Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Sunday, December 12, 2010
Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.
Steve Martin, the noted actor, comedian, and writer, is a funny guy.
Find videos of his performances on YouTube, and you’ll be laughing for hours,
often at jokes and references that are not entirely appropriate for church.
Tickets sell out quickly when he does live appearances,
because people will gladly pay big bucks to have this living legend make them laugh.
And so when Steve Martin agreed to do a live appearance at the 92nd Street Y in NYC
it was a surprise to no one that tickets sold out quickly.
Now, this particular appearance, back on November 29, was not a stand-up comedy act.
Rather, it was billed as an interview between Mr. Martin and Deborah Solomon,
a columnist for the New York Times Magazine,
about his most recent book, An Object of Beauty, which is about the art world.
Perhaps not the most scintillating of settings or topics,
but about 900 tickets were sold, for $50 each, to benefit the work of the Y.
Even if Steve Martin were standing on stage reading a phone book,
it would probably be worth watching.
And so 900 people packed into the Y auditorium, and the interview began.
They discussed his book and his art collection,
just as they had planned, just as the program had advertised.
But the audience – online and in person – was getting restless.
Live online comments revealed that the audience was bored,
waiting for the comedian to do something funny,
to burst into song and dance,
to say something outrageous,
to crack a joke that causes hearers to bust a rib laughing.
But that didn’t happen.
This was an interview about his book.
But that’s not what the crowds came out to see.
They wanted a show,
they wanted a laugh,
they wanted vintage Steve Martin, perhaps from his Saturday Night Live days.
And all they got was a book interview,
and that is not what they came out to see.
The Y, embarrassed by Mr. Martin’s less-than-comedic performance,
offered refunds to everyone who attended.
“What did you go out there to see?” Jesus asks the crowd, about John the Baptist.
“A reed shaken by the wind? Someone dressed in fine robes?
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.”
Jesus here seems to be reflecting a bit of a disconnect
between what the people, or some people, anyway, were expecting to see in John,
the preacher and prophet announcing the coming of God’s Kingdom,
and what they actually saw in John.
What they found out there in the wilderness was a rather rough-around-the-edges,
fiery preacher calling God’s people to repentance,
and predicting a punishing, unquenchable fire for those who don’t repent.
Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, we learn that John was the kind of guy
who wore clothing of camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey.
This isn’t the kind of guy who would preach
in accordance to the latest political or theological winds,
nor is he the kind of guy who would curry favor as an in-house religious advisor
for the ruling class.
In fact, for calling out King Herod on his relationship with Herodias, his brother’s wife,
John was imprisoned, and later beheaded.
He’s got a different agenda – that of announcing the Kingdom of God from the wilderness,
from the margins of civilization,
good news for those who find themselves at the margins of society,
and challenging words for those who find themselves at the center of it all.
What did you expect to see? Jesus asks.
Some proper, well-educated, refined preacher?
What did you come here to see?
What did you come here, to this place, to see?
What did you come here to hear, or to experience?
Is it the beautiful music and faithful hymns?
The prayers and the sacrament?
Did you come here to say hello to your friend,
or to get your weekly serving of community and fellowship?
To encounter God in the liturgy, and feel the presence of the Holy Spirit wash over you?
Perhaps, simply enough, you came here do your churchly duty,
because you were signed up to be acolyte, communion assistant or usher.
Or did you come here to hear a preacher, dressed in fine robes?
No matter your reason – and I hope you’ll continue to ask yourself that question –
I’d love to hear your responses, on email or in person.
But let me turn that question on myself, for a minute.
What did I come here to see today?
What did I come here to see, to hear, to experience, or,
in my particular role as pastor and preacher,
what did I come here to say?
I’ll be honest …. sometimes I wonder why I come here.
Am I allowed to say that, particularly from the pulpit?
Sometimes I wonder what I come here to see or do or experience or say …
You see, there’s part of me that looks longingly at John the Baptist,
with his wild clothing and bizarre diet of bugs,
and his take-no-prisoners approach to preaching …
And I look at him and at myself, and I can’t help but see a disconnect.
Jesus tells us that we shouldn’t expect John to be a reed shaking in the wind,
to be blown by the winds of political or social or religious trends …
But you want to know the truth? I am.
I am shaken by the winds of my church and my world,
and by the winds that blow through this congregation.
I get up here and I worry at times about what I will say,
if it will hurt or offend or rub someone the wrong way.
