Sermon, Advent 3, yr A

In one of her letters, Emily Dickinson wrote: “They say that God is everywhere, and yet we always think of him as somewhat of a recluse.”
John the Baptizer was an impatient soul, a prophet with clarion lungs.  He proclaimed the entrance of that reclusive God into our common humanity.  I boldly, and dare I say prophetically, feel that John would have precious little interest in how we worship and wait, every Advent, for the coming of Christ.  This John, Christ’s cousin, was an interesting character, to be sure, dressed in camel hair, eating locusts and honey, and seeming addled, I’m sure, as he baptized in the desert.  Were this Baptiser to show up  some Sunday morning at Trinity, walk down the aisle and proclaim with those clarion lungs: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”, I think the more faint-hearted among us would likely cut and run.
The John the Baptist in our Gospel today is a different John than the one we heard about last Sunday.  Then, he was the prophet…the one proclaiming the true branch on Jesse’s tree.  This week, he’s been locked up by King Herod and wonders if Jesus is the messiah.  He’s not the kind of John I like.  Too personal.  Too much like me.  Moody.  Scared.  Doubting and doubtful.
For years, my spiritual director told me that deacons are the modern day prophets of the church.  I was very uncomfortable as he reminded me of this whenever I visited with him before I was ordained, and such talk still bothers me fiercely.  Before my ordination I dreaded the day that Episcopal hands would be laid on my head and an Episcopal voice would say: “Fill him with grace and power and make him a deacon in your church.”
Grace and power.  I can live with grace, but power?  I still fear those word and still fear what the Spirit, through those Episcopal hands and voice, gave to me.  If my spiritual director is correct…that this ornery deacon is a prophet, I still cringe.  My friends in Christ, please remember that “prophet” means spokesperson, not fortuneteller, and that the role of the prophet is to unmask pretense.  It is not a welcome task.  There is so much of it to unmask nowadays.  Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest that anyone ever asked a prophet home for dinner more than once.
Whether we like it or not, prophets are necessary.  We church folk are too easily tempted to think of ourselves as a kind of exclusive society.  As an example, the church rightly embraces its commission to make disciples of all nations, seems to understand this as what evangelism is all about, and can even lead the pretense parade about it.
In the semantics of the church, doubt has been a negative word. It is rarely used in a favorable way. Faith, not doubt, is the great word of the church.  As I stand here every Sunday morning and look into your up-lifted faces, you look so proper, so content, so believing.  You seem to be so certain, so full of faith, and so free of doubt.
But I have a suspicion that the way you look is not the way you are.  Beneath the skins of all of us there is planted the seed of honest doubt.  Perhaps we don’t share these feelings with anyone; but our doubts are there, and they are real.  Our worship does not express  our doubts, uncertainties, and skepticism.  In facing this situation, all of us at times cry out with the man in the Gospel, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” This capacity to doubt can often lead to some of life’s most profound questions.
Such was the case with John the Baptizer. His question, the question of a prophet ill at ease: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”, grew not out of his uncertainty, but out of his doubt.  John the Baptizer had heard about the words and deeds of Jesus, but what he had heard did not square with his expectation of the Messiah.
After all, Jesus was born not to royalty, but to a peasant woman.  He functioned not as a military ruler, but as a servant.  He came not as a judge, but as a forgiving redeemer.  He did not bring heavenly condemnation; he brought divine love.  He did not associate with the religious establishment, but he went from village to village associating with the rubbish heap of humanity. He spent his time and energy with the least and the lost…folks like you and me…uneasy with our doubts.  He was most concerned with the powerless: the blind and the lame, the lepers and the deaf, and the poor and the out-cast…the same sorts of folks this deacon and so called prophet is supposed to be concerned about! Jesus dared to teach that the weak occupied the most important place in the Kingdom of God…talk about a unmasking a pretense!
John the Baptizer – John the Doubter – became confused about the way in which Jesus acted out his messiahship.  He had doubts about the validity of his contemporary, Jesus of Nazareth.  His skepticism caused him to send one of his buddies to Jesus with the question: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  Like others in the New Testament, John the Baptizer was not positive.  Oh, to be sure, there were fleeting moments of recognition.  Mary thought Jesus was a gardener.  Those on the road to Emmaus never did recognize him.  Even his closest disciples were not certain if he was or was not the true Messiah.
That John the Baptizer had doubts about the messiahship of Jesus is revealed in his question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  His question is not clear, either in what is being asked or why.  But like all good questions, it impels the reader into deeper regions of thought.
Simone Weil wrote: “Christ came down and took possession of me…I had never foreseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God…in the sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my sense nor my imagination had any part: I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love.”
John the Doubter asks, “Are you the messiah?”  It’s the same question I ask…“Are you really God…God with skin on?”  Through my doubt…through my asking where this God is…the prophet in me knows, in faith, that God is wherever we let God in.  AMEN

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