Sermon / December 11, 2016 / Anne Richards / Matthew 11:2-11 /
We met John the Baptist in last week’s gospel, and somehow, in the space of a week, he’s landed in prison. What has happened? How did an eccentric preaching about repentance out in the wilderness end up in jail? The answer: Herod Antipas, the puppet king of Galilee and son of Herod the Great, who as you will remember was the king who, years earlier, ordered the murder of every small boy under the age of 2 in the region of Bethlehem in an attempt to do away with the infant Jesus.
Herod Antipas was a chip off the old block, morally speaking, and his reign was well known for its sexual and political immorality. Herod caught John the Baptist’s attention when he married his half-brother’s wife, which was considered incest under Mosaic law. John made a public stink about this and although Herod had been initially intrigued by John, he was so angry at John for criticizing him that he threw him in jail. But John’s political problems were just the tip of the iceberg. He was in deep trouble with the religious establishment too, because he insisted that God was intervening in history now and in a new way.
John’s religious contemporaries believed that Israel’s problems were external. The Roman oppressors, Gentiles, sinners, all those excluded from the temple cultus – it was these people, the establishment believed, who were preventing the deliverance of Israel. The solution to this problem would come in the future. The Messiah, when he came, would be a political savior who would free Israel and make it great again. In the meantime, Israel was to safeguard its identity by observing the ordinances, the law, and the rituals as a sign of its obedience to God.
John insisted that Israel’s problem was not external, but internal. He said that Israel’s problem was… Israel. The thrust of all his teaching was that the people of Israel were not fulfilling the moral requirements of the law. Rituals and ordinances had become more important than what they were designed to create: mercy, compassion, and justice.
John’s preaching sounds reasonable to us, perhaps, but to his contemporaries it was an outrage, because it implied that the religious establishment was not faithful to God. And when Jesus began to reach, the situation darkened even further. Because Jesus said, “I am God’s will. I am the intention of God for the world. I am compassion, I am mercy, I am justice. The will of God is not a ritual performance. The will of God is a person.” And so you can see why both John and Jesus ended up dead at the hands of the establishment.
On a personal level, we would be wise to remember John’s message that spiritual problems (whether individual or corporate) are most often internal problems, not external problems. And I wonder whether the internal problems that afflicts most of us, spiritually speaking, is the same one that John’s enemies had: our inability, our refusal even, to recognize that God is intervening in our histories now and in a new way. You might call this inability a kind of un-hope.
In these days as we await the birth of the Lord who gave us freedom and abundant life, our lives can seem not so free, not so abundant. For many people, Christmas is a time when the past percolates up in a painful way. Wounds old and new, sins old and new, losses and disappointments and griefs old and new. They all resurface.
As the year winds down to an end, all our endings return to us, ghostly visitors who tell us that our lives have not been what we have hoped them to be. I don’t know about you, but when I hear at least once a day about how to create the “perfect Christmas”, I know that my life is far from perfect. I know it in perfect detail. I imagine that’s true for you, too. It’s the elephant in the room during this season.
I think the story of John the Baptist has a lot to teach us about where to find hope in this season of enforced happiness, organized greed, and un-hope. But we need to look at his whole story, not just his grim and bloody ending, to find it. It’s easy to imagine John sprouting up full-formed in the desert like some kind of cactus, but that’s not what happened. He had a mother and a father. Their names were Elizabeth and Zechariah. Holy People. Paradigms of Jewish piety. Devout beyond question, righteous before God. But they had no children. In the belief of their time, childlessness was considered a sign of God’s disfavor, a not-so-subtle clue that no matter how righteous you looked on paper, all was not right between you and God.
Elizabeth and Zechariah must have wondered what was wrong. Many years went by and God gave them no answer. Zechariah was a priest and one day while he was about his duties in the temple, an angel appeared and scared him out of his wits. The angel told him that he and Elizabeth were going to have a child. And Zechariah says to the angel, “Sounds like fake news to me. Not likely. Not likely at all. I’m old, my wife is old. We’re both really old. The facts don’t point to a baby here. No offense, of course.”
If you read between the lines in this story in the Scriptures, you can tell that Gabriel is a bit miffed by Zechariah’s response, as if his reputation as an angel is not being sufficiently respected. He says, “Trust me! I’m Gabriel. God sent me.” Zechariah was speechless, literally. That very moment, he lost the power of speech, which goes to show you what can happen when what you expect to hear and see blocks what God gives you to see and hear. Zechariah went home, and Elizabeth gets pregnant, despite his speechlessness – or who knows? maybe because of it. She was surprised, happy, and embarrassed. So embarrassed that she stayed in the house for five months.
