Dazed and Confused

Welcome to LaSalle if you are with us for the first time, we’re in the Advent series, called People Get Ready. This is our third week — of anticipation. Advent is a season of readiness for the birth of Jesus, the son of God. Getting ready requires some attention: you’ve got to know what clothes to pack. What activities you might do, how much walking do you have? Maybe leave the fancy pants and bring the boots instead.

Getting ready requires some imagination work. Some thought for what is about to happen. What will it look like? What will it be like?

The reality is that I’ve been on some trips that just weren’t as great as I thought they were going to be. We’ve had long awaited trips where…it rained every day. Or now and again Terry and I have planned a real night out…and then we bicker about something that happened earlier that week. Things don’t always turn out the way we hoped. And we’re disappointed.

Disappointment is, I think, an integral part of this season — if we’re being honest about it. My first disappointment with Christmas was when I prayed daily for a Barbie suitcase…and Santa didn’t bring it. I didn’t know at 7 that there was so much more at stake.

We freight this season of Christmas with so much don’t we? Your kids are going to return from their college break — in good spirits and interested in your advice. NOT. Your holiday dinner party is going to turn out to be the best meal ever — it’s okay. Or more serious, we hope some relationships are going to be magically mended in the glow of the candles and Christmas lights. We won’t be alone on Christmas Eve, the pain of the empty chair won’t be so acute. Christmas can be the Season of Magical Thinking (to paraphrase Joan Dideon).

You can taste the disappointment in our text today with the great prophet, JB. You remember him from last week. John the Baptist had given his life as the warm up act, the front man, the messenger, in Isaiah’s language. And he had really tee’d up the coming Messiah — captivating his audiences with profound images of what awaited them.

The reign of the Anointed One was upon them! It was while he was preaching that Jesus had come to John to be baptized.

Now, some time has passed. John the Baptist is locked in prison. And, as some of you know, spoiler alert, he will soon be executed.

John’s sitting there with some time on his hands. Maybe too much time on his hands and he gets to thinking: Is this Jesus who I thought he was?

A straight-forward reading of this text is pretty clear: John’s been getting reports about the work and teaching of Jesus. And what he’s hearing doesn’t comport with what he expected. It seems to be a little short on the fiery judgment side. JB thought the Messiah would have an ax in one hand, shovel in another. And that’s the way he’s billed him to the people.

So let’s review what Jesus has been up to since we last saw John by the river preaching.

Matthew 3: He came to be baptized — which John found disconcerting — “There’s no reason for you to stand with these sinners — you don’t need baptism!!”

After which, Jesus goes into the wilderness to fast and pray — facing down the temptations of fame, glory and riches.

When he returned he called some disciples — but they turn out to be common –poor, fishermen. Matthew 4

Jesus then had a collection of teachings — sermon on the mount — but they weren’t rousing the crowd to fight the man, right the ship, put the Christ back in Christmas for God’s sakes! War.

Instead Matthew 5–7 “seemed more calculated to put axes in the hands of his opponents than in the hands of his disciples: disciples were in fact specifically forbidden to avenge attacks on evil.

Jesus did seem to spend a lot of time healing — that’s in line with the expected messiah — but so far, those miracles aren’t in Jerusalem — the strategic city. Instead they all occur in the backwoods of Galilee, the far off provinces.

Also, these are miracles for individuals. Somebody’s mother, another’s brother. Important if you’re THAT GUY, but this isn’t the Glorious Revolution. No overturning of the systematic sins of oppression. No social miracles aimed at mass change. The Pharisees still control public religious life, the Sadducees still control the temple.

“Jesus has simply picked up the pieces left by evil forces,” in the language of British theologian F. Dale Bruner. John had expected someone who was going to take down the statues of the oppressor.

Maybe like this? That’s us toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein.

John expected some divine muscle, Jesus isn’t doing stuff like this. Instead it’s like he’s driving an ambulance around a place that’s the equivalent of northern Idaho. No body seems very threatened by Jesus do-goodism!

So John sends his disciples, Have I made a mistake? Are you…the Coming One? The Messiah? Or….not?

He sends his disciples of course because he can’t see for himself. John is now out of the race. Squirreled away. No longer a player. And I’ve wondered at the psychology of his question while he can do little to change the outcome. I wonder if John felt this loss of power. This kind of growing impotence.

Sometimes we “Christians” feel a need to exert power — especially around this season. Keep the Christ in Christmas! “X” Xmas. Well, okay. But remember X is the Greek letter Chi, and has been an acceptable abbreviation for Christ since the 1500’s. But some Christians wanted to bet the farm on this stand. Really?

Last year it was the infamous CUPGATE! As Starbucks had gone from some holiday scene to a flat red cup.

Leading some to believe Starbucks had a war against Christmas images and language. So Christians were urged to “force” barristas to say Christmas by giving their name as Christmas. Coffee for Christmas!

It’s pretty silly to most of us. But not to others.

As Scott Hozee at Director of Worship at Calvin Seminary put it in an email this year, “Each year we are assured we need to keep the “Christ” in Christmas and those who don’t or who settle for a generic “Happy Holidays” are doing so from an anti-Jesus agenda. We have to stand firm, lest the celebration be watered down or taken away altogether.” [1]

Is that what was happening? Did John think his message — the right message — was being co-opted? Diluted?

You’re not sufficiently angry enough, Jesus, to be the Messiah.

