John sent word to Jesus to ask: Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
Life is not good for John the Baptist right now. He’s looking for hope. He is waiting and wondering, probably the worst kind of waiting and wondering there is, because he’s sitting in jail. He’s in prison because he told truth to power, criticizing Herod, who divorced his wife and married his sister-in-law. And he’s probably also in there because he is an all’round troublemaker and thorn in the side of the Roman empire.
John reaches out to Jesus because he’s looking for some good news, some reassurance, perhaps, that he and Jesus are on the same page. Is Jesus the one who is to come? Or should John wait for another? One could argue that John should already know the answer to this question. It could be that he does know the answer, but sends his disciples so that they can see and hear what they need to see and hear from Jesus. Or, perhaps, he is having a moment like we all have, of forgetting what we know to be true, especially when what is true is that God is in our midst and we still have to wait. John may be wondering, as so many of Jesus’ disciples wonder, then, and now: if you are the Messiah, why haven’t you toppled the oppressor? Why am I sitting in jail?
And so he sends Jesus the question: Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? The answer to this question is yes. Jesus is the one who is to come, is in fact here, alive and active in this world that is so desperately in need of his healing work. And Jesus is still to come, and we are still to wait.
John’s question is an Advent question. And like John’s ministry, the answer starts in the desert.
This morning’s passage from Isaiah is rich with images of a desert transformed, blooming and full of life. Crocuses that rejoice and sing, burning sand that becomes a pool, thirsty ground transformed into springs of water that give new life to dry grass. So much to smell and see and hear in that seemingly barren land! The signs of God in the desert are there and God is there during a time of waiting and uncertainty.
The reading from Isaiah puts poetic and thickly metaphoric language to what God promises: renewal, reconciliation, healing, and hope.
What would we see and smell in our world to know that God is afoot? What are the signs of what is to come? Parking spaces for everyone? Food growing outside our doors instead of tall grass? Clear water bubbling up in the Labyrinth from a fountain that never fails? A bin full of what we call our “Yes bags” that never goes empty or, even better, a doorbell never rung by someone needing food because no one is ever hungry?
How will we know that God’s promises are fulfilled?
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped,
then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy…
Then, the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the prophet writes. Then, at such time as God will restore and renew us, this is what will happen.
This is what Jesus conveys to John: “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.” If this sounds familiar, it’s not just because it’s in Isaiah. It’s in the psalm. It’s
in the Song of Mary. It is woven throughout scripture, especially the Gospels: the one who is here and who is to come turns the world upside down, healing the broken-hearted and bringing Good News to the poor. This is happeningnow, Jesus says. John has his answer. John should be leaping for joy, and we along with him.
And yet. It is very easy to look around and see and hear nothing but bad news for the poor, bad news for anyone who hungers for righteousness and thirsts for justice. John’s Advent question is our Advent question: is the one whose coming we await already here? Or are we still to wait?
Perhaps it is us who need to have our eyes opened and our ears unstopped. Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday of Advent, we heard all about being awake and staying awake. Staying awake means being alert to God’s promise and God’s action, even in this time when we might be blinded by dismay or apathy, even now when we might be deaf to calls for hope and wisdom.
Last week we hosted an Advent Party to raise funds for Chaplains on the Harbor, specifically for their Harbor Roots Farm. The reason I’m so crazy about this ministry is because it’s a tiny window onto a world turned upside down: formerly homeless, former imprisoned drug users and recovering drug
dealers are turning a soggy piece of land in Gray’s Harbor County into an organic farm, renewing themselves, their community, and the land. If that’s not evidence of new life in the wilderness, I don’t know what is.
When Jesus comes—Jesus who is the one who is to come—the blind who see and the deaf who are all of his disciples, John’s disciples, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, Herod and Herodias, and every one of us. In the meantime, part of our work as disciples is to see through the dark, and to learn to see and hear over and over again, not just to wait for God to open the eyes of the blind but to see ourselves as blind, and let God open our eyes.
Sometimes, the mighty being cast down and the lowly lifted up starts with one person calling foul on a system of domination or exploitation. Sometimes, the hungry are fed when one person is given a zip-loc of healthy, non-perishable snacks. The dead are raised and the lame leap for joy when
God’s surprising grace appears in unexpected places. Perhaps we are the blind learning to see these things.
God’s Advent invitation is to look at dry thirsty desert and hear the sound of rushing water and singing crocuses, to see God’s action around us even in this bleak midwinter—okay, maybe not midwinter, but I know many of us feel a little bleak this time of year.
We don’t know for sure if the Kingdom of God is here yet, and in the midst of this unknowing, our Advent invitation is to look for it, to pull back the curtain on the kingdom, to be the person in our family or our workplace or our friend group who says: hey, look at this! Look at that small act of kindness. Hear that lovely music. Taste this simple, delicious meal made with love.
Smell those fresh greens reminding us of our connection with and our responsibility for all creation. Hear the cry for help. Hear the voiceless singing. Hear that voice of outrage, or compassion. Be the voice of outrage or compassion.
Hear Mary sing: Tell out my soul, tender to me, the promise of God’s word. Tell out my soul, the glories of God’s Word! Firm is his promise, and his mercy sure… Let us see and hear, and let us sing and rejoice.