“Where there is despair, Hope” (due to inclement weather on 12/16, this sermon was held over until 12/30)
John the Baptist appears in our memories as the wild firebrand out in the desert, railing against society and culture. His message of repentance stirs the heart and turns the indifferent, and he baptizes the multitudes, including Jesus. John becomes the preacher’s best friend, providing opportunities to roar in the pulpit, to toss around words like “repent!” Earlier this week, I heard of a preacher elsewhere in Vermont who cut a hole in a burlap sack (i.e. a “gunny sack” as they say back home) and last Sunday preached his sermon on John the Baptist while wearing the sack. (And for all these years, I thought the only use for burlap at church was for the church picnic sack race….)
This scene with John in jail, though, it is a different picture altogether. Last week, John the Baptist roars in the desert. A week later, he laments from a prison cell. The commanding voice that cried out in the desert is now down to a despondent whisper: “Are you the one, or should we await another?”
We tend to remember John’s ministry and proclamation, but less remembered is John’s fate thereafter. After taking the center stage, John winds up in prison for speaking against the court of Herod, and there he languishes in Matthew’s gospel until much later, nearly forgotten by the reader until this scene of despair. When I read Matthew’s gospel, I admit that I find this to be a haunting scene: the sunburned John now gaunt from little food and water, condemned to the misery and ignominy of “the system”.
It reminds me of an old iron padlock that I saw at a display at an American Baptist biennial held in Richmond, Virginia, in the summer of 2005. This padlock belonged to a Virginia Baptist historical society, part of an archive of mementos from the Baptists of the early years of our nation. The padlock was part of a prison cell door where religious dissenters found themselves incarcerated, including a number of prominent names familiar from history texts about early Baptist history. The legacy of those Baptists is something we take for granted. We live in a multi-faith nation where no one religion is to be favored, and indeed, Americans have the right to practice religious faith (or not to do so) with freedom. Nonetheless, the padlock lying under the glass, rusted from age, still has an ominous look to it, a reminder of a time when there was no thought of hope.
John believed with all his heart that there was a Messiah on the way. Like many in Jesus’ day, the belief that Messiah was coming was a point of hope as well as ongoing frustration. Persons claiming the title would crop up from time to time, especially in the midst of political strife. The messiah would be the one to bring peace and stability and great hope to the faithful.
“Are you the one, or should we await another?” is unsettling to read, as John moves from zeal to anguish, his fervor broken by the Herodian court tossing him aside as a criminal. Indeed, the story of Jesus has a similar arc: his ministry ends as his life is deemed forfeit by the Temple establishment and the local leadership of the Roman Empire. In Matthew’s gospel, the despair of John in prison is similar to that of Peter and the other disciples after they have fled their Master’s side: “Was he the one, or should we await another?” is the question crossing their minds as they flee and hide and watch the crucifixion from far away.
It is odd to hear this story on the third Sunday of Advent. Why did the scholars who designed the lectionary, the cycle of scripture readings, suggest this text as we get closer to Christmas? It seems quite the downer in the midst of a Sunday of Advent traditionally set aside to express the joy of this Advent season. And here we are being confronted with the sad scene of a forlorn prophet and a reminder that death is just around the corner for “the good guys”.
This text appears in the readings for this season of Advent because it tells us in the midst of the chaotic and seemingly unfair world that there is indeed hope. The gospel of Matthew is written to people living in the midst of a violent time, when the Roman Empire proclaimed peace but lived by the sword, when a developing religious group called “Christians” found themselves increasingly unwelcome. The gospel of Matthew is set in the midst of a world that seems all too familiar to its first century listeners, but Matthew reminds us that there is a different ending to the story: the resurrection of Christ. Indeed, this is the one watched and prayed for by the faithful. You read the story of John the Baptist in prison with due sobriety, but you are also called to read Jesus’ response as the best word you can hope for in this life. The destruction of the world and all of its shadowy sinfulness is transformed by the Christ, moving in the power of the Spirit, out in the midst of this broken world, making all things well.
Another prison padlock comes to mind. Again, a story of Baptists figures in the story of the padlock. Earlier this year, the congregation experienced some training with a denominational staff member named Ron Carlson. Ron’s father-in-law is Bozhidar Igov, a Baptist minister from Bulgaria. Bozhidar grew up under the repression of Communist rule, and it was a dangerous time to live as a Christian, especially as a minister, in his home country. As communism gave way in Bulgaria, the Baptists and other religious folk found themselves enjoying increasing religious freedom. Bozhidar recounts his experiences in a self-published book featuring a photograph of a padlock. Discarded on the ground, left to rust, the padlock has a flower growing up through it. In the midst of the rubble of a collapsed regime, there is this wonderful symbol of new life.
“Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus says to John’s disciples. “The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are clean, the deaf hear, the dead raised, the poor have good news.” In the midst of this world of belligerent despots and the self-serving “powers that be” of religion and Empire, we are invited to see the real power at work, one that lives not by sword or influence. It is another sort of power altogether, imaged in the New Testament like that of a servant, a lamb, and a word, imagery less expected and therefore more provocative. A servant who rules, a lamb who is powerful, and a Word that is God made flesh. What a beautiful contrast to what we tend to think “power” looks like. And what an alternative way of expressing the power of the universe: to heal those who are marginalized, forgotten, and considered “less than”.
For many years, the Sojourners community of Washington, DC, publishes its December magazine issue with a lead story about someone who represents the life Christ calls us to lead. You might be familiar with the practice of TIME magazine declaring “Person of the Year” (previously, “Man of the Year”, but then they got with the times…). But Sojourners magazine chooses folks that are not necessarily the type that win political office or wield great affluence or influence. They pick people who tend to be the odd folks working off in the margins of society: serving the needy, building peace, advocating for those who have no other help. Sojourners magazine started this practice back in their early days (the 1970s) by selecting St. Francis of Assisi. They figured that if there was anyone found in the history of the Church whom embodies the way of Christ, it was St. Francis.
Francis lived in a time when the church was in need of reformation. The son of a rich family, Francis discovered in the call of Christ to take a vow of poverty. Living simply, Francis wove together a different sort of life: caring for all, including all Creation; tending those in need; embracing even lepers to let them know of God’s love. Francis was often called a holy fool; one given over to odd things, yet in the midst of such a life, others could see the Christ in his work and person. An odd man living an odd message, often contrary to what the world thought or said was “the way things are”, Francis called us to look not to himself but to the Christ. In the language of St. Francis’ memorable prayer, we are reminded, “where there is despair”, hope can be sown and cultivated there as well. That is part of our calling as Christians: to be sowers of hope in a despairing world.
In the journey of faith, traveled up the steep hill that we call life, we can often only see in part. Nonetheless, in hearing the story of the gospel and looking to the stories of the church throughout the centuries (or even the story unfolding right now in our own day), we are reminded that we also have the ability to believe that more is possible, even more than we see. Vincent Harding writes,
- Living in faith is knowing that even though our little work, our little seed, our little brick may not make the whole thing, the whole thing exists in the mind of God, and that whether or not we are there to see the whole thing is not the most important matter. The most important thing is whether we have entered the process. (quoted in Jim Wallis/Joyce Hollyday, eds., Cloud of Witnesses. Orbis, 1991, p. xvi)