Advent is such a wonky time of year. While down on 11th and College, the Methodists are having their Christmas Cantata this morning, we’re stuck with an imprisoned John the Baptist seemingly having second thoughts about his cousin, Jesus, being the Messiah. Given all that our community has been through over the past few weeks, I can’t help but wonder why we can’t just get on with the joyful celebrations and familiar carols of the Christmas Season? If only God, and God’s church would conform to my expectations, all of this would be so much easier. On second thought, I guess I can understand where John the Baptist was coming from.
Our passage begins with the surprise announcement that John is in prison. Last we heard from John, he was in the wilderness baptizing people by the thousands and calling Pharisees and regular folk alike to repentance for the forgiveness of their sins. Of course, people don’t always like it when you tell them they are sinners who need to repent. Those who like it the least are often the powerful and the privileged, those who likely need to hear it the most. Herod the tetrarch found John the Baptist interesting, but when he started to meddle in Herod’s personal life, condemning him for stealing his brother’s wife, Herod’s interest faded, and John found himself in prison, wondering what would come next.
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he entered the Synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, took the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and read “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” John surely knew of this famous first sermon. Afterall, it had gotten Jesus run out of town and nearly killed. After escaping the angry mob, Jesus went about fulfilling the words of Isaiah. He healed the sick, preached good news to the poor, brought sight to the blind, made the lame to walk, raised the dead, and gave hope to the oppressed. So, you can imagine John the Baptist, sitting in a dungeon in one of Herod’s palaces, wondering when Jesus is going to do the whole “freedom for prisoners” thing for him, when he gets the idea to send his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you sure you’re the one?”
Jesus’ response to John’s disciples is telling. He tells them to go back to John and tell him what they had seen and heard, “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.” Jesus knows that John knows that Jesus is the Messiah, whether he springs him from jail or not, because Jesus is doing exactly what the Messiah was supposed to do. Its why John asked the question in the first place, but John was tired of waiting for the Messiah to impact him directly, and so he tried to speed things up, which is really, really, relatable.
Advent is a season of waiting. We wait for the birth of the Christ child on Christmas, and we wait for the return of Jesus with power and great glory at his second coming. In the midst of all this waiting, it can be easy to being to wonder, like John the Baptist did, “how long O Lord?” This year, the waiting seems particularly keen. Today marks one year since dual tornadoes ripped through our community. For those whose homes were directly impacted, it has been a year of waiting on insurance claims, contractors, window deliveries, inspections, and occupancy permits. For those of us whose impact was more psychological, the waiting to hear from family and friends, the waiting to know how to help, the waiting to see progress, or the waiting for our favorite butcher shop or restaurant to reopen is its own kind of challenge.
As we have waited on anniversary events like tonight’s “Light the Path,” our community has tried to have a normal December, celebrating the Christmas season as usual. Early last Saturday morning, life was once again disrupted as the Bowling Green Police and Warren County Sherriff shared news of a shooting threat against a protest planned downtown. The possibility of violence led to the postponement of the Jaycees Christmas Parade, the Miracle Mile race, and the Mistletoe Market. Suddenly, our community found itself waiting again for joy, for hope, and for peace. Then again on Thursday, violent threats against high school students in our community forced us to wait for answers, arrests, and a sense of peace. And of course, front of mind all week long was Linda Surface as we prayed for her family while they kept watch, waiting for her journey to end and to be reunited with her beloved Howard. I could feel the weight of our collective waiting this week as the fog of grief would come and go among our staff, the many volunteers who came through the building, and those who called, texted, and emailed to ask after her.
All week, I’ve felt myself asking God, “How long, O Lord, must we wait?” How long until the scars of the tornado are healed? How long until there is no longer violence? How long until illness ceases, death’s sting is undone, and every tear is wiped from our eyes? How long, O Lord, how long? I guess that means that Advent is precisely the right season for us at this moment in time. Despite the trees and decorations and Christmas music all around, it hasn’t yet felt like the Christmas season to me. I’m still waiting. Waiting for joy. Waiting for healing. Waiting for the good news of God in Christ to really take hold of my heart again.
I suspect I’m not alone in this. It has been a difficult week, month, year, or longer for many of you as well. And despite the desire to paste on a smile and to cover the sadness with the smell of cookies and the sounds of carols, our first step toward true joy this holiday season is to invite God to stir up some power, with great might to come among us, and with bountiful grace to speedily help and deliver us. So that’s what I’m going to do today. Tonight, we’ll remember the destruction of the tornadoes. Tomorrow and Tuesday, we’ll mourn and tell stories of Linda (and Howard), we’ll mix laughter and tears, and ponder what is really the end of an era. Who knows what Wednesday will bring, but all the while, the Holy Spirit will be here as our comforter and guide, reminding us that we do not wait alone, that God is with us, that Jesus has experienced our pain, and that there is always the promise that in Christ, mourning may last for a season, but joy will come in the morning. So come Holy Spirit, in this time of waiting and grief, come fill the hearts of your faithful, kindle in us the fire of your love, and speedily help and deliver us. Amen.