The Path of a Prophet

Preached at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church for Advent 3, Sunday December 15, 2013 on Isaiah 35: 1-10 and Matthew 11: 2-11

As I prepare for worship, meditate on scripture this week I am holding the witness of Nelson Mandela in my heart and his words:  "I'm not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."  -Nelson Mandela   Photo Credit: The Philadelphia Inquirer

As I prepare for worship, meditate on scripture this week I am holding the witness of Nelson Mandela in my heart and his words: “I’m not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” -Nelson Mandela
Photo Credit: The Philadelphia Inquirer

A year ago this Sunday we gathered for worship in this Sanctuary, each one of us full of sadness, shock and grief.

I stood here and preached a sermon about guns, violence and our children.

Since that time our larger Church has begun the hard work of reflecting upon our calling as people of faith, what should we do—how should we live.

It is a journey we have started, and that will continue on.

I have lost count of how many constituent calls I have placed and how many clergy letters I have written to my elected officials about gun legislation.  Our laws in NJ are strong, but in this last year as legislation has come up I have been on the phone to Trenton as well.   I know that many in our church have been reaching out and calling, reminding our elected officials that gun control and safeguards for our children is a non-negotiable for us as people of faith.  Our Office of Public Witness of the Presbyterian Church USA, that you and I support has been relentless in its lobby work in our nation’s capital on this issue and they have been ignored.

This weekend is a year later.

After 20 little beloved children were shot dead in their classroom in Connecticut.

No federal laws have changed.

Politicians have continued to be bought off.

And since that terrible day one year ago; by conservative estimates, another 195 little beloved, precious children have died from gun violence in our country.

195+ futures snuffed out here in our country.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands more around the world.

The intentional killing of children is perhaps the greatest sin, the most impossible one to understand or fathom.

And yet we live in a country where our elected officials—who by our Constitution are to represent the people have failed us on this issue.  I have to say I understand what has happened.  Money and special interests have bought nearly all of them, or enough, to block laws that might help stop the bloodshed of beloved, precious children.  We are left with many adults in Congress who value money or power more than beloved, precious children.  As a person of faith I can see it no other way.

The sin is before us.

Today—Scripture comes alongside us.

Our ancient history as followers of Jesus speaks to us.

Our spiritual ancestor—John the Baptist—whispers his doubts from his jail cell.

And as we listen to him we hear our voices, our questions, our doubts.

Scripture is alive today—the Spirit is speaking to us still.

John the Baptist is in jail.  He wants to know if what he has been about in life up until this point was worth it—the horrible situation in which he finds himself.  He is hearing rumors about the ministry of Jesus and so he sends word to his disciples, “Go check out Jesus, see what he’s about, what he’s up to.  Have him send word to me to tell me if he is The One.”

Jesus sends word back to John the Baptist.  But it isn’t terribly reassuring.  Jesus tells John’s disciples, “Just tell him what you are seeing.  Lame people are walking.  Blind people are seeing.  The poor are being offered respect and honor.  That’s it.  Nothing special.   I am living out the reign of God.  Tell John that.”

What if someone asked you about Jesus?  What if someone came to you with a searching and deep question about faith, like the one John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask?  What if someone asked you if Jesus and his way really is real?

What if they said, “Just look around—what do you see, what do you hear? The poor are getting poorer every day, the sick are going untreated, and the most vulnerable are being exploited or ignored by the obscenely rich.  Where is Jesus?  Where is his Good News?”

It’s the same question underneath John the Baptist’s questions. It was the same situation then.

Jesus are you real?

Jesus, can you give me hope when all around me takes my hope away?

Don’t we ask that question when we are confronted with evil?

Doubt?

Sin?

Helplessness?

It is a question I sometimes ask myself about gun violence.

I too am afraid.

Every morning I pack up both my husband and daughter and send them to school.

And our schools have become such dangerous places.

Jesus can you help us?

Jesus can you melt our hardened hearts?

Jesus can you transform us?

Jesus can you keep my loved ones safe?

Questions, pleadings, wonderings that we each have.

It does not take much to make us realize that we are just like John the Baptist.

Scripture is alive today—the Spirit is speaking to us still.

What do we do with the questions of faith we have, the wonderings in the middle of the night, the nagging questions, the relentless curveballs that life throws us—making us feel less-than, powerless, hopeless?  When we wonder if this is really Jesus, or should we be waiting for something else?  Something better?  When we are locked up inside of the emotional or spiritual jails of our lives—and we want to see someone dressed up in robes, someone powerful, someone who will sort it all out—and find that what we are left with is The Way of Jesus?  This was the question of John the Baptist so many years ago and it is our question today.

Are you Jesus?

Is this The Way we are to follow?

These weeks of Advent before Christmas are meant to point us to the Hope we have in Jesus.  And the lessons of Scripture are meant to point us to the connections to others who also seek him.

So that we are reminded that we are not alone.

That the light shines in the darkness.

That we are being invited into radical community.

One commentator on Matthew’s story of John in jail and his questions of Jesus says that when John reached out to Jesus with his urgent and heartfelt questions and doubts—what happened to John is that he was transformed.  When he went to the edge of his human experience he was able to connect in a deep and Spirit-led way with the poor, the lame, the outcast who Jesus was ministering to.

To be reminded that he was not alone.

That there was light shining in his darkness.

That even from jail, radical community was beckoning to him.

Maybe this is the Advent lesson for us.  So much of the reality of the world, the society we live in is off-kilter, sin-sick, broken.  And yet we do our best in many ways to keep our distance, hold the out-of-control-messiness at arms length.  Maybe the Advent lesson and challenge is for us to get in the middle of the whirlwind and let the Spirit of God take us on a journey we can scarcely imagine.  To let go of our need for control and see what God will do with our lives and the life of the world.  To follow The One and The Way that teaches us that in order to save our lives we first must lose our lives.

The Baby in the manger is full of trouble and full of opportunity. 

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,

and rejoice with joy and singing.

The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,

the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.

They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

“Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.

He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.

He will come and save you.”

May the Christ Child who is coming save Creation.

May the Christ Child who is coming heal us.

May the Christ Child who is coming open our hearts.

May the Christ Child who is coming turn us towards his Peace.

Amen.  Amen.  Amen.

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