Every year at Advent it’s the same: we get two weeks of John the Baptist even though we’re drawing closer to Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph’s story won’t show up until next week on the Fourth Sunday of Advent getting short shrift, so we’ll have to wait until then to talk about angels and annunciations and the like. This year in our readings from Matthew rather than a second dose of John by the River Jordan, we encounter the Baptizer in jail. Last week he was proclaiming with conviction that we needed to prepare the way of the Lord because one was coming who was more powerful than John himself. In fact, John said that he wouldn’t even be worthy enough to carry the sandals of this one who would appear with both winnowing fork and fire in order to set things straight.
A sermon based on Matthew 11:2-11.
But this week that message seems to have changed. John isn’t quite so sure eight chapters later. This morning we read, “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to await for another?’” John’s asking, “Is it you, Lord, ’cause I’ve heard some things, and I’m not so sure now.” I mean, we get it, right? John was there proclaiming the coming of Jesus, and calling out the religious and political leaders from his spot there along the river. But when you start offending those with power, it tends not to go so well for you; Herod had John arrested. Even with bars on the windows, John has been talking with his followers who’ve given him updates on Jesus. But John is a bit confused; “Where’s the winnowing fork and fire?” he seems to be asking. “I’m sitting here in prison while the bad guys continue to live their unencumbered lives. Have you forgotten about me? Is this all you’re going to do? Is it really you?”
Jesus, it appears, has come in a way John didn’t expect. But he sends a reassuring message to him to let him know that things are all right. “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.” Then Jesus adds this kicker; “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” He might not have come in the way John expected, but he’s still the one.
And how do we know? Because of the way Jesus brings restoration. Giving sight to the blind, and helping the lame to walk again. Bringing good news to the poor and offering healing to the ostracized lepers. In each case, Jesus offers healing and wholeness and renewal. And not only that, through Jesus’ actions these ones that had been disconnected from others in society due to their health status are now given a new lease on life. They can once more fully engage with those they love; they can live new and restored lives.
The Church has often made it about right belief when it comes to determining who’s a true follower of Jesus and who’s not, rather than about right action. Do you have the right doctrine down pat? Do you know your theology and can you back it up with scripture? Can you articulate the fundamental truths that we hold sacred? And yet, Jesus’ word back to John is focused squarely on what he has been doing. For Jesus, it’s all about compassion and connection.
Newbury award winning author Katherine Paterson describes an encounter from her childhood in an essay entitled “Merit Badges.” Paterson was an eleven year old girl scout at the time, and, after nagging from her scout leader, she promised to go and visit someone at a nursing home. After receiving a list of residents from her troop leader, Kate happened upon Mildred Hull, described with the words “husband deceased, no children, likes to play cards.” When Kate appeared for a visit the next day wearing her scout uniform, Mildred came up to her. After Kate explained she was a Girl Scout, Mrs. Hull replied, “Oh, I get it. I couldn’t imagine why any young girl I never heard of was coming to see me. I’m a merit badge.” When Kate demurred, Mildred replied, “Let me be a merit badge, please. I don’t think I’m up to being a good deed for the day.”
And with that, the two sat down and fully introduced themselves. Mildred told Kate that no one ever called her “Mildred” in her whole life even though that’s what the staff insisted she be called. “My friends call me ‘Milly,’” she told Kate. But, she said, her brother always called her “Mildew.” “For years I burst into tears when he said it,” she added. She then described how she once met a friend of her brother’s named Ralph, and she knew right that she wanted to marry him. And she could have slugged her brother when he introduced her as “Mildew.” “You know what Ralph called me till the day he died,” she said to Kate, “Dewy,” she told her. “I thought it was the most beautiful name a girl could ever have.”
Paterson described trying to envision a young adult crazy in love in the body of the old woman in front of her, and when she realized Millie was staring back at her, Kate quickly asked if she wanted to play cards. “Cards?” Millie said incredulously. “Why would I want to play cards? I hate cards.” Kate replied that she was told Millie liked cards. “I’ll play if I have to with people who don’t know how to make conversation. But why should I play with you?”
Kate and Millie started an unexpected friendship that day. Millie had long been disconnected from others, and with Kate she found someone willing to make that connection. She was restored to community.
That’s the report Jesus wants sent back to John, how he brought about healing and restoration and renewal. And that’s the work we’re given to do too. Making connections with others and offering healing through our relationships. If you were to ask others what the Church is known for, making connections and restoring relationships often aren’t top of mind. Rather, it’s about who is not welcome through the church’s doors, or what Christians take firm stands against. Or, more succinctly, it comes down to belief. But for Jesus it’s all about connections and mercy and compassion.
An article appeared in the Boston Globe recently titled “Church Should Be More Like Burning Man,” which piqued my interest as Burning Man is an annual bacchanalia held in the desert of the Southwest each August and decidedly not something you’d ever compare to a church. Putting aside the drunken revelry, the article focused on the primacy of generosity at the festival. Cash is not allowed, and participants are asked to share gifts with one another with no expectation of getting anything in return. Some bring food, or musical abilities. Medical supplies and ice are perennial offerings as temperatures often reach over a 100 degrees during the day. The presence of blowing dust often makes the gift of a shower all the more precious. The author of the article, David DeSteno, is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University. He writes, “By creating a ritual that shakes people out of their routines and lets them feel not only their own vulnerability but also their power to help others, Burning Man ignites feelings of belonging and compassion that remain long after the last embers have burned out. Imagine what such a change could do to transform a congregation near you.”
The hallmarks of the ministry of Jesus are the same: belonging and compassion. While John wasn’t sure if Jesus was the one to come, Jesus sends along assurance simply through a report of the works he had done and would continue to do. It was just those sorts of things that changed the world.
As we get closer to Bethlehem, let us embrace more fully the compassion and care of Jesus. Let us see the ones helping us at the grocery store as human beings doing their best and not as hired hands. Let us seek to bring joy to those who are shut in or in lockup both at Christmastime, and throughout the year with ongoing visits and connections. Let us choose to bring Good News to the poor, recognizing the deep love Jesus has for the ones who often get forgotten by the world. And may we be blessed by not taking offense at how Jesus comes, but by living in the same way ourselves.