Year A, Advent 3 December 11, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
It is fascinating how we get such different parts of the story in each of the Gospels. In St. Luke’s gospel, the Angel announces unto Mary and she sings the Magnificat in response, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” The Shepherds are visited and are sent manager-side, and Jesus is named on the 8th day. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, the Angelic conversation we witness is between Joseph and the Angel. There are no shepherds mentioned, but we have the wise men and Herod’s jealousy and the Slaughter of the Innocents. That all makes sense, these two authors record different parts of the story, but nothing that is contradictory. (Neither St. Mark nor St. John contain any birth story at all; they both start with the Baptism of our Lord – well, St. John started “In the beginning…” but the story itself starts at the Jordan). But regarding the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus, Luke and Matthew do contradict.
In Luke’s telling of it, Jesus is cousin to John, having met when they were in Mary and Elizabeth’s respective wombs. Even Uncle Zechariah gets in on the excitement with his prophecy, we sang his canticle last week, “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High…” In Matthew’s telling of it, however, the prophet and his prophecy first meet when Jesus presents Himself for Baptism. Remember? John says, “I need to be baptized by you!” Then they go their separate ways; Jesus retreating to the wilderness and John getting himself arrested. John doesn’t come back into the story until Chapter 11, today’s reading, where from prison he asks through his disciples, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
What are we to make of this contradiction? You could come to the conclusion that the Bible is sometimes inconsistent. Why yes it is. In one spot we are told to forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times and in another we are to stone someone for adultery. St. Paul condemns homosexuality while Jesus says “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” And so on and so on… That is mostly a reminder that the Bible is not a book, but rather a library containing a host of works in many different genres written over the course of a thousand years in multiple languages. That is one conclusion.
Another conclusion could be that Saints Matthew and Luke are telling the story that they knew. Nothing dastardly, nothing disingenuous, nothing even careless, just different renderings of the same story. They were written in different times, in different places for different communities with information gathered from different sources. Matthew’s was recorded in Jerusalem in the 80s or 90s and was written for an actively Jewish community. Luke’s was recorded probably a little later, probably in Antioch (now on the Turkish-Syrian border), and was composed for an educated, Greek speaking audience already engaged in following Jesus.
Those differences are good to know, but what is most spiritually and religiously important in this inconsistency, and what matters to us this morning, is that both of these Gospels were written by people who trusted what they understood God to be telling them. They trusted the revelation that they experienced and they related that to us. In this kind of trusting, they produced two of the most read pieces of literature in the history of humanity that have changed the hearts of, saved even, untold numbers of people over the past 2000 years. They trusted God, and their trust in God led them to write the truth as it came to them in their listening and reading and praying and eventually, in their writing. And the truth as they knew it was true, even though the way St. Luke heard it was a bit different than the was St. Matthew knew it. We don’t know if the story happened precisely this way or that way, but what we do know is that the story is true in its essence and intention. It all comes down to trust.
The primary thing that Jesus asks of us is to trust Him. We talked about the Creeds earlier in the Fall, remember? I related Archbishop Rowan Williams’ wisdom that when we say “We believe…” together each Sunday, it is less about cognitive assent, “I believe the sun rises each morning,” but is more like “I trust…” I trust that God is these things, and the things listed are things that prophets, apostles and martyrs across the ages have experienced in God, and they are related to us through the vessel of the Church. We need to trust in Jesus; we need to trust Jesus. But how do we know what is from Him, from God, and what is not? Now that is the question.
And again, it comes down to trust. Where do we encounter Jesus? This brings us to the heart of Anglicanism, which, as in all religious questions, comes down to what sources of authority we recognize. For us, for Anglicans, we recognize a balanced vision of scripture, tradition and reason as the source of God’s authority. This is Richard Hooker’s inherently balanced three-legged stool. We find Jesus the Word in the Word, in Holy Scripture. We find stories of Him, written by the faithful Evangelists, who trusted God in telling the stories. We find the experience of Him and teaching about Him in the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles, and visions of Him in the Revelation to St. John the Divine. And Jesus is found echoed deeper in the prophets, the histories, Psalms, all the way back to the beginning. Trust scripture; not blindly, but trust the good intentions of Scripture and the truth that it conveys.
We also encounter Jesus in our traditions. Gathering here in Common Prayer, Christ is with us. On this table, in the mysteries of the Eucharist, in Baptism, in all the sacraments, Mother Church holds us and Jesus together with all the saints, with all our ancestors and their stories and prayers and hopes and dreams and experiences of salvation throughout the ages. Trust in your experience of the traditions; trust the church. Not blindly, that is foolishness and too often has proven dangerous for ourselves and others, but trust the impulse to honor our ancestors, to define a community, to experience, over decades and centuries and millennia the grace of God, to together face East and lean in to God in Christ with the Holy Spirit. Again, trust the good intentions of the church, they usually are.