I worry about what you all will think, to be honest.
John, he couldn’t care less.
I wear a fine robe and sit in a nice office – not a palace, for sure –
but a very refined office, fit for a pastor, perhaps,
but not for a prophet like John.
Like John, I am called to proclaim the coming of God’s Kingdom,
but the way I do it – the tone, the manner, the setting,
the fine robes I get to wear, the winds that shake me –
it all looks so different than the picture painted by the words of scripture.
And it is days like this, when I’m called upon to read texts like this,
texts that reveal such a contrast between me and my Biblical forbearers in the faith,
on days like this I can get all flummoxed by the questions,
what did I come here to see?
what did I come here to say?
Like the audience at the Steve Martin interview who didn’t get what they expected to get,
I wonder if you’re getting what you expect to get when you come here,
or what God expects me to give you.
Before you all head for the doors asking the ushers for your refund,
give me just a few more moments.
I’m not entirely sure, week to week, what I come here to say or to do,
and I’ll bet that’s the case for many of you, too.
Our faith isn’t a straight and consistent line, as much as we might like it to be.
Our ability to get out of bed, to get motivated, to get the kids together,
or to muster up the energy and will
to move achy bones and a weary soul to get to church
waxes and wanes.
Sometimes we come out of habit, sometimes out of faith,
sometimes out of a mixture of the two, and that’s ok.
So I’m not entirely sure what I came here to see,
but I will tell you what I’ve seen, or rather, heard here, today.
I heard the prophet Isaiah’s vision, in the first reading,
of dry land being transformed into r
ich soil bursting with blossoms
and teeming with life.
He saw a vision of God’s glory shining on the promised land of God’s chosen people.
He spoke promises about a day when all kinds of human ailments will be cured,
and people beaten down by crippling conditions will be renewed.
He spoke with hope about this glorious future, promised by God,
even as his people were, at the time, held in captivity in Babylon,
even as the hopes and dreams and life of the people Israel seemed crushed.
From the point of despair and isolation,
and far removed from the life they were called to live,
Isaiah offers words of hope and a promise of a better world to come.
Most significantly, he tells of a way, the Holy Way,
which stretches from the blossoming promised land
all the way into the darkness of their exile,
showing the Israelites the way, and giving them a path to live,
a path that is for God’s people, even (vs. 8) for the foolish among them.
It is a pathway that is safe and guarded by the love and promise of God,
sorrow and sighing is left behind,
and songs of joy and gladness are sung upon it,
and though he doesn’t say so, I can imagine that there’d be some dancing, too.
This is what Isaiah saw,
no matter what I came here to see,
no mater what you came here to see or hear or experience,
because it doesn't matter what you came here to see,
for this is something that God has given us to see this day.
It may not be what we’re looking for,
and it may not be what the church in its imperfection and brokenness
makes evident in its ministry each week,
but today it is what God gives us to see.
And how appropriate.
For despite whatever doubts or concerns or inconsistencies of faith we might have –
and we all have them, if we’re honest –
we hear today that even when we are held captive by doubt and hopelessness,
when we feel exiled from our selves and our faith and even from God,
when we don’t know what we’re looking for or what we come here to see,
our God gives us a way, a Holy Way,
a glorious vision of what lies before us.
And this is the good news of our faith:
Steve Martin will not always be funny,
and my preaching will not always be spot on,
and our will to do all that we ought to do as Christians and members of this church
will not always be as strong or confident as we might want it to be,
but God’s faithfulness doesn’t depend upon us.
God’s faithfulness, God’s gift of the Holy Way
isn’t contingent on us being good church members,
or on me being a faithful and focused preacher each week,
though these things surely are good for us in our journey of faith.
But these things do not usher in the Kingdom nor do they give birth to Christ in our lives.
Only God can do that,
the God who gives life to the dessert
and hope to the hopeless.
The God who gives renewed life to the downtrodden,
and who gives to his people a Holy Way,
which reaches from a promised future to the less-than-perfect today.
It is this Holy Way that we await to be revealed to us this Advent season,
a Holy Way that is given to us in a manger in Bethlehem,
in the waters of baptism,
in the bread and wine of Holy Communion,
and in the fellowship we share here.
What did you come here to see? We will each answer that question differently.
But what do we see here today?
The promises of God, revealed in Scripture and Sacrament,
a foretaste of the feast and kingdom to come.