Rex Piercy’s Homily from December 11, 2022

Holy Wisdom MonasteryHomilies 1 Comment

Sermon preached at Sunday Assembly, Holy Wisdom Monastery, Middleton, WI

Third Sunday of Advent – December 15, 2019 & December 11, 2022    

Text – Matthew 11:2-11

My seminary homiletics professor would be horrified but I begin this homily with a confession. It is a re-run. Or out of the barrel, as some of the old preachers would say. When I accepted the request to preach and preside at today’s service, I discovered in my computer documents file that I preached on this very Sunday three years ago, which means that the lessons for today were the same ones in play back then. What I also discovered upon finding said homily was I remembered it not. And I think I know why.

Back in 2019 Lee and I had just returned from a wonderful trip to Spain and a return transatlantic cruise to Puerto Rico. But within a few days, several members of our touring group including me became ill with a yet unnamed bug which we now believe was Covid. I ended up with severe pneumonia and a visit to the hospital. And as they say, the rest is history. We have all lived through these years in a bit of a fog. And that fog which continues even now has produced, at least in me, a bit of amnesia of sorts. When I think back over the past three years, I can hardly remembering much of what took place during the lockdown and mask wearing and vaccinations and nasty politics. A friend calls the Covid years like having a fever dream.  So when I began to look at that sermon from three years ago I discovered that it still spoke to me, and so with a few edits, I preach it again with humble apologies. If you remember it, I am astonished and honored. And if not, well then maybe it can be something of a new creation. Three years ago this day I said….

Out there beyond the doors of this assembly room, December is in its final, mad dash to Christmas, and in spite of inflation, we are on target to spend record amounts in a consumerist frenzy, all of which leads to a kind of exhaustion of bank accounts and spirits which arise from way too much to do and so very little time in which to do it. Amid these way too short days and long nights, we’re all much in need of that proverbial “long winter’s nap.” Our culture engages in a collective countdown to December 25, and when it’s over we move on to the January white sales.

Yet strangely things are different in here, inside this room. In here it’s Advent, and even the color is different. Its calming shades of purple and blue, not green the color of money and red the color of too many credit card accounts! The mood and feel are different in here as well, in spite of all the best efforts of the outside culture to impose a mad rush on the church as well. I’ve always loved Advent, but have found that some of my congregants over the years have not embraced its slow pace.  Infected I think by a mall culture that starts playing holiday music even before the Halloween decorations have come down, some of my church members were known to grumble at me for making them sing Advent hymns instead of Christmas carols. A friend and ministry colleague who also loved Advent once told me that three of his members informed him that they were going to worship at the church down the street in December because they sang Christmas songs! Ah, the pressure!

Today’s Gospel reading is a perfect example of the kind of tension that exists between the Christmas out there and the Advent in here. In here, it’s about a guy named John the Baptist. Out there most folk have never even heard of him, or if they have, curmudgeon John doesn’t get a nod in the Christmas folderol. There are no John the Baptist Christmas cards! Amid elves and reindeer and snowmen and the yearly controversy surrounding Starbucks paper coffee cups, somehow a locust-eating, camel-skin clad man of the wilderness who calls his listeners a brood of vipers is not very appealing. John just ruins the red and green scene. John is about as uplifting as our recent spate of gray, foggy days.

Still, in here it’s Advent, and no less than Jesus himself heaped tons of praise on John, calling him unequaled among those born of woman. So I figure if Jesus says pay attention to John, perhaps we should as well.

But to what end? What possibly could a disheveled desert fellow from 2000 years ago have to say to us in 2022? After all we prefer our Christmas wrapped up in “tidings of comfort and joy,” not sackcloth and ashes.  To quote Barbara Brown Taylor, “When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness he sounded like God’s own air raid siren.”

So what do we make of John? I have to admit he’s a real character, an “in your face” kind of a guy. He was hard. He had no inside voice. Everything from him is loud. And on top of his volume, John just doesn’t know how to soft pedal anything. Even the ever so polite Scottish Bible scholar, William Barclay, said of John: “…[h]e was incapable of seeing evil without rebuking it. He had spoken too fearlessly and to defiantly for his own safety.” You can say that again! John had a singular focus on God’s coming realm and he was happy to condemn anyone who stood in its way. Ultimately of course, John’s loud mouth and his strong opinions proved to be his undoing, for as you may recall, John eventually ran afoul of King Herod and paid for it with a severed head!

Yet all of this raises something that seems a bit odd to me. Given John’s sharpened axe in one hand and a flaming torch in the other, coupled with a tongue that never, ever held back, John’s question communicated to Jesus from his jail cell via some of his associates strikes me as strange: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

After all, at the start of Jesus’ public ministry, when Jesus came to be baptized by John, John seemingly recognized that Jesus was the one who was to come. In the Fourth Gospel, John even points others to Jesus saying, “Behold the Lamb of God.” So why this question now?

A few scholars think that John had become troubled by the seeming delay of “God’s wrath to come.” John had been forcefully announcing that the time was coming when God’s winnowing fork and unquenchable fire would separate the just from the unjust. Perhaps John figured that Jesus would be the one who would bring it on. But that’s not what John was hearing about the Galilean. Instead, the reports John received about Jesus’ ministry were about healing and providing cups of cold water to little ones, playing doctor to all manner of marginalized people.  That hardly qualifies in the burning up chaff department! So maybe John was having second thoughts about Jesus. Was the Nazarene really “the one who was to come?”