When their baby boy was born, their friends and neighbors all rejoiced and brought over tuna noodle casseroles, just as the angel had said. And when it came time to name the baby, everyone assumed that he would be called Zechariah, after his father, as was the custom, but Elizabeth said, “Actually, his name is John.” And Zechariah wrote it down on a tablet: “His name is John”. And immediately, he could speak again.
John means “God is gracious”. Zechariah found his voice again, named what he had wanted for so long, and received his life as God finally gave it to him, at the moment when he let go of what he thought were the facts and saw the truth: God is gracious. Not “God makes you happy”, not “God makes things run perfectly”, not “God keeps you safe”, not even “God makes you happy.” God is gracious. Which means God is always giving us life. We all think of ourselves as finished products, but we’re not. God is always giving us life.
Elizabeth and Zechariah were ordinary people. Notice that God entered their lives in a saving and life-giving way through their most intimate and hidden meeting with each other. God did not come into their lives in a way that anyone could recognize. God came graciously – that is, discreetly, courteously, gracefully, compassionately. He came into the place where they had failed, where they were barren and fruitless and unfortunate, the place of un-hope. He came to that place and reversed their fortunes. He didn’t wipe away their tears forever, for their son John would lose his life for his testimony to Jesus. But he did bless them, in giving them a child who would grow up to be someone who would tell the world about Hope Incarnate.
Elizabeth and Zechariah wanted happiness. Instead, God gave them hope. And so this gospel is about a God who is always trying to give us a new story so that we can find wholeness. By “wholeness” I do not mean merely psychological wholeness. I mean spiritual wholeness. Metaphysical wholeness. Ontological wholeness, by which we come to know and live by the fact that we are already one with ourselves, one with God, and one with each other. Already one.
A small example: My younger sister Kathleen was murdered by a drug dealer when she was nineteen years old. She was a troubled kid who left lots of wreckage in her path, and there is no way to describe the effect of both her life and her death on our family. As those of you who have experienced a violent death in your family know, when something like that happens you go to a place from which you never completely return.
Like many families, I think, mine was not able to absorb or process this sudden loss. We just buried it, like we buried her. For many, many years I lived with a complete absence of any sense of my sister. It was as if she had been blotted out. I had heard many people speak about a sense of connection they felt with loved ones who had died. I didn’t feel that. It was as if part of my life had been amputated and I didn’t even have the phantom pain. It seemed like a very final loss. And then something happened. Thirty-three years later, while I was going through a time of reassessment in my life, I had a dream. There was no image in the dream, only a voice. It was my sister’s voice, clear as a bell. Her nineteen-year-old voice, just as I remembered it. She said, “Remember, I’m your friend.”
I think the greatest milestones of our lives are sometimes not the birthdays or graduations or weddings or Christmas Eves that we celebrate so publicly and bank so much on. I think they are sometimes these small moments in the darkness of the night, or the darkness of our hearts, when God beckons to us and calls us to new life, a new way of understanding our stories. When we listen, we can begin to repent and live a bigger life, a life in which there is no loss, no hardship, that God does not somehow weave into the great and holy story of his precious people so that we can go on with hope. Together.
That listening is hard work. Maybe it’s even what John the Baptist means when he said that the baptism of forgiveness (which most of us received as infants) is only the beginning. Our whole life long, God holds out to us the baptism of the Holy Spirit: a life lived in increasing communion with God and with neighbor that depends not just on our puny ability to forgive but on the immense power of God’s forgiveness that is in every breath we take and that will, like fire, transform us – if we will have it so.
And so, on Christmas Day, the Lord God will come to us as he came to Elizabeth and Zechariah, as a tiny baby. Wherever you are hidden, wherever you are speechless and inadequate and fruitless and sad, wherever the past clings and the future looks unpromising, wherever you are failed and barren, where you see only endings, God is there in you, in that place. He is working in you as he worked in Elizabeth and Zechariah – not to make your life perfect, but to make your life whole, to make of your life something that will help heal the world. If you listen, if you listen hard, you will hear God’s voice. Because it’s not only Jesus who was born on Christmas. It was our humanity itself as well. Amen.
John the Baptist was the last of the great Old Testament prophets. He paved the way between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. No wonder he was cranky. Moving from the old to the new is the hardest thing. From old memories to new memories. From old ways of understanding God to new ways of understanding God. Do not forget that on Christmas Day, God gives us someone who brings us from the old to the new. This is Jesus, who comes to us from the heart of God, where all our memories, olds and new, all our lives olds and new, all our hopes, old and new, live within he light of God’s mercy and forgiveness. This is Jesus, to whom be worship and praise and thanksgiving, now and forever. Amen.