Saint John the Baptist, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591 - 1666)
Isaiah 35: 1-10; Matthew 11: 2-11
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
December 12, 2010 – Advent 3
I am a fan of the underdog, the supposed losers of this world. I cheered for the New Orleans Saints in last year’s Super Bowl. I grew up south of Boston, with a baseball team that long-suffered under a curse. I work for a guy who was homeless, poor, talked about loving one’s enemies and being blessed for meekness, who died a horrible death, convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.
I’m a soft touch when it comes to Salvation Army volunteers, a street person asking for a few bucks, or the many causes that fill my mailbox and ask for my time on the phone. I invite those wet-behind-the-ears, young Mormon men into my home for something to eat or hot to drink as they pass through our neighborhood every few years. When someone comes to my front door to ask for support I sign the petition and write letters to folks in Congress to abolish the death penalty or to save Long Island Sound.
I love stories about individuals and communities facing incredible odds, and maybe they don’t win the battle, they don’t save the day, but they get back up again the next day and try once more. I appreciate the courage it takes when someone is willing to step out on a limb, try their best, and though it may be far from perfect, it is enough. I love the rich, sumptuous, crowded list of those ‘least likely’.
In this morning’s reading from Isaiah we have a rather strange neighborhood: God’s ‘least-likelihood’: wilderness and desert are singing, flowers are blooming on the dry, barren land, weary hands are given strength, wobbly knees are made firm; the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap like deer, the voiceless break into song; springs of water spout forth in the desert and streams flow, like a wadi or a dry riverbed after a heavy rain; the hot sand will become a quenching pool, the thirsty ground will spout like a water fountain; even where jackals and coyotes hang out will be like a soaking swamp, and the dry grass will become lush and glossy.
And in this least likely oasis there will be a highway, a holy road that will lead God’s people out of exile. The least likely possibility will happen, that God’s people who had been taken captive will now be welcomed home. Even those who usually lose their way will be able to find this road and follow it. For so very long God’s people could not sing their songs of home; now they shall find their voices. The seemingly endless sorrow and grieving will give way to everlasting joy. It is a dream that belongs to all of us, for we all long for home and wholeness.
By the time of John the Baptist, a time of house arrest for God’s people with the Roman occupation, the collective memory of this ‘least likely’ dream had faded. It had been some time since a prophet had been seen in Judah. Given the circumstances, many had expectations that the Messiah would come soon. Some thought he would lead a revolution to oust the Romans and establish King David’s dynastic throne once more.
So when John appeared on the scene, the very voice crying out in the wilderness, many thought he was Elijah come again to herald the advent of the Messiah, who would be the stream flowing in the desert. John’s call to repentance reminded God’s people of that least likely oasis, that peace where one expects strife, that hope where one expects despair. The people flooded the wilderness with the anticipation that now it would be God who would travel that holy road to them, that the Messiah would be their rescuer.
John also had his own expectations, someone with more fire, who would put things right, overturn the oppressive regime; someone with more power than one who talks about turning the other cheek. This Jesus didn’t seem like a very likely messiah. As John sat in prison thinking about what he was hearing from his followers, he might have been wondering if losing his life was worth it. And it sounds as if John’s disciples may have come to the same conclusion: “Are you the One we’ve been expecting, or are we waiting for another?”
Can you hear the guardedness in that question, the desire to not misplace their hopes: “You sound like the least likely candidate for the Messiah. Are you sure we can trust you, follow you?” After all, Jesus’ curriculum vita wasn’t exactly top drawer. The prophet Micah wrote about the place of his birth: “And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “But you, Bethlehem, David's country, the runt of the litter—from you will come the leader who will shepherd-rule Israel.” And before you form in your mind a lovely pastoral image of green pastures and still waters, let me remind you that shepherds were one of the lowest-caste occupations in the Middle East. They were poor, uneducated, sometimes criminal. From the most hick-town will come a bandit to lead a ragtag, often rebellious people. Yup, it’s got success written all over it.
Even Jesus’ hometown where he grew up had a rotten reputation. In the gospel of John, as Jesus is collecting disciples, one of them says to another, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazarenes, like other Galileans, spoke in a coarse dialect, sounding not quite as refined and educated as those in Judea. So here we have a coarse-speaking itinerant rabbi, the son of a carpenter and a peasant girl who descends from the none-too-perfect King David. Again, Jesus is not exactly what was hoped for.
All of us know what it is like to have our hopes dashed. Christmas is the one holiday charged with more expectations than any other and can set us up to be disappointed in any number of ways. Some of us may have hard feelings attached to this season or at least know someone who does. We’re raised on stories of magic, yet the magic does not come so easily when one grows up poor. Those of us who grew up in an alcoholic or abusive home know that Christmas was most likely the worst day, week, or month of the year. And if a loved one has died in the month of December, Christmas is never the same again.
Trouble is, we all know how this story ends, with Jesus on the cross dying a death no one deserves, least of all him. An ignominious death isn’t exactly a selling point or an obvious source of redemption. Which is what prompts John’s question: what am I here in prison for? What am I dying for? Did I proclaim the right person? Did I get the message right? Are you the one?
So Jesus reminds John’s disciples of that ancient dream, that the least likely things to happen are indeed happening: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lepers are cleansed, the lame walk, and he adds a couple of the very least likely to happen to up the ante: the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense that Jesus hasn’t lived up to their expectations of him.
Jesus came not to satisfy our expectations but God’s expectations for the kingdom. And in God’s kingdom everything is upside-down, backwards, from the bottom up, from last to first, for the least and lost. In God’s kingdom what is least likely is most likely to happen, to bear fruit, to be true.
What expectations do you have about Christmas, about yourself, about this church that are unrealistic or least likely to happen? Can you appreciate the difference between unrealistic and least likely? When have you been surprised, or uncertain, like John, about how God was at work in your life, and in the life of this community? In what ways do you long for streams to break forth in your own desert wilderness? And in our longing, how can we praise God?
And you, O Woodmont United Church of Christ, though you may be one of the littlest UCC churches in the Connecticut conference, from you shall come forth, for God, leaders who will be like springs in the desert, the Hail Mary pass in the fourth quarter, those who have the courage to step out on a limb, try their best, and though it may be far from perfect, it will be enough. A small church with no steeple that sometimes worries about its financial solvency, that can often feel chaotic and disorganized yet feeds the poor and hungry and makes everyone feel loved who comes through their doors. The dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them. Yup, it’s got success written all over it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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