Advent 3: Waiting in Vain?

Gaudete in Domine Semper! I love this Sunday in Advent. It is getting closer! This also brings some fear as I realize what I still have to do but also reminds me again of the waiting that is required.

Advent 3 – Year A

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:4-9
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Prayer: God for whom we watch and wait, you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son: give us courage to speak the truth, to hunger for justice, and to suffer for the cause of right, with Jesus Christ our Lord.

It is my favourite Sunday! Rose day! Gaudete! Gaudete in Latin means ‘rejoice’. The name comes from the opening of the Mass for that day: Gaudete in Domine Semper, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’. You know that I love it because I can wear pink!

Gaudete Sunday is also a reminder that Advent is quickly passing, and that the Lord’s coming is near. The focus is turning more to the second coming than the first and there is a heightened sense of intense joy, gladness and expectation.

The Gospel readings for Gaudete Sunday always revolve around John the Baptist as the thrust of John’s ministry is the announcement that the Lord’s coming is near – in fact – nearer than you think.

I was looking back over the lectionary to see which stories of John the Baptist are used on this particular Sunday. Year B has set John 1 where John gives his testimony to the priests and Levites sent by the Jews to check him out. Year C has set Luke 3 which is the same account from last week; John chastising the ‘brood of vipers’ and calling for them to repent. Year A sets John in prison awaiting his fate.

On the face of it, none of these events provide obvious reasons to rejoice!

As a refresher, John was sent to jail by Herod. John had been attacking Herod over marrying his brother’s ex-wife which was less than appropriate. John had also been announcing that the Kingdom of God – the true kingdom was coming. Herod wasn’t the real king; God would replace him. I suspect that John was not experiencing intense joy or gladness and his expectations of getting out alive may have been low.

The four walls closing in must surely have limited his vision. So much so that John sent his disciples to Jesus with the question ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

There are some thoughts about why John asked that question…

One suggestion is that John was disappointed. Maybe he was expecting Jesus to be a man of fire who would sweep through Israel as Elijah did and right all the wrongs. Maybe Jesus was supposed to confront Herod, topple him from his throne, become king in his palace, get John out of prison and give him a place of honour – or at least let him live.

But Jesus is not doing this – he is healing the blind and deaf, cleansing the lepers, befriending the sinners, the tax collectors, ordinary men and women and teaching them about the things of God. Maybe not doing what John wanted him to do. So maybe John is thinking ‘was I wrong?!’

The other suggestion for John’s question is that he wants to know if it is safe for him to give up – to hand the mission on. John was the one to herald the coming of God’s Messiah – how could he do that from a prison cell? Maybe he couldn’t relax until he knew whether or not he had done his job.

John’s ministry only lasted about a year – maybe John did not imagine that his purpose would be fulfilled so quickly. John is waiting (perhaps getting a little short on patience) and hoping. John is waiting to see if what he has done in the past was right; waiting in the present to see if Jesus is the one; and waiting to see if there is another yet to come.

In his waiting and hoping – John gets an answer back. And it probably wasn’t what he was expecting! What Jesus sent back could not be more different from the message that John preached. John shouted for repentance in the face of the wrath of God: he spoke of axes cutting down dead trees and unquenchable fires. Jesus speaks of mercy, healing and rejoicing. Jesus lists the great signs of the coming of the Messiah which had all been prophesied in the past.

Jesus answers John by quoting Isaiah 35 – which John would have known. It is a message all about John – the wilderness, which was John’s home will rejoice and bloom, the fearful of heart are to be comforted – John is in prison, awaiting certain death – how can he not be afraid?

I think that John knew that Jesus was the Messiah. After all – John was the baby that leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when her cousin Mary and her baby (Jesus) came to visit. John the Baptizer knew Jesus the Messiah the moment he saw him at the Jordan River. John knew in his head who Jesus really was.

But time and circumstance can dull the image of our faith perception and leave us feeling not sure what we believe.

I think John’s question had more to do with his heart than his head. John had heard about the miracles and healings Jesus was doing for others and perhaps his faith was shaken. He certainly could have used a miracle for himself – and he didn’t appear to be getting one. And sitting in that prison cell – he might have been having a little trouble knowing it with his heart. Sometimes our faith gets shaken by what we don’t get or what God didn’t do for us personally.

I spoke to an older lady a while ago. She was very honest about where she was at with faith. She told me that after her husband had died after a long period of illness; she came to the conclusion that ‘if there was a God – why did her husband suffer the way he did?’ She couldn’t believe in a God like that. Neither can I.
I don’t have a good answer for that question. There are theological or doctrinal answers that are pastorally unhelpful in these situations. Equally there are pastoral answers that deny the theological problems these situations raise.

Either way, many of us have endured long stretches of suffering, waiting and waiting for God to come through for us. And maybe in those times we have seen or heard of wondrous works He was doing elsewhere. And it hurts! It is painful! The doubts that these types of situations create are probably not coming from our heads but our hearts, our feelings, our hurts.