And we also encounter Jesus here, in your heart, in your mind, in your spirit, your gut. This is the third leg of the stool, what we call Reason. Reason is not always reasonable, though Anglicans can (rightly) be accused to being a bit too reasonable sometimes, too measured. Reason, though, is about us, the individual Christian in relation to the world and those we share it with. What you know and think and feel counts, it matters. You, YOU have the ability to encounter Jesus Christ in every person you meet. You have access to the sacred heart of Jesus every time you pray. You can meet Jesus, the real Jesus in your thoughts and dreams, in your feelings and instincts. You ought not do that solely on your own, we are all (or almost all) better in community, in relationship with each other, but you have access to Jesus Christ. Trust that! Trust yourself. If the voice you are hearing, or the inkling that you are getting, or the vision you are seeing sounds/feels/looks like Jesus, and it sort of goes along with the things you find at church and in at least parts of the Bible, hey, it is probably Jesus. Trust the Word, trust the Church, trust yourselves. You will know Jesus when He comes to you. Trust your ability to know right from wrong. When you really get down to it, when you strip away your self-interest, your anxieties, how you hope or want things to be, your plans and expectations (future plans and expectations are some of the worst barriers to honest encounters with God in Christ), when you put all of those presuppositions and hopes aside, it is uncanny how well we can tell right from wrong. It is amazing how accurately we can sense what comes from God and what does not. It takes a lot of work, a lot of spiritual discipline, but we know the genuine article when we are honest with ourselves. Trust that gift from God.
That is exactly what Jesus says to John’s disciples. They come to Him, asking on behalf of the imprisoned John, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Does Jesus answer, “Yes”? No He does not. Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Jesus is telling those disciples of John’s to trust what they hear and see.
And what did they see? All those things: miracles, healings, resurrection. They saw justice roll down like waters and peace like and ever-flowing stream. John baptized Jesus, then after John was arrested and Jesus went to the wilderness, Jesus commenced his public ministry by giving the Sermon on the Mount, (that is Matthew’s chapters 5 – 7). Then He went around Galilee acting out the Sermon on the Mount with awesome works, all those things He listed. He asked of John’s disciples to just see what they saw and hear what they heard and trust their senses. “Those with ears to hear, listen!”
Then Jesus turned to the crowds and asked them to trust themselves and their own sensibilities (as well as their Holy scriptures). “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft clothes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’” A strident religious voice is not going to be comfortable to hear. Prophets are not comfortable in or accepted by polite society. They offend those invested in the way things are with both their words and their presence; that’s their mission and ministry. Jesus was just asking the crowds to remember that, to remember what they know as they judged John. Jesus asked the crowd to trust themselves just as He asked John’s disciples to trust themselves. In this He is also asking us to trust ourselves. He is asking us to trust our God given senses to see and hear and feel what is actually happening. And then Jesus Christ is asking us to trust hearts and minds and spirits to discern where God is in all of this and where you are, and what you are supposed to do in this very moment and in this very place.
This is really important right now in this moment in history. Well, it is always important, discerning the presence and will of God in our lives and in the world around us. I believe that is the purpose of all of this, a life of faith, of religion, of Christianity in particular: to open our eyes to God at work in the world around us and in us and through us. That is the start of the whole process of making real the Kingdom of Heaven, the Commonwealth of God that Jesus talks about all the time. That is why we are here, to discern God’s will, and that is always important, but it is really, really important right now to follow Jesus’ teaching and trust what you hear and what you see. Trust yourself. Do not let what you actually hear and actually see be clouded by what you want things to be or hope things will be or think is impossible or by what others want you to see, hear and conclude. Trust your senses, not just your imagination, your logic circuits or your hopes, and fears, and dreams.
Like right now, our government is being formed. Pay attention. Don’t trust the opinion pages, the pundits, those with dogs in the fight; our media from every angle is murky with self-interest. Don’t trust me, I’ve got my own anti-empire/anti-fascist hermeneutic if not agenda. I say what I say because I believe that this is the message that Jesus Christ brought to His time and tells me to bring it to our time. Jesus offers a radical Gospel to a conservative institution; the church, even as progressive as some of us might feel, we’re a church, we are part of the social ballast and that is sometimes, often even, in conflict with the radical Word of Jesus Christ. So don’t trust me, but, like Jesus said to John’s disciples and the crowds, trust yourself! Clear your mind. Clear away what you want things to be, or more so, clear away the fear of what you really don’t want to see, or think you can’t handle seeing. Then the best you can, just listen for the actual words being said by the people forming and being invited into our government. Just like Jesus directed John’s disciples, try to see the actual things these men and women have been doing and saying, sometimes for decades. Notice who they are in relationship with, what they and their families and closest associates have to gain by these appointments. Notice patterns, and how patterns like this have ended up in other places and in other times. Notice the raw data and trust yourself to come to conclusions.
Christmas is near. We’re getting closer and closer. Stay alert. “Those with ears to hear, listen!” Trust yourself. AMEN.