cell, probably knowing that his death is near, he was really asking, what sort of salvation does Jesus offer us?  Is the teaching and healing of Jesus enough, or is there more, some political program or revolutionary agenda?   And, if Jesus isn’t sufficient for our needs, who else can save us?   In asking these questions, John could not know that he was founding a long tradition of Christians who have used their endless hours in prison to ask these questions.  Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail that one has little to do when “he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?” King’s letter from prison is written with a strong spirit of impatience that changes to race laws weren’t happening fast enough. 


In 1943, the German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was arrested for his role in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the  Nazi party.    While a committed Christian, Bonhoeffer had come to believe that violence was necessary to save Germany.  He spent the last two years of his life in prison, during which time he wrote books on ethics and discipleship, maintained his many friendships by letter, and encouraged his fellow prisoners right up to the day of his execution.   


While Bonhoeffer never thought that Christians should turn their backs on the world and think only of heaven, as time went on and his position became increasingly hopeless, he had ample time to think about his absolute dependence on Jesus.    In one of his letters from prison, he wrote that “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other – things that are really of no consequence – the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.” 


It’s human nature to be impatient for change, but sometimes patience is forced on us.    Thus, I love this quote because I think it accurately captures both our current posture of waiting in Advent, and it also describes our total need for the one we wait for. 


“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” I think that Bonhoeffer might have said, in response to John’s question, there is no other.  The one who can save us is the one who has done miracles, and is the one who returned from death.   There is no other greater than he.  As Bonhoeffer wrote near the end of his life, “All that we may rightly expect from God, and ask for him, is to be found in Jesus Christ”. 


What does Jesus say in response to John’s question.   I think it’s fascinating how Jesus doesn’t answer “Yes, of course I’m the one”, and nor does he get angry with John for doubting him.    He merely says, in effect, if you look at what I’m doing, then you’ll see who I am.   See the lame who walk now, see the blind who have their sight, see the lepers who now have clean skin, see the dead who are raised to life.  


John had certainly heard of these miracles and healings while in prison, which is why he sent his disciples to Jesus, and we know about them in part because Matthew describes them in his chapters 8 to 10.  To John, and to us, Jesus seems to be saying, this is the work I was sent to do, this is what the kingdom of God looks like.  What Jesus doesn’t do is offer his works to John as a categorical proof that he is the one sent by God.    Instead, he says something quite interesting.  In what almost sounds like it should be part of the Beatitudes, Jesus says “Blessed is anyone who takes no offence in me” (Mt 11.6).  What does this mean?


Now we know that not everyone at the time believed in Jesus.  We know this because he was crucified, of course, but we also know that even some of those of saw him after his resurrection weren’t convinced.  At the very end of his gospel, just before Jesus is raised into heaven, with the wounds still fresh on his hands and feet, Matthew says, When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted” (Mt 28.17).  


Taking offence at Jesus could just mean simple disbelief that any one man could have done these things.  More and more people  today don’t believe in Jesus.  Even if I could point to some  exra-biblical, contemporary historical source that documented all of these miracles, I am sure people would deny it, in the same way that some people deny the moon landings, or deny that vaccines work.    It’s human nature to disbelieve and doubt.  I get that, but I think there’s more to it.  I think a more likely reason why so many take offence at Jesus is because he just asks too much of us.


Recall that last Sunday we heard John in the wilderness say to the crowds “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt 3.1).  These are exactly the same words that Jesus says at the very start of his ministry, right after he returns from being tempted in the desert.   Repent meaning that your current life isn’t pleasing to God.  Repent meaning turn about, change your ways, give your heart and will to God.     These are far harder things to do than to believe in some ancient miracles.  


The American preacher Timothy Keller rightly says that people don’t want to believe in a Jesus who tells them that they need to change their lives, because that’s insulting to them to say that they’re not good enough for them.   But they also don’t want to believe in a Jesus of unlimited grace, because they don’t like to see people worse than them forgiven, and also because  they’re suspicious that there’s a catch, that a God so generous might demand something of them down the road.   Better not to believe at all, or maybe just believe on our terms, better to judge ourselves and say we’re basically ok..  


“Blessed are those who take no offence in me”.   What would this blessing look like? How would we ask for it?  I think it would start with repentance, with a desire to put our lives and hearts and thoughts under the authority of Jesus.   This blessing would then flow from an absolute trust in Jesus, an admission that we are dependent on Jesus to unlock the doors that confine us.    This dependence would not just be spiritual, private, and apolitical.   I mean, if you listened to the song of Mary, which we heard in lieu of our psalm today, you’ll know that God is not apolitical.  The Magnificat is all about thrones and powers crashing down as the poor and hungry are lifted up. 


So if we want to believe in Jesus and if we want to put ourselves under his authority and his Magnificat agenda, then we need the courage to stand with him and say no to those forces of greed and hatred and injustice that would want to be our gods. To depend on Jesus is to say to the world that Jesus is all in all.  To depend on Jesus is to say that we uphold the dignity of the poor and the outcast because Jesus loves them.  To depend on Jesus is say that we try to love the unlovable because Jesus loved them, that we try to forgive as Jesus did.  To depend on Jesus is even to say that we try not to fear death because Jesus rose from the dead as he will raise us on the last day.


This sort of faith and dependence doesn’t come easily.    We can’t just throw a switch and say that it is well with our soul.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed by the Nazis just days before the war ended, within days of being liberated by the allied armies.   One witness of his death marvelled at his grace and serenity. A prisoner who survived, and who knew him in his last days, said that Bonhoeffer was closer to God than any other man that he had ever known.   And yet Bonhoeffer was a confident intellectual, a prominent clergyman, a mover and shaker from an aristocratic family.  He had his own pride and self-reliance to overcome.  It took years of prayer, meditation, and hardship for him to arrive at the trust and serenity of his final days.


“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  This is a fair question to ask in times of sickness and sorrow, when we are tired and impatient and feel trapped by life.   But we won’t know the answer to this question if we don’t turn our hearts and lives to Jesus.   This giving of ourselves takes time.  It’s found in prayer and service, it’s found in being honest with God about our needs and even our spiritual poverty.   We find Jesus in the slow healing of our hearts, and we find Jesus in the knowledge that we and our neighbour are loved and lovable.   We find Jesus when we open our doors to the neighbourhood, as we will this coming Wednesday, with all the work that entails.


So yes, my friends, the babe born in Bethlehem is the one we wait for.    There is no other to rely on.    There is no saviour of our own making.   The one we wait for is Jesus, the one who has healed and will heal, the one who has risen and who open our prison door and who will raise us.     Jesus, who comes with all the love of God in his heart, enough love to change our lives and our world.   He is the one who we wait for this Advent, with longing and joy.

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