Christmas can sometimes be a rather wonderful time of year, filled with the pleasant aromas of love, peace, joy and hope. It is after all, the coming of salvation into our lives. Christmas has also, as we know, become some other stuff; stuff that often puts a tremendous burden on us that God never intended. Christmas was a terrible time for the holy family. God does not require that we repeat those horrors over and over again, in our own lives, year after year.
But, of course, we do. There’s shopping and shipping and cooking and decorating and traveling and concerts and pageants, and church services and community events and invitations to juggle. And then there’s good old regular life that still has to go on. There’s working and feeding the dogs and paying the bills, and dish washing and house cleaning and snow shoveling and wood stoves and thermostats to tend to.
And then there’s the serious stuff. Perhaps this is the first, or twentieth Christmas that we will celebrate without a loved one, living or dead. Or it might be that our family just isn’t one of those warm, fuzzy, happy, joyful, peace-loving families that we think that everyone else has but us. Perhaps our family is more into hatred and jealousy, and is already busy observing yet another year of long-term grudges and spiteful retaliations. Or maybe we are alone. Or we believe that we are alone. Either way, it hurts. There is pain.
There can be all kinds of reasons why Christmas can be a let down for us. One fantasy that a lot of people entertain is that this Christmas, unlike the rest, will somehow be different. Trying to define what that actually means is a very difficult thing to do, but it may be that John the Baptist can help us to sort some of that out.
John was definitely looking for something different. And, like us from time to time, John was looking for something different in Jesus. John is no longer out in the wilderness preaching. He is in prison. He had the gall to accuse a political leader of entering into an immoral marriage, and quite surprisingly, Herod found John’s accusation displeasing and he did not confess his sins, nor did he get baptized, nor did he respond by engaging in acts of repentance. Instead, Herod popped John into prison, which effectively put an end to John’s ministry.
People in prison have plenty of time to think, and while in prison, John’s thoughts turned to Jesus. If losing your ministry and being in prison is a big disappointment, having your prophecies about Jesus fizzle and die was an even greater disappointment. All kinds of self doubt enters in here. John had predicted that Jesus would initiate a fiery harvest of evil-doers and that Jesus would gather the righteous into a place of great reward. But Jesus was doing none of this. There was no judgment, there was no fire, there was no reward for the righteous.
And so deep in the depths of a spiritual crisis, John sent his disciples to Jesus with a question: “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” The depth of disappointment in that question is palpable. Every single one of us here this morning has also asked that of our Lord at one time or another. It is a question of yearning and a question of crisis, but it is also a question that includes all of our hopes and dreams for all of eternity. Jesus, are you really the Christ? See if this doesn’t sound familiar: Jesus, I gave my life to you. I offered myself up to your service, and what have I got to show for it? Nothing! Nothing but a bunch of heartache and pain, failures, disappointments and sorrow. Are you running with me Jesus, or should I be looking for another?
The view from the inside of a prison can be rather distorted, even if that prison lacks visible bars and walls, because bars and walls do not a prison make. And so when Jesus answers John’s question, Jesus provides more than just a straight-forward answer. John was expecting a straight-forward answer because he asked a very straight-forward question. Jesus, though, will help John to redirect the thinking patterns of his heart, because John needs to broaden his understanding of Jesus. John’s view of Jesus is much too narrow. Jesus will respond with truth, but also with love and gentleness. The first thing that Jesus does is honor the fact that John is a prophet. At this particular moment, John is probably feeling like he isn’t much of a prophet at all. At very best, he’s feeling like he’s a failed prophet. And Jesus honors John by referring him to another prophet; a different prophet. Jesus is quoting quite directly from this morning’s Advent reading. It is safe to assume that John the Baptist drew much of his inspiration for ministry from the prophet Isaiah. John regarded Isaiah with much veneration. There is no doubt that John understood that he, personally, was the voice of one crying out in the wilderness that Isaiah spoke about. And so Jesus first of all affirms John’s legitimacy as a prophet.
John had his heart set on a Messiah who would be a rip-snorting, fire setting, judgment delivering, world-altering character who would abolish all evil and usher in the peaceful kingdom of the age to come. John was looking for big stuff.