James also encourages us to be patient and to strengthen our hearts for the coming of the Lord is near; but this references to nearness means the second coming. This James is thought to have been the younger sibling of Jesus, the first born of Mary and Joseph. James didn’t see who Jesus was until after the resurrection. James, like Mary Magdalen, Peter and Paul, had an encounter with the Risen Jesus that completely changed him. From the few accounts there are of Jesus’ family, James would know a thing or two about grumbling against one another. James also doubted who Jesus was.

James, having missed Jesus the first time, now must wait patiently for the next time he comes, like the rest of us. He offers us the prophets as an example of those who waiting in suffering and patience, like Isaiah and John.

John was not like ‘a reed swayed by the wind’ – he was a man of conviction. He was a man of little personal vanity and had a huge commitment to God’s kingdom. James went on to lead the church in Jerusalem and he too was crucified. Neither John nor James were men to buckle under pressure! I think it is safe to have some of our own doubts – if men like that can.

Ann Garrido – (Dec 11th): Today the Church is garbed in pink – that colour of hope in the midst of darkness. We are reminded that even though daylight is difficult to come by and waiting is hard, we are not to cave in to despair but to be open to and sustained by those signs already present in the world around us that let us know that God is at work. While we have not seen the kingdom of God yet in its fullness, there are ways in which that future is breaking into our own time even now – bursts of illumination and freedom, connection and healing. Our faith does not hinge on promises still unfulfilled but on promises in the process of being fulfilled this very day.’

So from the James reading: You also must be patient, Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

And…Gaudete in Domine Semper.

Easter Sunday: Restored, Redeemed & Released

Christ is Risen! Alleluia! I can’t stop saying that this morning! This morning’s sermon is of course focused on the empty tomb of Jesus and how 4 people encounter the Risen Christ: Mary Magdalene, John the Beloved Disciple, Peter and James the brother of Jesus.

Easter Sunday – 01/04/18

Isaiah 25:6-9, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

John 20:1-18

Risen Christ,
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred:
open the doors of our hearts,
that we may seek the good of others
and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace,
to the praise of God the Father. Amen

I recently heard about a Curate who was asked to preach on his first Easter Sunday in the Parish. He got into the pulpit, announced that ‘Jesus is Risen. There is nothing more to say.’ And promptly sat back down. While tempting as that may seem – I do have more to say than that.

Jesus is Risen. That is the message of today.

But for Jesus to rise we have to endure the pain of Good Friday, the longing of Easter Saturday to finally get to the joy of Easter Sunday. I know this – and you probably do too. I have talked to a few people this week who would prefer to skip over Good Friday and its focus on Jesus’ death and death more widely. But this doesn’t make it easier!

But first we have to face to the tomb. This morning we will look at the life changing encounters of 4 people with the Risen Jesus. If you have heard this story a thousand times – I urge you to approach the tomb with fresh eyes and ears this morning.

If we believe that on the cross of Good Friday Jesus took on all our sin, shame, fear, anxiety, doubt, loneliness, grief, disappointment – everything that is wrong, and it died with him – then what does the empty tomb of Easter Sunday look like for us?

Mary

In the other Gospel accounts there are a variety of Marys and other women at the tomb that first day; but Mary Magdalene is named in all of them. Mary had gotten to know Jesus and the disciples – as she has been with them. Mary Magdalene was also at the cross and on the first Easter morning she is at the tomb.

Mary goes to the tomb when it was still dark. Darkness in John’s Gospel was his way of indicating confusion, misunderstanding and unbelief. Mary has seen all that has happened in the last few days; yet she doesn’t understand it and she is emotionally overwhelmed.

So overwhelmed that she doesn’t get all the way to the tomb the first time. When she saw that the tomb was open her automatic assumption was that Jesus’ body had been stolen. Then she runs to get Peter and John. Mary is fragile – her grief must have been immense. Her emotional fragility keeps her back.

John

Then we have John, the disciple whom Jesus loved – also the disciple that wrote this account! Tells us twice that he got to the tomb before Peter. But John stops short too – he hesitates. John does get further than Mary – he at least looks in the tomb even though he doesn’t go in.

John’s struggle is deep disappointment. John was loyal, faithful and obedient to the end – only male disciple left at the foot of the cross. All that loyalty, all that faithful service – all for nothing. Maybe John couldn’t face one more disappointment. Maybe John got as far as he could – but not one more step.

Maybe like John you keep praying, serving, doing the stuff but maybe there are not as many victories as you would like. Not willing to risk any more disappointment with life, with people.

Peter

In keeping with his personality – Peter runs right into the tomb. Got there second but the first one in. Peter goes further than Mary and John. Peter is spurred on by guilt and shame. Peter – on his run – is hoping that it is all true – he needs one more chance, needs to be redeemed and start again.

Peter loved Jesus – but when it really really mattered Peter failed Jesus in his denial. We all have had Peter moments. Guilt and shame is exhausting to carry around.