I was wondering about JB’s feelings about power and the need for societal change while I was reflecting on my own hard heart this week. Wow, have I been nursing something ugly since Nov. 7th. I can’t think my way out of it. I can’t will my way out of it. I haven’t felt this way — ever. Lest you think I’m a rabid liberal, I’m not. I was one of those who thought Al Gore should have thrown in the towel the day after the 2004 election — for instance.

I think one of the things I’m most upset about is that I powerless. I’m somewhat used to having a way of affecting an outcome. I’ve come to the end of my power.

Randall once told me his reaction when he first got to LaSalle. There was some issue that we were all riled up about. — he couldn’t even remember now what it was — but he remembers his how surprised he was but the first things we discussed was which important person we could call, who had an “in” with an agency, what piece of legislation that we could advocate for.

“In the black church, “ Randall said, the first thing you do is pray. “Historically the power we’ve had has come from the Lord. The first one we’re going to call on is the Lord himself. That’s the power we’re going to rely on.”

Had John come to the end of his power?

Are you the one? John asks.

***

Wouldn’t you have liked to been there in that moment!

The disciples of the one who baptized him, representatives of one of the most important prophets of Israel, essentially telling Jesus: PROVE IT.

And look at how the Lord responds, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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.

There’s no high-fallutin intellectualism. No fancy public policy agenda. No strategy planning white paper. In fact, look closely, Jesus doesn’t even push his own authority. He doesn’t say, Go back and tell John what I’m doing! Notice that? The Son of God doesn’t even advance his power here — Instead, he trusts the experience of John’s messengers, Go and tell what you’ve heard and seen.

Blind people see, lame people walk, sick people cured, deaf people hear, dead people live, the poor have hope.

All language almost lifted directly from Isaiah 35 and following. Language the prophets had used for centuries to describe the reign of God.

Jesus points to what he’s been doing. This is the work that will change the world. You want to tell them, who is who and what is what. You want me to speak truth to power? Raise the fist to the Pharaoh? It begins here: releasing the man enslaved to the powers and living among the tombs, caring for Peter’s mother in law, healing that hopeless man on his mat, telling the poor, the orphan, the widow, the messed up kid and the forgotten old senior: you are somebody.

You are somebody — blessed and beautiful. And since we are lingering at the humility of Jesus answer, we also have to see the unfolding of it too. Because in a respond that you expect to build, from the lesser to the greater, Jesus concludes this list of beautiful things, not with the raising of the DEAD, but with the encouragement of the poor. This is his climax: The poor hear the good news!

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You know, we don’t know whether Jesus’ answer satisfied John the Baptist. That’s interesting isn’t it?

We don’t know if the report back to him filled him with hope or not.

Praise God I’ve come to the end of my power. Maybe I can die to that illusion of giving the what-for, and embrace the work Jesus has for me to do. I can stand against the rising rhetoric of racial fear and divisions by watching my language and not missing an opportunity up the other, to celebrate their wins, and to commit myself to their flourishing.

Here’s a good example of it. A few weeks ago in a stewardship sermon I read a letter from Terry Miles re: the way one of his students he mentors, Layla had reminded him of what was important and what wasn’t. I put Terry’s letter up on the screen and read it including the phrase, “the goodness I learned from a 9-year-old ghetto kid.”

That phrase ghetto kid is not cool. It carries with it a whole bunch of stuff that Terry doesn’t believe. Or live. This man who has given some of his best energy to awakening the imaginations and love for science among kids in under resourced. None of his students are stereotypes. He shouldn’t have used that phrase and I shouldn’t have repeated it, because it normalizes ever so slightly something that shouldn’t be normalized. Something that shouldn’t be legitimized.

I want to be extra vigilant. And I ask your help in that vigilance. I don’t want us to let the little things slide, because if we do, they will just add to the mountain of injustice that God means to topple.

Change doesn’t start with the mighty tree- it starts with the mustard seeds. The sowing of a mustard seed, the drop of the widow’s mites, it starts with paying attention to the one blind guy by the roadside, or the one person viciously judged by the crowd. Oreon told me last week, that she is going to simply stand next to anyone she sees being victimized. The homeless guy being ignored, the young kid being bullied, senior being cut off, she’s going to have their back.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I recommitted to live locally. I can’t control change climate. I can turn off my lights, turn down my thermostat, reduce my paper waste, I can pray. I will not turn away from an opportunity to speak out, but my attention is going to be where I live and with whom I live.

At the close of the sermon last week I urged us to purposefully make time to listen so that we may see how to do the work of Christ in our own circles. This week — during that time — let me suggest we add something else to it. That we reflect on where we believe we long to make the BIG WIN and how we maneuvering to make that happen. Where are we seeking vengeance over our enemies? Where are we longing for the conquering king rather than the powerless baby?

This week let’s stand in the posture of the shepherds. Paying attention to the work at hand. Ready to trust in a star instead of our own savvy and experience.

Jesus was more powerful than even John imagined. And those ordinary fishermen he recruited turned out to be courageous and bold. In the face of an empire they resolutely committed to sharing what they had, visiting the widows, taking care of the many orphans, they bound themselves to the fate of their friends and neighbors. Believing that when 2 or 3 were gathered, Jesus was there too. They suffered loss and

grief and setbacks, but they never turned back and they never gave up.

In the 2nd century, as a horrific plague frightened people into closing off entire villages, it was Christians who pushed in bringing food and water. Several centuries later it was Christians who started the first hospitals, and built the first orphanages, planting mercy and compassion in the middle of the public square.

And everywhere people went and told others what they had seen and heard: 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.

AMEN.

[1] Center for Excellence in Preaching, Advent 3A