Advent 3A features readings from Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11. In Year A of the revised common lectionary we have a reading from John the Baptist in prison. Here are some songs for a moment of doubt, change, and finding a new path from Fiction Family, Bruce Cockburn, Over the Rhine, The Heavy, U2, Ingrid Michaelson, Dan Wilson, Brandi Carlile, Heatherlyn, Jonathan Rundman, David Wilcox, Pink Floyd, and Tangled Blue.
1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 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. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 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.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
This sermon was preached at Evergreen Lutheran Church on December 15, 2019; it begins in at the 30 minute mark in the service. The manuscript is below.
Last Sunday on my drive from here back to our apartment in Westminster I heard an interview on Colorado Public Radio with Serene Jones. She’s the first woman president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. A number of very well regarded theologians have studied at Union including Dietrich Bonhoeffer. She said something in that interview that’s really stuck with me this week: grace is more original than sin. Let that roll around in your thoughts and on your lips. Say it with me – grace is more original than sin.
In our Christian tradition we historically talk about original sin, that fall from grace which is baked into our experience of this world. It’s about our wanting to go our own way and make a decision (like who’s in and who’s out). It’s about wanting to have our own control over our own path. It’s about trusting ourselves more than the God that formed us and knows us and shows up in the faces and bodies and voices of our neighbors. It’s original to us and our short time in these bodies, yet there is a bigger story. There is MORE to this story. Grace is more, grace is more, grace is more original than sin.
But I wonder if John the Baptist would agree from his vantage point behind prison bars. I wonder if I can? A quick reading around this text from the Gospel of Matthew and we see that John is an outspoken guy. In last week’s Gospel reading he calls it like he see’s it, and those leaders and power elites who came down to the river to hear him preach – he calls them a bunch of poison-filled-empirial-boot-lickers. To my ear the lips of John are not proclaiming something about grace as much as he’s proclaiming something about repentance. It may be that John’s proclamation is a beautiful and terrifying form of grace for those who have turned away from loving their neighbors.
Well, as you might remember (from almost any recent headline from almost every media outlet) this world loves a good false prophet but doesn’t tend to take too kindly to prophets who are looking to dismantle the powers and principalities of a system. And John’s story is no different. In the beginning of today’s reading John has been imprisoned. It’s a prison he won’t escape from at least not with his head intact. The thing he’s been born to do, the narrative he’s lived into for his whole life, to burn a path through the wilderness with the heat of his tongue has landed him afoul of the powers of his day.
And John, for the first time in scripture, maybe the first time in life, looks at where he’s landed and doubts. This is the most human portrait of John, framed as he is in my mind by the bars of a prison cell. And I think many of us can relate to doubting our paths especially when these paths lead to dead ends. There’s a fundamental temptation here to frame John’s doubt and our own as weakness or even sin. I don’t think that is what’s happening for John and I certainly do not see our own doubts as sin, so even here grace is more, grace is more, grace is more original than sin.
I don’t get the sense from scripture that John is doubting his path as much as he’s doubting Jesus. So it really doesn’t get much more human than this. Here we have Jesus who is one with the God who formed us changing the trajectory of that path that John cut from the city to the river. And John’s response is a profound nope, nope, nope, nope, Jesus, cousin, I’m in prison here and I don’t think this is gonna end well for me and for the first time in my life I’ve run into a power in the Roman system that I cannot burn down with the fire and force of my will. And Jesus if you’re not the one then maybe, I don’t know, but maybe there’s another one coming?
I don’t get the sense from this scripture that John is doubting that he’s cut the path incorrectly as much as he’s doubting Jesus because Jesus isn’t continuing in John’s flame laden war-path. Jesus’ path is ultimately different than the path John cleared from the city through the countryside to the river. Jesus path is the river itself. And the sound of that water is saying grace is more, grace is more, grace is more original than sin.
Now with this frame of John’s doubt in Jesus as the promised messiah, notice again Jesus response: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” Jesus doesn’t retaliate against John’s doubt. His reply is to quote scripture, a scripture John would have likely been familiar with, and let John work it out. I don’t know if John’s able to hear this yet, sometimes we’re not able to hear it either but grace is more, grace is more, grace is more original than sin.
Jesus answer washes over us like the muddy waters of that river. “Go back and tell John what’s going on: The blind see,
The lame walk,
Lepers are cleansed,
The deaf hear,
The dead are raised,
The wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side.
Is this what you were expecting? Then count yourselves most blessed!”
Blessed because grace is more, grace is more, grace is more original than sin.
For some of us this season can be like a prison of bad memories and unfulfilled promise. I don’t make this declaration without having the personal experience that almost every Advent I’ve ever had has culminated in a mixture of sorrow and joy. We come to this season filled with doubt. Maybe doubt in ourselves and our path, but also doubt that Jesus is who he says he is, and that he can save us from ourselves. We are John, behind bars, hoarse from shouting, wearied and worn out by powers that co-opt us into factions of us and them. If only there was a simple phrase that could remind us in the middle of the night that night doesn’t get the last word, joy will come in the morning, the waters of this river are leading to an ocean of abundant and steadfast love, and grace is more, grace is more, grace is more original than sin.