James

You might not have been expecting him! This James is the half-brother of Jesus; the first born of Joseph and Mary. He is not listed in John’s Gospel but Paul includes him as one whom Jesus appeared to.

Jesus appeared to those people who really needed to see Him the most. Mary was emotionally wrecked, John was disappointed; Peter had denied Jesus.

Why James? In the recent Bible Study on the Book of James that some of us participated in and this question was addressed. Jesus’ biological family do not come across particularly well in the Gospels – they don’t believe Him, they are embarrassed by Him; they try to stop Him from doing what he was sent to do.

Anyone with complicated family dynamics will understand this!

James is an unbeliever – a mocking, scorning unbelieving brother of Jesus. Imagine what it might have been like growing up with Jesus? James didn’t get it – despite having grown up with Jesus, seeing first-hand what he was doing. He missed it completely.

So Mary comes to the tomb emotionally fragile and not understanding; John arrives with deep disappointment and Peter gets there spurred on by guilt and shame looking for a fresh start. James – we are not sure when James encounters his Risen brother Jesus. There is no record in the Bible – I think this means that this meeting was private, personal.

Then they all encounter the Risen Jesus. They all go away from their encounters changed, believing. This is how we should come away from encountering the Risen Jesus.

Let’s look at how they went away…

Mary

Mary goes back to the tomb a second time after she gets Peter and John. She is still weeping; still not understanding. She finally looks in the tomb. So disturbed is she that the 2 angels don’t even seem to phase her. Everyone else that encounters angels in the NT react with fear! Even Mary and Joseph. Not Mary Magdalene.

Mary is so distressed that she doesn’t even recognise Jesus when he appears to her – He is the one she is looking for! Until He says her name – Mary! Then it all clicks. She heard the voice of the good shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep, who knows and calls them by name.

Mary has not been abandoned. Jesus is alive. But she still doesn’t fully understand because she is looking for the body and calls Jesus ‘rabbouni’ – teacher. Jesus is more than that. So he sends her away with the gift of new sight – being able to see the old with the new. Jesus then sends her back to the disciples to explain to them what has happened.

Jesus is more than we think he is. I think sometimes we need a fresh look at Jesus. We can reduce him down to fit our understanding; we can begin to believe in a Jesus of our own making – who likes and hates the same things that we do.

John

John enters the tomb after Peter – but he was the first one there – don’t forget. John was the first one to see the burial linen and the first one to believe.

John’s encounter with the Risen Jesus is to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, believe that a new creation had begun and believe that the world had turned a corner. The placement of the grave clothes for John was all the proof he needed. Why is this important?

If you remember from the story of the raising of Lazarus, he needed someone to untie him; a bit like a mummy and needs to be unbound. Lazarus comes back into a world and would die again. When Jesus came out of the tomb – his strips of linen remain on the bench where he was laid as though his body passed through.

Jesus has gone on through death into a new world, a new creation, a new beyond where death had been defeated and life in fullness could begin at last.  This meant that John could leave his disappointment behind – all that he had done – all the loyalty, faithfulness – was all for something, someone.

Peter

While Peter’s ‘big’ encounter with the Risen Jesus happens on the beach a little while on from today – Peter’s restoration, redemption starts today. He needed the tomb to be empty – for Jesus to have been raised as he said he would be.

Peter comes away from the tomb and it is a new day, a fresh start for him. He could leave his guilt and shame behind.

James

Then he meets Jesus, his brother in those first few days or weeks after the resurrection. James came to realise who Jesus was. Maybe he felt like a fraud, ashamed he didn’t get it sooner. Missed what was in front of his face for all those years.  We like James can miss it too – what has been in front of us all along. We get overly familiar or under-impressed or don’t think it applied to us.

Jesus shows us that the power of the resurrection trumps the power of the past if we’re willing to let it. (Beth Moore). In his meeting with Jesus, James is freed from his past.

So Mary gets to the tomb overwhelmed by grief and emotion, looking for the dead body. She encounters Jesus – goes away knowing that she has not been abandoned and with a new understanding of who Jesus is that she now needs to tell the others about. Jesus is more than enough!

John came disappointed and let down and goes away believing in the Resurrection and who Jesus is. Everything that he had done had meant something, been worth it.

Peter came in burdened with shame and guilt and goes away with a fresh start. In the Acts reading today – we see what Peter went on and did with his fresh start. He told people about Jesus with power and purpose and persuasion. He did it for the rest of his life and was eventually crucified for it – on a cross.

James meets is brother and is freed from the past. His life is on a new course – James remains in Jerusalem, becomes the Bishop and leads the new church there. James would go on to have a huge influence on the church.

The empty tomb proved once and for all that death has been defeated – there is hope beyond the grave. There is Risen life with Jesus for us all.

Whatever condition you find yourself in at the tomb this morning – an encounter with Jesus can change you, heal you, restore, redeem and release you. This is what today is about.

AMEN.