Imagining Advent

Matthew 11:2-11

[Watch sermon here.]

John the Baptist is looking for that which is most alive.
Urgently, John sends a messenger to Jesus to inquire,
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

John is asking,
“Has God come?
Has the kindom come as enfleshed by the ministry of Jesus?”

Jesus reports back good news:
You are seeking the advent of the kindom.
It is already here. Take a look.
You have seen it. The healings. The justice.
The good news to the poor.

Jesus then turns to the crowds and asks,
What did you come out to see?

Jesus is probing our expectations:
In what are we hoping?

What is John the Baptist looking for?
What are the crowds looking for?
By extension, what are we looking for in life?
What is our ultimate concern?1

Jesus asks the crowds,
What did you come out to see?
Soft robes? A stalk blowing in the wind?

The stalk was a symbol of King Herod;
soft robes, a symbol of royalty.
Jesus wants to know,
Did you come out to see this display of power and wealth?
Or did you come out to see John the Baptist, and me,
live in a way that is antithetical to society?

If you look at society’s responses to John and Jesus,
people reacted to them with anger and shock.
But the people also came hungry for their messages of equality.

Their experiences teach us that when we share the Gospel,
we will receive a range of responses,
because the Gospel is countercultural.
It challenges structures of power and status.

Just like John and Jesus did.

Is God here? Is God at work?
Inquiring minds want to know.

Jesus responds:
Tell the story of transformation.

Jesus says,
“Those who were blind are able to see.
Those who had physical limitations can walk.
Those who were deaf now hear.
Those who were dead are raised up.”

On the face of it, Jesus could be describing literal healings,
but this would miss a deeper meaning.
Here is another way to understand Christ’s words:
Those who you thought do not see, see on a much deeper level than you.
Those who you wrote off as not hearing, hear very well, but you were not aware of it.
Those who you thought were dead, written off by the world
because they do not adhere to the unholy alliance of power and money—
theirs is the kindom. They have it.

Trust that something is being realized in what we do not understand.
There is more going on this Advent season than meets the eyes.

This is what John was hungry to hear.

John prepares the way, shouting, “Repent! Repent!”
The Greek word for this is metanoia, which means change your heart and mind.
The Hebrew word for repent means to turn around. Take another look.

This holiday season, prepare to expect the unexpected!
Grace appears in unlikely people like John and Jesus.
Let your expectations be exploded. Let them be undermined.

Who will you encounter on the shoreline?

The Shoreline is not a desert,
but you may feel deserted here at times.
I wonder what you will see in our area this season.
I mean not just the local cultural attractions like Ivoryton Illuminations.
I mean, I wonder what else you will see here this season.
A rich land on the water, a place to play, a place to pray?
Will you feel at home or homeless? Will you see the homeless?
The ill? The imprisoned? The addicted?
Will you find the people of the Beatitudes? Or people with snobby attitudes?
Will you be an observer passing by or a pilgrim?
Or something else and more, if you let the area and its people so shape you?2

Jesus asks the pointed question:
Well, what are you coming out here to see?

Here in the wilderness, and the wildness,
Jesus gives us the gift of gospel imagination.

This is the Christmas gift God desires to give us.
I see it in the pink seesaws on our southern border.
Have you seen them?

In 2019, artist Ronald Rael placed three neon pink seesaws
on the fence on our southern border.
Children from Mexico and America could play together.
In a moment filled with excitement, Rael slipped the seesaw through
the gaps in the fence, so it would stretch out to both sides.
The fence itself served as a fulcrum, as people
enjoyed moving up and down on the playground equipment.
Each person had an effect on the other as they soared up and down.

The seesaws anticipate a day when all of our national neighbors
are treated with compassion and honor.

This is the joy God desires for us.

In the book Running While Black,
Alison Mariella Desir tells the story of a waiting world
where the vision of antiracism has not yet come to fruition.

She tells the story of the Bronx,
which has the lowest health outcome of any county in New York State:
It is 62 out of 62.

In the 1930s, much of the Bronx was redlined,
graded D, or red for hazardous; or C, or yellow for declining,
by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation.
The primary factor in determining the grade of the neighborhood was race.

One neighborhood in the Bronx was graded D
because of “negro infiltration.” How terrible are those categories!
Moreover, city governments zoned white areas as residential
and black areas as commercial, bringing in warehouses and infrastructure.
Fewer trees were planted in these areas.
Without tree cover to absorb greenhouse gases in these neighborhoods,
the air is more polluted and the temperatures are higher than elsewhere.

However, in this place of environmental racism,
communities have started to promote health.
In the Bronx, running crews and like-minded organizations
have been rallying behind the message “Not 62”.
They seek to raise the Bronx from the lowest-ranking county in New York State.
The running crews advocate for the repair of streetlights and sidewalks.
They lead park cleanups and create healthy food programming for kids.
They run down the streets, reclaiming them for healthy living.
They have a Gospel vision of transforming
a place that has been redlined into a place where people can run free.

The songs at Christmas say it is the most wonderful time of the year.

Yet today we hear the story of John,
who is in prison experiencing the jagged edges of life.

This holiday season,
the truth is that grief remains, estrangements happen,
and we live in a world that is far from fully healed.

Like John,
we, too, long for the Christ.

Come, Christ, come, we pray.

Like a present under the tree,
God gives to us the gift of imagination—
that, this Advent, we might suspend our own way
of thinking for a moment and try on a vision of a healed and healing world.

How exciting it is to open that present!

What joy awaits us
as we unwrap a world of dignity.

Come play!
Come play in a world where all can stay.


(1) Ultimate concern is how theologian Paul Tillich refers to God.

(2) This is a direct riff on a reflection by Bro. Anthony Zuba, OFM Cap. in his blog “Letters on the Way.”

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