Anyway, a dying man can’t afford to have doubts. John needed to be assured; his inquiring mind wanted to know, prompting John to send some his disciples to Jesus with the question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Was John wrong about Jesus? His question doesn’t mask his disappointment. “If you know who you are, Jesus, just say so. If you’re not the one, then we need to reopen the search process, and fast.”

Perhaps we shouldn’t bother with John’s question at all. No one today is a disciple of John the Baptist, yet John’s question haunts me. In fact, maybe his question is even more troubling now than it was when John asked it two millennia ago.

If John had expected faster and better results from Jesus’ back then, doesn’t it seem obvious that we might wonder the same thing now after 2000 years: “Jesus, are you still the one?”

I can’t speak for you, but when I peer out into our world, I sometimes wonder if much has been changed at all by Christ’s coming. In fact, with twenty centuries elapsing, wouldn’t you think there’d be more a little more to show for Jesus coming on the scene? Is the world any closer to God’s realm now than when Jesus first appeared? Or are we just left asking the pathetic question from that old Peggy Lee song, “Is that all there is?”

“Are you still the One, Jesus?” Yeah, maybe it’s not the right question, but I still think it deserves an answer. It shouldn’t be dismissed. Wouldn’t we just be better off looking for another savior?

The truth is, many have looked. Many still do. They look for other saviors -economic ones, social ones, political ones, techy ones, even pseudo religious ones. They look for panaceas of every kind in a frantic and frenetic hunt for salvation in one form or another. They ask, if not with words, at least by their behavior, is this Jesus the one or should we look for another?

However this may be, the Gospel offers us the same answer which Jesus gave John in fulfillment of Isaiah’s ancient hope. Those who have walked in all kinds of darkness bear witness to a light that shines for them in God’s grace and forgiveness. God has cleansed the leprosy of the spirit. People crippled by despair or pride now walk in the power of the Christ who said yes to their human dignity. Persons deaf to the appeals of the poor and the powerless now hear the cries of the weak and those without help. And the poor have Good News preached to them whenever and wherever women and men serve the cause of justice and mercy for all the daughters and sons of God.

As Barbara Brown Taylor also says in the sermon which I quoted from earlier, I wish I could tell you that Jesus’ coming has changed everything – that once it got out about what God had done in and through Jesus, everyone saw the light and turned toward it on the spot. Yes, I wish I could tell you that. But I can’t.  I can’t because I look at the world and doubt it. Sometimes I just wish God would flash some giant neon sign in the sky with all the answers for everyone to see.

But it doesn’t happen that way, does it?  We don’t get unmistakable signs, do we?  What we get instead is a vulnerable little baby born to a peasant woman in a barn in an obscure little town on a silent night long ago. What we get is an arrival that almost went unnoticed. What we get is what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “a steady drip of mercy from the followers of a man named Jesus who is still playing doctor to a lot of marginal people in this world.”

Like it or not, the realm of God comes in dribs and drabs, not in downpours. It comes in small stories. It comes with modest returns, one cup of cold water at a time, to make a moral metaphor out of it.  Drip. Drip. Drip. The realm of God doesn’t make the headlines. It’s just a back page article in this world. Just a few people saved at a time, but I like to think that it is sort of like that Pete Seeger song we sang back in the 60s about two and two and fifty making a million until that day comes round.

I know that there are folk in the world who still wonder if God has forgotten them, who wonder if Jesus is the one who is to come, or if they should be looking somewhere else for help and hope. I can’t blame them for asking.

I’m not really sure how to answer them. What I do know is that even the grandest of canyons and the deepest of caves get shaped and formed by the incessant drip, drip, drip of single drops of water. As James suggested, we must be patient. And I also know this – that for me, Christ has changed me and that my world is changed in Christ. Drip by drip by drip. In small works of justice done. In the practice of mercy extended. In the good news lived out. In the vision of peace implemented. 

In Christ we don’t just have a Savior who came once long ago to the least and the lost of Galilee and Judea. Christ still comes to us as one unknown with restoration and rebirth in the midst of every kind of death. Slowly drip by drip the Messiah has decided to come. And as it was for John so it is for me and perhaps you as well this is beyond our understanding. But every time you and I chose to live as Jesus lived and love as Jesus loved, the realm of God draws closer, drop by drop.

[I chose not to use this hymn this morning, but I include it here in the posted version:

Back amid the turbulent time of the 1960s, William Gay wrote a Christmas carol which unfortunately made it into a few hymnals. It speaks to me now amid our own turbulent times:

Each winter as the year grows older, we grow older too./The chill sets in a little colder; the verities I knew seem shaken and untrue.

When race and class cry out for treason, when sirens call for war, they over shout the voice of reason, and scream till we ignore all we held dear before.

But I believe beyond believing, that life can spring from death; that growth can flower from our grieving; that we can catch our breath and turn transfixed by faith.

So even as the sun is turning, to journey to the north, the living flame, in secret burning, can kindle on the earth, and bring God’s love to birth.]

Maybe slow drip by slow drip is not how we expected the realm of God to come. But it is coming, nonetheless, and if not with irresistible power, then certainly with unanswerable love, a way that leads to truth and life. As the poet wrote:

                They expected a general…and were given a child.

                They expected a coronation…and were given a star.

                They expected victory…and were given love! (Richard Fanolio)

When the world still asks if Jesus is the One who is to come, or if they should look for another, I think your life and my life should be the answer to that question.

I don’t know about you but I sort of needed to hear that again.

Comments 1

  1. Dear Rex,
    Thank you for this homely, for opening channels inside our mind and spirit through your riveting articulation of John’s wondering questioning, it was as if I heard it for the first time. I am additionally thankful for your projecting, clear voice that lessens my straining to ear ( I am hard of hearing and wear hearing aids).

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