“Are you the one who is to come?” – Sermon for Year A, Advent III

(This sermon was originally preached extemporaneously; what follows is a reconstruction from my notes.)

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:2-6)

One of the many riches we find in Christianity is the wealth of spiritual traditions by which we approach God in prayer and contemplation. One of the spiritualities that has a deep resonance with me is the Ignatian tradition – those practices of prayer and of the Christian life that arise from the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola.  Ignatius is probably best remembered for founding the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits – a Roman Catholic religious order that continues to follow a rule of life in the tradition of their founder.

Jesuit priest and author James Martin has described the core of Ignatian spirituality as “finding God in everyday life.” It’s a framework – a toolkit – that likes to rely on some of our fundamental traits as human beings as a way of deepening our relationship with Jesus Christ. One of those fundamental human traits that the Ignatian tradition pays attention to is our imagination. A spiritual director once reminded me that our imaginations are a powerful force. With our imaginations, we can look ahead to imagine a conversation or a “wildest dream,” or look back to recreate a memorable and meaningful moments in our lives. And, just as our imaginations may often give us insight into who we are, and what we need to do, we can also turn our imaginations toward the life of prayer.

My spiritual director once urged me to turn my imagination to the texts of the Gospel stories, and to imagine myself in them, and then to look and see what happens. And, often, I’ve done that, to great result – imagining myself coming to adore the infant Jesus with the shepherds, or walking alongside Mary and Joseph in the flight to Egypt. I’ve imagined standing in the crowds when five loaves and two fish fed five thousand people, or standing hearing Jesus speaking the beatitudes in the sermon on the mount (or on the plain, depending on the gospel!). During Advent, I’ve imagined going out to the Judean desert to see and hear John the Baptist – the wild man – as he preached and baptized.

I’ve let my imagination place me in the middle of the Gospels, in the middle of Jesus’ life and ministry. But I’ve always had one rule – spoken or unspoken. I allowed myself to imagine being at Jesus feet as he taught and healed. I allowed myself to imagine being present at the foot of the cross, or hunched in fear in the upper room. But it seems, as I rule, I never tend to allow my imagination to place me in Jesus’ place.

This is, by all accounts, a good thing. After all, clergy already have more than a bit of a Messiah complex – it takes a unique kind of chutzpah to be able to say that God has called you to a particular ministry in front of a large congregation at ordination – and, by in large, my ego doesn’t need any more nourishment. And the gospel we preach over and over is that we are not God – that we are participants in God’s world, partakers in God’s mission, and united to Jesus Christ in baptism – but that there is nothing we do to save ourselves – all of that comes from God.

But I need to make a confession. I must have let my imagination run really wild with this week’s scripture. It may have gotten out of hand. That’s because I could picture – clear as day – that question coming from John the Baptist back to Jesus. I could imagine someone calling and asking:

“Are you the one that is to come, or am I to wait for another?”

Now, let me restate what I just said moments ago – we are not Messiahs. We live, move, and have our being through God’s grace – unearned, and undeserved. That’s what I kept telling myself as my imagination seemingly took the express track to heresy-ville this week. But I could still hear that question echo… and could imagine being asked…

“Are you the one that is to come, or am I to wait for another?”

 That’s when I realized that here – back in the real world – this is a question that, in fact, we get asked all the time as the church. People are hungry for substance – for fulfillment – for the experience of grace; everyone is on some sort of spiritual journey. Some people jump from church to church to church looking for a sense of spiritual fulfillment and nourishment; others jump from the pursuit of wealth, to lives of service, to lives of seeking looking to plug those God-shaped voids in the heart that only Jesus Christ can fill. That question is asked over and over and over again.

Even John the Baptist – John the great prophet in fact, more than a prophet, as Jesus says in today’s reading, John the Baptist who scripture says drew all of Judaea to the countryside to listen to his preaching – if John the Baptist is asking this question, then we  are too. And the world definitely is.

“Are you the one that is to come, or am I to wait for another?”

We’re not individual Messiahs; we can’t earn salvation. But, as the church, we bear witness to something, someone special – we bear witness to Jesus Christ. We know of the great wonder of the incarnation – that, as Athanasius famously said – that God became human that we may become as God is. We believe that at our baptism, we are united with God incarnate – we are united with Jesus Christ – joined to Christ in his death, raised with him in his resurrection. When Paul speaks of membership in Christ’s body over and over again, he speaks beyond the realm of metaphor – he means it. Together – as the church – we are joined, knit together, made into the body of Christ. We are joined inseparably to our savior. And that joining, changes us. And it demands that we seek to listen to the world as Christ listens to the world; to see the world as Christ sees the world; to imagine the world as Christ imagines the world.

So if John’s question to Jesus stirs our imaginations – if we get a bit nervous when we hear that question – “Are you the one that is to come, or am I to wait for another?” – well, it should.

It should make us nervous because it’s still being asked today – only now, it’s Christ body, the church, that hears that question. And it should make us nervous because we know the answer:

No, I’m not the one that is to come. But I know the one who is. And I have been made a part of his body. And no, you shouldn’t wait for another.

Just as I can imagine hearing that question from John the Baptist in today’s Gospel text, I can also imagine hearing the words Jesus gives to John’s messengers to send back – go and tell.

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

Go and tell – go and tell of the everyday miracles that occur in our lives, baptized and knit into Jesus Christ’s body. Go and tell of how we were dead and raised; go and tell of how we thought ourselves beyond repair only to be made whole; go and tell of how Jesus Christ took the mess of our lives and made it clean.

And don’t just go and tell – expect to be surprised. Because, just as the faithful John the Baptist asked this question – we will keep asking John’s question ourselves. We’ll ask it of our church, of our friends and neighbors, of our lay people, bishops, priests, and deacons. Because as Advent reminds us, we live in liminal, in-between space – the time between what God has done in the incarnation, and what God will do at the second advent – and in-between times can be hazy and confusing. But in those times that we ask again – we’ll meet Jesus again. We’ll meet the one who is to come yet again. And we’ll be surprised where – or in who – we see the image of Christ shown. But Christ will be there.

We aren’t the one who is to come – but we know him. Because we know Jesus Christ. And we see him again and again.

There’s a hymn that I love – one that, unfortunately didn’t make it into our hymnal, that ends like this:

Tell the praise of him who called you
out of darkness into light,
broke the fetters that enthralled you,
gave you freedom, peace and sight:
tell the tale of sins forgiven,
strength renewed and hope restored,
till the earth, in tune with heaven,
praise and magnify the Lord.

That’s our charge, not just this Advent, but each and every day of our lives. We’re to be stirred by the questions of the world – the hunger of the world – the desire of the world – and answer with the stories we have to tell. We’re to witness to the one who is to come, to tell of miracles we’ve seen and heard, and never stop looking, never stop seeking, never stop serving until that great and glorious day when all the earth, in tune with heaven, shall praise and magnify Our Lord. Amen.