Advent is one of the stranger seasons of the Church, in which the experience of churchgoers seems completely out of alignment with the secular world. The secular world put on bells weeks ago, has been playing songs about holly, jolly Christmases, and in general is so excited about Christmas presents, vacations, and fun that there is a little room for anything but joy. Meanwhile, those sitting in church in these weeks have heard about preparing our lives and hearts for the return of the Lord, about repenting and making a way for our God, of quietly, soberly, and humbly waiting for what is to come. But on this third Sunday of Advent, those two worlds collide: the saccharine-filled, tap-dancing, over-caffeinated secular world of pre-Christmas and the quiet, methodical, prayerful world of Advent both turn us to joy. This third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete or Rose Sunday, we light a pink candle, and we proclaim a mini-sabbath from our somberness and lean into joy. The church seems to be telling us, “Okay, take one day to smile, to linger on how cute baby Jesus must have been, and how exciting things must have been at the manger. This time of year might just be the hap-happiest season of all!”
Given the Church’s permission to lean into to joy this week, we might anticipate a gospel reading that is also full of joy – maybe Mary and Elizabeth sharing their pregnant joys or angels delivering good tidings of great joy. Instead, we get John the Baptist, sitting in a cold jail cell, asking an unthinkable question to Jesus, “Are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another?” Now John has never really been a character who has embodied joy. He lived the life of an ascetic, he preached about people’s sinfulness and their need to repent, he drove people to be baptized, in their hope to get right with God. But John has been certain about Jesus in the past. Earlier in Matthew, John says, “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”[i] In John’s Gospel, John the Baptizer says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”[ii] and “He must increase, but I must decrease.”[iii] In Luke’s Gospel, John’s surety about Jesus happens before he is even born, as he leaps in his mother Elizabeth’s womb.[iv] So what has happened to John? Why can he not just get on the joy train with us today?
Well, a couple of things have indeed changed. John is no longer free to roam around as he pleases, he is no longer surrounded by growing crowds who are mesmerized by his words, and his own disciples seem lost without him. John is sitting in a cold, hard jail cell, his life hanging in the balance, and Jesus, the guy he was so sure about, is not exactly playing along. He is not acting like he is supposed to, and in that dark, damp place, John is left wondering, “Was I wrong? Is Jesus not The One? If he is the Messiah, surely I would not be here, suffering without Jesus taking decisive, bold action.” And John is right to question. Wonderful things are happening through Jesus, blessings of which the prophet Isaiah had foretold. But according to scholars, there are no distinctive documents that depicted the Messiah behaving in the way Jesus does.[v] If Jesus is the Messiah, John’s doubts are not unfounded.
Truth be told, as much as we would like a joyful sabbath from our quiet, sober, season of repentance, we understand John’s plight. We have all had those moments of darkness where we too have asked God, “Are you the one who is to come?” That question is a question we have all asked at one point or another. In the midst of chronic pain, as a romantic relationship is falling apart, as a pink slip is delivered, as loneliness overwhelms us, we have asked Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come?” because we too have been disappointed by God. We too have expected God to be with us in a specific way, to make things right in the ways we imagined, or to fix the world and show the world that God is indeed present. Hickory Neck acknowledges that very reality this coming weekend in our Blue Christmas service – a service where we boldly confess that Christmas is not a joyful season for all – and that is okay. We understand the darkness that can live on the margins of the light.
Although we may all understand John’s plight in some way, although we have all had those deep, painful moments of questioning, we may find ourselves wondering, why we chose this specific text on the day that is supposed to be about joy. Surely we did not don our rose-colored bow-tie, pink dress, or rose sweater for nothing! Fortunately, we do get joy from this text from Matthew too – albeit not necessarily in the ways we may want. When John asks, “Are you the one who is come?” I suspect he wanted a simple, “Yes, of course! Do not fret!” But Jesus does not usually do direct. Instead, Jesus says, “Look around you, John. What do you see?” And for those of us not there, Jesus reminds us: 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. The Good News John is looking for may not look familiar, but there is good news. Jesus’ version of Messiahship is not familiar, but his Messiahship is good.
One of the most powerful, and sometimes annoying, questions my spiritual director asks me when talking about my life and ministry is, “Where are you seeing God?” The question is the same question I have asked many of you too. Where in the midst of struggle, suffering, or pain are you seeing God? The question is annoying because sometimes we just want to sit in our suffering – sit in our cold jail cells – with our questions and not look to joy. But that is what looking for God does. When we recall the people around us who bring us meals or baked goods, just because, we begin to see the loving care surrounding us. When we remember the conversation with a good friend when she sees a profound truth that brings us comfort and peace, we begin to hear the comforting words of Jesus. When we reassess the blessing happening around us – our everyday needs being met, the appearance of an encouraging bloom or bird’s song, or an unexpected act of kindness – we begin to see that maybe, just maybe, there is joy bubbling up all around us.
This Gaudete Sunday may not bring us the kind of joy that makes us feel like this is the most wonderful time of the year. But today’s gospel does bring the kind of joy that matters – the deep, abiding joy that come from realizing God is active in our lives, making a way for goodness, healing, and grace. Today’s gospel reminds us our questions and doubts are okay, and are answered by examples of blessing all around us. Today’s gospel takes our frustrations about how life should be, and shows us the abundance in what is. Jesus offers us today the kind of joy that eases those lines of stress between our furrowed brows, that softens the tension in the middle of our chests, and unclenches the teeth, shoulders, and hands that have been hardened for so long. Jesus offers us the kind of joy that is a deep breath of release, a refreshing gulp of cool water, an all-encompassing hug of compassion. Our invitation today is to receive Christ’s joy with assurance, and then share his joy beyond these walls. Amen.
[i] Mt. 3.11
[ii] Jn. 1.29
[iii] Jn. 3.30
[iv] Lk. 1.41
[v] William R. Herzog, II, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 71.