December seems to last forever when you’re a child. All the anticipation, the carols ringing on every radio, the hope for gifts, the holiday get-togethers, seeing relatives and friends, and of course just the sheer weight of waiting all make the month last forever. There’s so much buildup and you’re so looking forward to Christmas that time seems to stretch out in front of you and Christmas seems like it’ll never get here. And, I think, at least part of it is that time simply goes by more slowly when you’re younger.
So when we’re in this season of Advent, we’re in a season of waiting. We keep hearing that. I keep saying it. Our prayers keep repeating it. And we’ve been waiting. We’ve been waiting for 2,000 years. Jesus is supposed to arrive riding the clouds and finishing the new creation any day now. But…like…where is he? What’s taking so long? We trust that he’s coming like he said he would, but this is taking a long time. And maybe, just maybe, that waiting lifts up a bit of doubt--
Which is where John the Baptist finds himself in today’s reading.
John has been the fiery preacher proclaiming the kingdom of heaven to everyone that would listen—and really, even everyone that wouldn’t listen too. He’s been uncompromising about it, certain of the truth that Jesus is the Messiah who would make everything right. And then, he ended up angering the wrong people with his sermons and now he was in prison. He had a lot of time to think in prison. It was starting to occur to him that Jesus wasn’t exactly the Messiah he thought he was waiting for. And it must have come up in his mind—was he wrong? Did he bet on the wrong horse? So he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, to reassure him that it wasn’t in vain, that Jesus really is the Messiah.
And here I love Jesus’ response. “Go and tell him what you see and hear.”
There’s no rebuke for doubting. There’s no chiding him for not having enough faith. Instead, Jesus points John back to what his eyes can see and his ears can hear. The evidence is right there if you look at it! There’s no need to just trust that Jesus really is the Messiah, blindly believing every word he says. No, look at what he’s doing. Listen to what he’s saying. The evidence is there; just look for it.
And the evidence that he points out is drawn directly from this passage in Isaiah. The lame leap, the mute speak, the blind see, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news brought to them. And Isaiah’s vision is imaging the world that will be, the world that God intends to recreate. It’s not a hypothetical world, either. Isaiah doesn’t talk about some far-off heaven with harps and clouds. He talks about a real place.
The desert Isaiah talks about is Arabah in Hebrew, which is the desert valley east of the Judean hills. And Isaiah sweeps across the Promised Land up the Plain of Sharon on the Mediterranean Coast, across to Mount Carmel at the northern end of Israel, even to the mountains of Lebanon—all real, physical places that he sees restored. He sees them blooming like the crocus, a flower that buds up through the snow to signal the start of springtime. It’s real, physical evidence of God’s goodness that proves the restoration that God is bringing to Israel.
What do we see and hear that show God at work in the world? We see four families blessed with gifts they could never afford to get for Christmas, provided by the abundance God has blessed this congregation with. We hear about the unlikely friendship of a toddler and a nonagenarian, neighbors who share the joy of riding mowers, growing tomatoes, and playing croquet. We see God’s goodness in the beauty of creation, from fiery sunsets to clean crisp snow to life returning with the lengthening days. We see it in a world that has seen millions lifted from poverty, diseases stopped in their tracks, and interconnectedness on a scale unimaginable just a few decades ago. God is at work my friends, if we look!
And I know it can be tempting to not see it. The world can look a lot more like the inside of John’s prison cell where we don’t see what the Messiah is doing. There’s a lot to worry about—wondering what career to choose, being anxious about aging, hearing the anger in public conversation. In the midst of it, we may wonder if he really is the one to come, or if we should wait for another? But the Bible reminds us to have eyes to see and ears to hear!
When Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven, he reminds us that it doesn’t start from a place of size and grandeur. Instead, it starts like a mustard seed: small enough that you’d be reasonable for not even noticing it. It starts like bread leaven: hidden in the mass of everything else. But with eyes to see, you’ll notice it. With ears to hear, you’ll find it.
In the midst of all this waiting in the season of Advent, that’s part of what we’re called to do. We are waiting in the in-between times, since Jesus has already come, but he’s also returning. So we look for the ways that the kingdom is showing up among us. We find where God is at work in the world in big ways, and in little ways. We see God’s kingdom showing up in the birth of a healthy new baby, and we also see it in the more than one billion people lifted from poverty. We see it in the kindness of strangers who come together to make sure their homebound neighbor has a merry Christmas; and we also see it in the growing commitment of the world to honoring the dignity of all people.
Jesus didn’t chastise John for doubting. Instead, he took it as an opportunity to remind him to look and listen! Let’s look and listen this season, and take the time to name all the ways, big and small, that we see God’s kingdom showing up in our midst. Let’s look and listen with all the holiday buzz and hurry, to notice the places where goodness is getting the upper hand, where hope is holding fast, where justice is being done, and where love is making the world a little bit more like the kingdom of heaven.
Thanks be to God. Amen.