And Jesus’ answer, back to John, was no, no, not yet. Not time for judgment, that will come later. Now is the time for changes to come in the lives of individual people, one person at a time. I wonder if John made that awesome connection the first time he heard it? Did he realize that he and Jesus shared the exact same focus of ministry? Did John realize that he shared these things in common with Jesus? John’s preaching, John’s ministry, was focused on just one single person at a time, all the time: to each, he said, confess your sins. Be baptized. Engage in acts of repentance. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. John was changing his world one person at a time. Jesus was doing the same thing, only he phrased it this way, mostly from Isaiah 35: “…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.”
Even now, and perhaps especially now, Jesus is still changing the world one person at a time. Jesus changes the world today not cosmically, not through social structures, not spectacularly, not politically, but rather one single heart at a time. Perhaps that heart is ours. In any event, our ministry can aspire to no other goal. This is how ministry must be done, one person at a time.
If we can hear Jesus as he broadens John’s perspective, we will discover that we are really the people in Jesus’ answer. We are the blind, we are the lame, we are the deaf, we are the dead, and we are the poor. We are the one person at a time to whom Jesus ministered.
Jesus says the blind receive their sight. It was necessary for John to get a new perspective, a new vision of who Jesus was. He needed to see Jesus differently. He had a bit of blindness that needed to be cleared up. I know in my own life that the more that I see and understand, the more I realize how blind that I really am. Perhaps this is also true for others.
Jesus says that the lame walk. Jesus is constantly seeking to redirect us away from the lame and dangerous and seductive dead end paths that we too often take in this life. His encouragement for us is to walk instead, in the light of his word.
Jesus told John that the lepers are cleansed. This one is beyond awesome, especially for us. In Jesus’ day, lepers were the epitome of the social and religious outcast. They belonged nowhere. We continue to live in a world where far too many people live on the edges and margins of life, rejected and avoided by all. In God’s kingdom, there are no lepers. In the Christian Church, there should never be any lepers. All persons have the potential to become the children of God. This is the message of Jesus. All persons have a place to belong.
Jesus said that the deaf hear. Very simply put, the deaf hear when they stop talking to themselves and start listening to Jesus. Sometimes the loudest voice in someone’s heart is their own. It is difficult for the truth of the Gospel to penetrate this din, but Jesus says that it can happen. The deaf can hear.
Jesus also told John that the dead are raised. We know that before we met Christ that we were dead in our sins and our trespasses, but Christ has made us alive, more alive than the fact that most of here in this room this morning persist in breathing. To be alive in Christ far supersedes our ability to inhale and exhale.
And lastly, Jesus reported back to John that the poor have good news brought to them. This is the ministry that we lovingly engage in with joyful response to Jesus once our eyes have been opened; once we’ve found our strength by walking with Jesus; once we’ve discovered that all persons are created in God’s image and have intrinsic worth and value, and belong in God’s family as the very children of God; and once we’ve heard the voice of Jesus in our own hearts above all of the competing noises that dwell there, most especially our own, we bring the same good news to the poor that we have experienced. This is exactly what we celebrated on Thanksgiving Sunday.
We aren’t told how John received the message that Jesus returned to him. I’d like to think that he welcomed it, and that he saw the wisdom in it. I’d also like to believe that he saw himself in it, because I am convinced that that is exactly how Jesus intended it. It was, after all, Jesus’ message to John.
Sadly, though, not everything that John hoped for came to fruition. He died of an illness called beheading, shortly after he received Jesus’ message. This is the other truth that we all must grapple with. We do not have a Gospel that promises to make everything all better. Nor do we have a Gospel that proclaims health and wealth for those who believe. Rather, we have a Gospel that invites us to die. John learned this, most of Jesus’ disciples learned this, and countless faithful Christians over the ages have also learned this. Perhaps, one day, some of us here will need to learn this also.
But in the midst of it all, I sincerely hope that John was cheered by Jesus’ words, and that he, in his last horror-filled days, knew the power of love, joy, peace and hope, even there inside of the walls of his prison cell.
This, then is the message of Christmas. Christmas is the coming of the one who can bring us life even in the midst of suffering and death.
Christmas has never been about decorations, or presents, or parties, or sentimental emotions, or even families. It isn’t even about having a better Christmas this year that we had last year. Those are the things that we have managed to re-create Christmas into.
Christmas is only about the coming of a savior, who is Christ the Lord, and who sincerely desires to be the Lord of our lives.