Click here for General Assembly coverage

3rd Sunday of Advent — December 11, 2016

Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Advent 3A

Jill Duffield's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.
Jill Duffield’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

The texts for this third Sunday of Advent brought to my mind a recording of a 911 call; all three give me a sense of a calm stranger on the other end of a panicked plea for help.

We have heard those recordings of two disparate voices, one laced with fear and pain, the other methodically asking questions, staying on the line, giving instruction, reminding the traumatized other that someone is on the way to intervene, to bring assistance, to rescue or save. These readings bring forth those intense emotions: danger is present, but we aren’t left alone to face its wrath. All three offer the reassurance that as desperate as the situation may be, help is right now on the way, so hang on and hang in and don’t lose hope.

The prophet tells those who are able to say to the fearful hearted, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God, he will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense, he will come and save you.”

Hang in, hang on, don’t lose hope. Help is on the way.

The epistle writer reminds this nascent Christian community: “You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.”

Hang on, hang in, don’t lose hope. Help is on the way.

Jesus sends word to his imprisoned, questioning, doomed-on-death-row cousin: “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, the poor have good news brought to them.”

Hang on, hang in, don’t lose hope. Help is on the way.

God’s promises spoken through the prophets have been fulfilled. John’s preparation for the one to come was not in vain. Not even fools will go astray on this holy highway dotted with pools of water, flanked with life-giving springs, the redeemed will travel in peace on the road to salvation.

Hang on, hang in, don’t lose hope. Help is on the way.

That’s a needed word this Advent season of expectant, but sometimes painful, panicked, waiting. The urgency of 911 calls seems an apt comparison for those evacuating from wild fires and refugees fleeing their war-torn homes and families wondering if they will be able to feed their families, let alone, have something under the Christmas tree for them. The sense of desperate waiting is palpable from those in prison, wrongly convicted, wondering if a stay of execution will come. This kind of waiting is Advent waiting, too.

We talk often of eagerness, expectation, excitement as the birth of the Savior draws near, but maybe, if we are honest, we need to talk about desperate, bordering on delusionary waiting, too. We need to talk about the kind of waiting that comes with praying for healing when the last round of chemo failed to stop the cancer’s spread. The kind of waiting that comes with sending your drug-addicted spouse to rehab. The kind of waiting that comes when your son or daughter is deployed to a war zone. The kind of waiting that comes when the biopsy has been sent off but the results aren’t back. Advent has a word to speak into that kind of waiting, too. This Sunday gives us that word.

Hang on, hang in, don’t lose hope. Help is on the way.

However, we must remember and not flinch from this reality: John the Baptist is executed. He is not miraculously spared. He is not sprung super hero-style from Herod’s prison. The calm words of the 911 operator don’t always mean that the ambulance or police or fire fighters arrive in time. Sometimes our desperate waiting is not rewarded with the outcome we desperately wanted. We need to speak this truth, too, lest our proclamation ring hollow to the many of our hearers who’ve begged for relief that did not come. Don’t insult them with cheap grace.

Consider John. Is there anyone more faithful in the Gospel’s cast of characters? His whole life, even before he was born, was lived for the sake of Jesus. Everything he ate or didn’t, everything he wore and everywhere he went was because of his love of Jesus. And what does he get for his trouble? Incarceration. Condemnation. Execution.

Hand on, hang in, don’t lose hope? Help is on the way?

Where is the help and hope for John and for those in this world like him? Those for whom the police arrive too late or the exoneration is proven long after the execution or the cure is discovered a generation once or twice removed? What is God’s word to them? They are still deaf, blind, lame, dead, pocked and poor.

Tell them: Be strong, don’t fear. Strengthen your hearts, the Lord is near. Proclaim what you see and hear when you see and hear it. The deaf hear, the blind see, the prophets’ words ring true. In the midst of wildfires, brigades of firefighters come from across the country to relieve the weary locals. Even now, despite the rhetoric of hate and the acts of hate, too, people are opening their hearts and homes to refugees. When hospice is called in and the family gathers, healing and wholeness can happen, not because death is averted, but because the peace that passes understanding prevails. People of good will and integrity with herculean commitment stand up for justice again and again and again, not because they always win, but because it is always right.

John’s life was not in vain. The deaf do hear, the blind do see, the lame are walking on the way, the shunned leper sits on the front row and others come and sit beside him, the poor get good news and good food. We are not just a born-again people, we are resurrection rampart in a death-dealing world.

Christ will come. Christ has come. Christ will come again. We aren’t at the end of the story yet. We aren’t at the end of your story or the world’s. So, hang in, hang on, don’t lose hope. Help is not only on the way. It is here. Proclaim it. Be it. See it. Make a way in the wilderness for it. Tell those in prison. Seek out the poor and make this Advent word a performative one so that it enacts exactly what it says. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Don’t grumble, go tell John, and all those like him, what you see and hear about the present and coming reign of God until they are able to see and hear it, too. Say with the confidence of the children of God:

Hang in, hang on, don’t lose hope. Help is on the way.

This week:

  1. Make a list of all the people you can think of who are work on behalf of others. Are these tangible signs of the kingdom? Consider those who enable transformation that impacts others for good: teachers who help students learn to read, physical therapists who help people walk again, speech therapists, first responders, social workers, volunteers, etc.
  2. Think about the list in Isaiah and Matthew. Notice how every sense is now able to attend to the divine presence. Note how the restoration of these abilities is also about being restored to community.
  3. How do we relate, declare, tell others about what we experience of Jesus? Are we comfortable doing this? Why or why not?
  4. John the Baptist’s entire life was devoted to Jesus. He fulfilled his role in God’s salvation plan. How can we relate to this laser focus? How do we think about our call and the call of our communities in God’s salvation story?
  5. Have you ever thought about Elizabeth and Zechariah in relation to John’s role in the Gospel story? They waited so long for a child only to have him come to a violent end. How do we understand this reality theologically?
  6. Have you ever had an experience of desperate waiting? How did it end? How did you make sense of it in terms of your faith? (Or did you?)

Want to receive Looking into the Lectionary content in your inbox on Mondays? Click here to join our email list!