Advent I What are we waiting for . . . ? Isaiah 11:1-10 Matthew 2:2-11
You probably know the tune from Godspell, from the very first scene, the words are “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” the very words in our scripture reading this morning, from the prophet Isaiah, sung in the musical by John the Baptist.
Do you remember the scene—the Baptist blowing the shofar, singing while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, random people hearing him, dropping what they’re doing and following—just great with everybody gathering at the Bethesda Fountain (in Central Park) in a runaway baptism scene.
That’s not the way it was, needless to say. Sketchy as the historical details are, we know enough to distinguish between scripture and—Broadway! But nevermind, it is a great movie.
We know enough about John the Baptist and Jesus to realize that the gospel account reveals a close relationship between the two, a mixture of competitiveness, rivalry, mentorship, political jockeying, and in the end, divorce.
The gospel account is a partisan interpretation favoring Jesus, of course. But John the Baptist opens the gospel in the most dramatic appearance and has some of the best lines in the whole gospel, of which these are just a few:
Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come.
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Don’t bother to claim Abraham as your ancestor—God will raise up children of Abraham from these very stones.
The ax is ready for trees that don’t bear spiritual fruit.
I am not worthy to carry the sandals of the one who is coming after me.
He will divide the wheat from the chaff, and the chaff he will throw into the unquenchable fire.
People heard these words and came in droves for his baptism, a symbolic act of purification borrowed from physical cleansing. This was attested to by outside sources. We actually know more about the historical Baptist than Jesus himself.
Jesus came, too. The Baptist’s prophetic ministry possibly sparked Jesus’ own ministry.
Jesus then came into his own prominence. Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft 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 anticipated the violence that was to come. He warned against it and perhaps consciously took another path to his own radical vision.
Later, after being arrested by Herod for sedition, John asks from prison, are you the one who was predicted?
John’s question originates from passages like the one in our Responsorial this morning: “a shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse.” Who was Jesse, for heaven’s sake? What is meant my a shoot and a stump anyway? Jesse was the father of King David and so the start of Israel’s royal line. Isaiah’s point here is, Israel’s kings had failed. But out of the dead, desiccated roots of the royal line will spring a fresh branch. This king will reach toward the most fundamental needs of human society where conflict and combat fester. This king will not only have the key to his society’s needs, he will harmonize all the warring nations. He will have the spirit of the Lord upon him.
John the Baptist asks, are you the One, the one we’ve been promised and are waiting for?
And that’s right where the season of Advent breaks into the church year. Advent starts the new church year reminding us that for a long time Israel waited. It waited for deliverance from bad and unworthy kings. It waited for the balm that would heal human discord. It waited for a spiritual leader whose powers would be irresistible and invincible.
The followers of Jesus found that leader in Jesus and moreover, unlike John, this man Jesus was descended from King David. He had a pedigree—which Matthew was at pains to establish with that long genealogical list in his Nativity narrative. Their waiting was over.
The four Sundays of Advent, the month leading up to Jesus’ birth, recaptures the painful state of anxious anticipation of those who were like lost sheep. But for us, we know the story and have lived it, so we are not waiting for Jesus, literally, we are just remembering what it was like to wait. Advent positions the church, as the anniversary of Christ’s birth approaches, as if we were preparing and anticipating the baby Jesus’ arrival.
However, even though many today have heard of Jesus, he has still not arrived in their hearts. That may include church members who think that church attendance completes their spiritual journey. Like that brood of vipers the Baptist refers to who relied on their temple credentials.
But for most of us here, I hope, I don’t believe we are waiting. I’m not, anyway. We are actually just remembering when the world was waiting and what that was like. Remembering what it was like when we were waiting for Christ to come into our lives. But Jesus is already here.
Oh, we are still waiting for the problems of the world to be solved alright and for him to complete his work. And we are waiting for our relationships to be perfected. But we can get stuck in the same feeling we have waiting for the bus. What Jesus changed is that the waiting is not passive, like waiting for the bus. It is active—we take in the “already” and pursue the “not yet.”
People are not supposed to complain about imperfection and just dream of the perfections listed in Isaiah. Jesus asks us to live the dream, and he gives us the reason and the power to do so.
Today, I will translate Isaiah’s dream for you in Eliot terms. You already have the royal scion in Jesus, and you will feel the spirit of his wisdom and might, his discernment and compassion. What are we waiting for?
Eliot church can lead this community in upholding the cause of justice and equity for all people. What are we waiting for?
Eliot church can lead this community to form common cause with the indigenous peoples. What are we waiting for?
Eliot Church can become a safe haven for the expansion of the soul and the nourishment of the spirit. What are we waiting for?
Eliot Church can uphold the legacy of the Rev. John Eliot by articulating our faith without disrespect to the listeners. What are we waiting for?
Eliot Church can be a destination for the seeker and for the doubter, for the politically tempest-tossed and those who just want to sit next to someone who has faith, even if they don’t— What are we waiting for? We already have Jesus who got caught up in a political struggle himself.
Eliot Church can present a religion as beautiful as art. What are we waiting for? We already have Jesus, the poem of the universe.
Eliot Church can fulfill its identity as an owner-operated, equal opportunity, total participation gospel mission center. What are we waiting for? We already have Jesus our teacher and guide.
That’s how I translate Isaiah’s prediction of perfection. That’s how I translate John the Baptist’s call for our lives to bear good fruit. Your Jesus is already here and waiting for you. What are you waiting for?
Let this Advent be a season to grow our confidence in the spiritual role that we as Jesus’ disciples can have in this community.