How Long, O Lord?

19 12 2007

Texts:  Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

“God give me patience and I want it right now!”  We say this tongue-in-cheek, but it hits closer to home more than most of us want to admit.  Being patient is hard, especially when you’re on the receiving end of injustice.  Israel had to wander 40 years before entering the Promised Land.  African-Americans had to wait more than 100 years before slavery was abolished in the United States, and then had to wait another 100 years before they were fully enfranchised with rights equal to those of the majority.  Women were not guaranteed the right to vote until the early part of the twentieth century.  Gay and Lesbian people still struggle with their place in the Church and parts of society, and that struggle will continue.  Anyone who is not part of the establishment, whether it is in the secular or religious world has wanted to cry out with the prophets, “How long, O Lord?”  How long must we wait?  Why do we keep taking a step forward and then get pushed a step back?

In this week’s Gospel reading, we return again to John the Baptist, who is in a far different setting than when we visited him last week.  He is no longer in the wilderness, that place where God meets and transforms his people.  He is languishing in prison. Naturally, he is troubled.  We read about his doubts of his mission and the ministry of Jesus. Why didn’t the one who came to set the prisoners free get John out of prison?  Why are there no signs of imminent judgment?  John sends messengers to Jesus asking “Are you the One? or should we wait longer?”

Jesus points to his works of miracles and his teachings.  Conspicuously absent, however, is the promise of “liberty to the captive,” or to point to the judgment following the passage of scripture in Isaiah 61:2b which speaks of the day of vengeance of the Lord.   John the Baptist thought his Messiah would carry out judgment, to lay the axe to the roots of a rotten tree … Jesus’ answer is not what he was expecting.  But Jesus says, “Look what is happening for the blind, the deaf, the lame and the poor.  You’ve got it all wrong, cuz! I am here to restore what is fallen, not destroy it.  I have come to give life.”

In Jesus’ sermons he talks about a great reversal, where what makes one great in the Kingdom of Heaven is not the same as what makes one great in the world.  This Messiah has no political or military aspirations.  What does he do when these doubts arise?  He does what he has been doing all his ministry and encourages everyone to continue to trust.

We should not minimize John’s doubts.  To paraphrase one scholar, “open and enquiring deoubt was taken very seriously in the early church” and that “faith is not simply assent to a proposition but it is life with God.  It can only live by increasing and decreasing in experiences that strengthen as well as endanger it.” Jesus addresses these doubts by assuring the crowds and messengers of John’s legitimacy.  John is not just any prophet, but the prophet to prepare the way for the Messiah.  He is nothing less than Elijah and the culmination of pre-Christian tradition.  We receive the blessings of a new age:  forgiveness, a greater sense of immediate access to God’s presence and the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

So, we are to trust and to be patient, and get ready for the Messiah, which is what Advent is all  about.  The Epistle of James stresses the need for patience, citing the example of the farmer who waits on the Lord’s timing for rain.  This kind of patience derives from the certainty about God’s provision and protection.  It is not a patience of acquiescence during oppression or persecution, but active trust in God where a suffering people know God will vindicate them.  Patience sometimes means enduring evil for a season, but we can trust that justice will be done.

These are hard sayings, especially if you are in the place of John the Baptist, in prison and longing for freedom.  We wish for a Messiah to put an end to evil and to punish criminals, but our Messiah does not dole out retributive justice … it is a justice of restoration and reconciliation.  It is a justice which promises life for captor and captive alike.  Instead of living up to other people’s expectations, Jesus defines his own Messiah-ship.

The prophet Isaiah speaks of the transformation of creation wrought by the inbreaking of God into human history.  Without God, Creation and fallen humanity are hopeless, lost, condemned to death.  God’s inbreaking into the world through the Incarnation means that the failures and brokenness of humanity is turned on its head and humanity is restored.  Indeed, as we are learning through the threat of climate change, we are learning the hard way how humanity and creation are intertwined.  The wilderness, the desert is harsh and there is nothing to spare, no abundance of anything to be had.  Rain, however, is promised as it is promised to the farmer who waits patiently on the Lord’s timing.  The poem in Isaiah’s text this week is a powerful alternative to a sense of hopelessness.  It is the prophet’s answer to Ecclesiastes which says “Vanity of Vanity, all is vanity!  There is nothing new under the sun … ”

Our invitation this Advent is to come out of what we can rationalize with our mind and to come into the trust and faith which stems from a God who does what we think is impossible.  Advent is all about getting ready for that day.





2 responses

19 12 2007

I love your conclusion. There is my Advent challenge.

21 12 2007

You ask, “Why do we keep taking a step forward and then get pushed a step back?”.

Liberation Theologian Jon Sorbino wrote that anyone who preaches the Kingdom of God is then attacked by the anti-kingdom. It happened to John, this happened to Jesus, and it happens to anyone who wished to point the way to justice.

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