Matthew 11:2-11, "Are you the one who is to come, or do we wait for another?"
Isaiah 35:1-10, "The desert shall rejoice and bloom . . ."
This story that Matthew tells about John is a bit funny in a way. The other gospels portray John as steadfast, the prophet out in the wilderness, proclaiming that Jesus is coming, the Messiah is coming. John is not like those reeds by the water that bend so easy. John is steadfast.
And that’s why it is a little funny that in this passage that John ends up sending some of his folks, John’s disciples, to check on Jesus. This is after John had baptized Jesus. John sends some of his disciples to make sure that Jesus is the Messiah. John the steadfast one, even after baptizing Jesus himself, John the Baptist from his prison cell is asking again, “Jesus, is it really you? Has it happened yet? Is it time to believe again?”
Sometimes it is hard to believe . . . sometimes at this time of year, when there is so much noise, when there are so many bright lights, so much to do, so much to eat . . . everything just seems confused and lost . . . sometimes the joy just seems lost . . . sometimes the meaning gets lost in the middle of all the celebration.
I know that it happens to me.
My wife and I thought that we were busy before the children arrived. It was back then that we would have our Christmas tree up on the first Sunday of Advent along with the other decorations. The Advent wreath would be sitting in a prominent place so that we could light the candles together on Sunday evening.
But I remember the first year with our children we had an Advent calendar called Twirling twoard Bethlehem. It allowed us to count the days with the kids, read the scriptures, pointing to the star and saying “star” for my daughter.
But I have to confess that we didn’t start on day one. It took us a couple of days to get a smidgeon of time for us to cut the thing out, to find some string. And then on a week like this week, we did one day at breakfast, and then a couple of days at supper because we hadn’t done read any of the scriptures for three days and needed to catch up . . . sometimes we are just so busy that we miss the joy, we miss the faith and belief that can happen in this season. Maybe you do too.
That’s why I like that Matthew tells this story about John . . . this story about what seems to be John’s doubting. John asks, “Are you the Messiah?” through John’s disciples. John thought that Jesus looked like the Messiah, talked like the Messiah . . . you know it is the whole thing about if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck, right? And John didn’t think Jesus was a duck, but was the Messiah, the Savoir of his people, the Savior of the whole world . . . John believed that . . . until John found himself in prison, until John found himself in the darkness and chains that we all sometimes find ourselves in, especially at this time of year.
This is such a tough time of the year for those who have lost loved ones, for those who have experienced breakups in couples and in families, where there has been sickness, where there are some relatives that you think that this may be their last Christmas . . . where there is just uncertainty in our lives . . . and there is enough uncertainty in our lives, in our community, and in our country to go around.
And it is at times like this, just like the darkness and doubt that John experienced in that prison, that we want to believe, we want so desperately to believe . . . but we find ourselves groping towards that belief . . . not quite there yet, reaching for it, but not quite there.
So we look . . . we look for the signs . . . for the way that we have five candles in front of us and now three are lit! We look for the signs . . . and we see this scene in front of us where there is a fire . . . and that little town of Bethlehem is off in the distance, not quite there yet, but we can see it . . . the way that for our family, we are adding more and more of those little cut-out pictures, turning back more of those little paperboard tabs as the day gets closer and closer.
The people of Israel were waiting for a day too, but they weren’t turning back little paperboard tabs or cutting out pieces of paper. You see, once again the prophet Isaiah speaks to them, to the people, at a time when they lived in exile, away from their homeland, in a foreign place . . . a prison of a sort . . . as they waited and wished to return home.
And Isaiah tells them that the day is coming, a day when the path will be made straight, where it will be an easy road, that there will be pools of water in the desert for them to drink from along the way . . . that they should not fear the journey, that they can and will make it. We don’t always believe that ourselves, so God tells us that it is true through Isaiah. And in that encouragement, in that prophesy, Isaiah describes what they are to look for . . . and he tells them to look for the crocus, for blooming flowers in the desert.
And we don’t necessarily expect blooming flowers in the desert. We don’t necessarily expect things to get better sometimes when we are locked in that prison, when we are not sure that we can make it, when we have been banging our heads against a wall at work, or with our spouses or with our children . . . sometimes we just don’t expect things to get better.
But Isaiah points out to look for the first signs, those first blooms, and that’s what the crocus is . . . usually the first blooming flower after the winter, the first sign that the winter is really over, that that time of cold and darkness, when the days are short and the nights are long, you see that the light is returning and first flowers of spring are appearing . . . just as we see that now this third candle is lit . . . that the stage is set once again for our remembering of Christ’s first advent, of Christ’s first coming, that coming as a child born to a woman named Mary, cradled in a feed trough in a stable . . . that manger, that feed trough is not what we would think of as the first sign, the first bit of our rejoicing.
But we see it now even though we might not have seen it then . . . a young woman, her new husband, away from home with no place to stay . . . except with the animals. It would be hard for us to believe if we had seen that scene then.
But this scene is played out again in many of our churches, by children who represent our future, the future of our families and the future. When we look for signs about what is to come, about the hope that we have this season, we look in their faces, the faces of shepherds, of wise men, of Mary and Joseph, of angels that come to tell us to be people of joy, that Christ has come to us, that there will be peace on earth and good will among all people.
And this is why we have to watch . . . to look for those signs.
This is why Isaiah says to look for the blooming of the crocus, the first sign that life is coming, that God is coming.
This is why when John doubted, Jesus does not chastise his doubt, just as any of us who have a hard time feeling that Christmas spirit, any of us who might be blue for whatever reason, Jesus doesn’t tell us not to doubt, but tells us to look for the signs. Jesus points back to the prophecy of Isaiah, that the deaf will hear, that the blind will see, that those who had no hope of walking again, will take their steps in joy, rejoices that salvation has come, that that which they didn’t think they could have has come again. Jesus does not tell John not to doubt, but to look at what is happening, as if John has been blind and needs to see.
And it is that way for us too. We see that there are now three candles lit on the Advent wreath, with only one more Sunday of Advent to go, with the Christ candle to be lit on Christmas Eve.
And as we begin to gather in our churches, some of us will see children act out the story again, the story that we are drawn to this time of year, not a story of presents and candy, of fat men in red suits, but a story of a humble family, in a humble place, and a child who would save us.
I hope that in your lives too, you will begin to look for that blooming, for those signs that Christ is coming, that Jesus is being born again in you, despite the prison you may feel that you are in, that there is hope and there is the joy that comes with knowing that salvation is nigh!
Thanks be to God for blooming in the desert, for the miracles that we see!
Thanks be to God for opening our eyes to what there is to see!