Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Total restoration envelops us this third Sunday of Advent.
God hones and heightens each of our senses in order that we may fully perceive the holy and be completely re-incorporated into community. Not only individuals, but entire peoples become whole again. Isaiah prophesizes this radical new life. James tells us to patiently wait for the inbreaking of the Lord. Jesus assures John that the wait is over. No one gets forgotten. All receive compassion and healing. The blind see. The deaf hear. The lame walk. The poor hear good news. Lepers are cleansed, the dead raised. All those desert places in the world and in our lives overflow with beauty and blooms and water and life that calls forth more life.
These images of life-sustaining and life-giving newness grab our attention in a world flooded with violence and meanness. When I look out my window, the trees in my yard look barren, sparse, feeble — abundance is not evident in this season. I know enough people grieving the death of loved ones or struggling with debilitating illness to join John in his plea for hope from prison: Are you the One, Jesus, or are we to wait, keep waiting, languish in waiting, for another? How long, O Lord, how long?
I wonder when the word from Jesus will come. I hope that word will indeed be grace upon grace — for me, for those suffering in body, mind and spirit, for the nations at odds with each other, and for the people sleeping on our streets. Sometimes my prayers resemble John’s question from his utter helplessness: Are you the One, really? Or have I been foolish to follow and believe?
Sometimes, often after what seems like a long wait, a messenger returns with Jesus’ answer and those with eyes to see and the ability to walk more closely with Jesus than I in that moment tell me what they have witnessed. I get word of good news being brought to the poor, Christians working against all odds in refugee camps and in prisons, on the border and in board rooms, to bring equity and ethics and care to the least of these in our midst. I get word of radical reconciliation between former enemies, relationships raised from the dead, forgiveness asked for and accepted, the weak supported and the desponded encouraged. Desert places bloom, unexpectedly, inexplicably, a way made where there was formerly no way at all.
Waiting for that Word, for that witness, requires a patience I do not always possess. Hence, our need for a community of believers who strengthen our hearts until we are utterly assured of Jesus’ power and presence.
Recently, I learned of the work of BJ Miller and the Center for Living and Dying. Miller is a palliative care doctor who came to the work after having nearly died in a freak accident when he was 19 years old. He survived, but lost both legs below the knee and part of one arm. I went down the internet rabbit hole, listening to an interview with him, reading about the Center he started, finally listening to a TED talk titled, “What really matters at the end of life.” He notes: “After my accident, when I went back to college, I changed my major to art history. Studying visual art, I figured I’d learn something about how to see — a really potent lesson for a kid who couldn’t change so much of what he was seeing. Perspective, that kind of alchemy we humans get to play with, turning anguish into a flower.”
He goes on to talk about the crucial importance of our senses for feeling alive, for feeling pleasure, delight. Miller says: “Sensuous, aesthetic gratification, where in a moment, in an instant, we are rewarded for just being. So much of it comes down to loving our time by way of the senses, by way of the body — the very thing doing the living and the dying. … As long as we have our senses – even just one – we have at least the possibility of accessing what makes us feel human, connected.”
Feeling human, connected, aesthetic gratification, rewarded for just being — could not these be what helps us with our Advent waiting, easing creation’s groaning labor pain, until we get Word that our waiting is over, God’s total restoration complete? As we eagerly await the dead being raised and the desert in bloom, could we change our perspective and see the berries still on the end of the leafless branches, the dandelions emerging from cracks in the cement, the cardinals cast in stark relief against the gray sky? Not as a way to ignore the suffering within or around, but as a means to witness to the joy of just being and the wholeness Jesus offers not in spite of our finitude but through it.
John the Baptist, praised by Jesus as the greatest born of women, never leaves prison. We learn in chapter 14 that he has been beheaded by Herod. Presumably, John gets word of all that Jesus is doing, but does not experience such signs himself. I cannot help but wonder if that message was enough to keep John from despair. Was hearing what others witnessed enough to help him keep the faith and trust that his following, his call, his life was not in vain? Of course, we trust that ultimately John did see Jesus face to face. But what about in the proximate of this earthly suffering — what keeps us alive, feeling human and connected?
Seeing. Hearing, Touching, Smelling. Connection. Knowing we are not alone even when languishing in places we may never leave. Hearing the good news of the gospel from those who have experienced its healing power firsthand. Getting messages and visits from people who care about us, who refuse to forget or give up on us no matter our state. Remembering that even when we are unable to go to those places in need of water and food and hope, others are going in Jesus’ name and because we are One Body we are there, too. Trusting that no matter how desolate the desert, life exists there, life will flourish there, even if we don’t yet sense its presence. Looking, listening, reaching for, inhaling in, the best we can in any given moment, the wholeness Jesus offers now, until he comes again and all creation is restored.
- Where do you see signs of Jesus’ restoration, reconciliation and healing in your life and in the world? How can you share this good news with those who have not yet experienced it?
- How do we honor people’s suffering while still offering real hope?
- When has a change in perspective altered your understanding of an experience?
- Where are the deserts in your life or community? Are there places of life that can be pointed to or nurtured?
- How do you practice patiently waiting? What are you patiently waiting for this Advent?
- As we wait for Jesus, how do we participate in strengthening our hearts and hands and those of others?
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