A sermon from Linda Mackie-Griggs for Advent III
“What then did you go out to see?”
Among all of the words in the English language, the word, “expectation” has got to be one of the most freighted. It brings with it, on the one hand, the eager anticipation of, and preparation for, something wonderful in the future, or on the other hand, the stomach-churning realization that something we anticipated has disappointed somehow. No one wants to deal with something, in others or in ourselves, that has not lived up to expectations.
Listen to John’s words from prison: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?”
In earlier accounts, John the Baptist has greeted his cousin with awe and joy as the Anointed One who is to come and rescue Israel:“Behold, the Lamb of God!”, he has declared to his disciples, palpably excited that the hopes of his people are about to be fulfilled.
But now John has been jailed by Herod. He may not know it yet, but he will die in prison. And his hope is ebbing as he realizes that his joyful expectation of Jesus’ triumph over Roman occupation is in jeopardy. He is losing hope. You can almost hear the accusatory tone; the impatience, the doubt: “…should we look for another?”
And Jesus responds, as he often does, by turning to Israel’s roots. He alludes to the prophet Isaiah, some of which we heard today in the first lesson. Jesus says, look around. The things that the prophets told us of are actually happening; healing and justice are abounding—the Reign of God is breaking in, just like Isaiah said it would. Don’t lose hope, John, he says. All is going just as it should.
But of course, that is part of the tension here. Jesus says that the words of the prophets are being fulfilled, but evidently, John has different expectations of exactly what that should look like. John expects a heroic Messiah who will overthrow the Roman occupation—and he’s definitely not the only one who feels that way. But thus far Jesus is not meeting those expectations. There is a disconnect between differing visions of the Kingdom—the Reign of God—and this disconnect may well lie in how we read Isaiah, which is the foundational text that informs Jesus’ response.
Isaiah wasn’t a single person who wrote at a single point in time. A number of prophets wrote under that name between about 8th and 6th centuries BCE, and their writings are generally seen as being organized into three major sections, as we heard last week. The reading we heard today falls in First Isaiah, which emphasizes the importance of worshiping one God who will purify Jerusalem before inaugurating a vision of peace, healing and reconciliation. Of particular importance in this vision is the Davidic line of kings, of which, according to the Gospel accounts, Jesus is the culminating figure—the Anointed One that Isaiah prophesied over a half-millennium earlier.
Isaiah describes the coming Reign of God as a time of healing and justice, and Jesus alludes specifically to this in his response to John. But, as we just heard in the first lesson, that isn’t all Isaiah said. It’s not just about humanity:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.…
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
Do you hear that? The prophet’s vision of the coming Kingdom encompasses all of Creation. This isn’t something we usually consider. But as we look at the water protectors at Standing Rock and what they have accomplished, and as we grieve the destruction and suffering being visited upon our Mother Earth due to pollution and climate change, we are invited to broaden our vision of the Reign of God beyond the anthropocentric—to remember that it’s not just about us.
Jesus turns to the crowd, and he begins by asking them about their expectations of John. “What did you go out to the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?” Some scholars speculate that this was a reference to an image on royal coinage. Jesus continues to press the issue—what did you expect to see? Royalty in soft robes? Really? What kind of kingship do you think the prophets were talking about?
Or, did you expect a prophet? Well that’s what you got—and you may not know it yet, but you’ve gotten a lot more than you expected.The implicit question to the crowd in this interrogation has been, “What is YOUR vision of the Kingdom?” Because Jesus is implying that he’s about to turn it upside down. He says,
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
And it’s the last part of this statement that rocks the world. Yes, John is important—he’s the forerunner sent to prepare the way for Jesus. But what does it mean that he is the least in the Kingdom?
To answer that, I have another question:
What is our expectation of the Kingdom? If our expectations are in any way informed by the world as it is and not as we are called to help form it, then we are probably off the mark.
Let me introduce you to a living parable.
Steve Blackmer has been dubbed by Harper’s Magazine, ‘The Priest in the Trees.”* He’s an Episcopal priest, ordained just a couple of years ago and called from the beginning of his discernment to a ministry focused on conservation and healing in the natural world. During his time in seminary, he was struck in his study of Scripture by how much of the narrative is immersed in the land—mountaintops, valleys, lakes, gardens, deserts, rivers, wilderness. His Church of the Woods, now a year old, is comprised of just over 100 acres not far from Canterbury, New Hampshire. Liturgy in the Church of the Woods involves hiking, stargazing, storytelling, meditation walks, trail work, and open-air Eucharists. His vision is to help people understand, and repent of, what he calls ‘ecological sin.’
Steve tells this story of a major turning point in his ministry: He calls it the Chainsaw Eucharist. As he was clearing brush and saplings in the forest he came upon a stand of mature beech trees that were in the way of a new meditation trail. He cranked up his chainsaw and began chopping away. But as tree after tree fell, he became increasingly uneasy. He stopped. He realized that in cutting down those trees he had neither shown nor felt the slightest regard for the fact that he was taking lives that were worthy of reverence. Right then and there he set up an altar with his traveling Communion kit and turned to the Lectionary reading for the day. It was from Isaiah:
I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you. . . . Shout, O depths of the earth! Break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest, and every tree in it.
The author of the story writes: [Blackmer] prayed the prayer of confession, consecrated the bread and wine, and offered them to his fellow congregants — the trees — before partaking himself.
Set aside the complete lack of liturgical orthodoxy of Blackmer’s actions here, and see it, as I said, as a living parable: What is the Kingdom of God like? The Kingdom of God is where Jesus gave himself for ALL of Creation–for everything that God declared Very Good from the beginning of time. ALL of it.
None of Creation, not the natural world that we steward, nor the poor, nor the sick, nor the outsider are to be regarded as something that is in the way of our selfish desires. God’s Dream is to turn all of that on its head; in the words of the Magnificat, to cast down the mighty and lift up that which we would treat as lowly. It’s audacious, it’s what Isaiah envisioned, and that’s what Jesus wanted John the Baptist to understand.
Because, you see, John’s expectation was as imprisoned–as boxed-in–as he was. As he began to lose hope he thought he might have been expecting too much of Jesus, when in fact, he expected too little; as did the crowd that Jesus addressed. They expected to see the liberation of Israel—something they could imagine– not the unexpected–beyond imagination–, which was the healing and renewal of all Creation.
The prophetic imagination of Isaiah, and of the entire Gospel message, calls us to participate courageously in the Dream of God. It is a daunting message, and at the same time a hopeful and joyful one. Today we lit the pink candle on the Advent wreath to mark Gaudete Sunday, which means Rejoice. And we can rejoice today. We can rejoice in the audacious expectation and hope that the God who comes as a child is faithful to all of Creation, and calls each of us to be the ones that we’ve been waiting for.