Lessons for the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Year A): Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; and, Matthew 11:2-11.
What are you looking for?
Maybe you heard that question in today’s Scripture. That’s what Jesus asks the crowd, not once, but three times.
What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?
What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes?
What then did you go out to see? A prophet?cf. Matthew 11:7-9
What then did you go out to see? What are you looking for?
A little context here is important because Jesus is asking these questions of the crowds who have come out to the wilderness, presumably to see John.
Jesus asks these to the disciples of John the Baptist, who has already been imprisoned by Herod and stands at the end of his own ministry. John has sent his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And so, clearly, after all, that he’s been through, John knows what it is – John knows who it is – that he’s been looking for.
Even prison, it seems, will not stop John’s searching. Like so many in the narratives of Jesus’ birth (Simeon and Anna, the shepherds, and the magi) – and like so many in the narratives of Jesus’ public ministry (Andrew and Levi, Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman, Mary) – the faithfulness of John’s search has itself become holy and is a lesson for our own holiness. The searching itself shaped John; the faithful attentive waiting has prepared John for what to expect. In this short message that John sends out, it’s clear he knows what it is he’s looking for. He’s aware of the signs and knows what they mean.
After the initial ceasefire in Northern Ireland in 1994, a member of the loyalist Ulster party made an off-hand comment about wanting to see signs of the IRA’s commitment to peace. Over the next few months, some curious signs popped up. One said simply, “This is a sign.” That was all. Another read: “Do not move this sign.” A humorous response in a tense situation, to be sure. But the signs were already present if they were willing to see and knew what to look for.
John has seen the signs and knows them well, and he has hope in fulfillment.
Jesus knows them, too. Jesus knows it so well that he doesn’t offer some saccharine, “Yes.” Jesus could have just told John, “Hey! I’ve arrived. I’ll take it from here.” Instead, the answer that Jesus offers is the answer you give to someone who’s been shaped and prepared by years of searching and waiting and expecting.
“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 11:4-5
What is happening speaks for itself, if only we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. The signs are clear if you have been prepared to see them. So, when Jesus turns to the crowd and asks them, “What then did you go out to see?” he’s asking a question that the Gospel asks of all of us, too.
What kinds of things are we looking for?
My mother had aggressive breast cancer. She was diagnosed in 1986 and underwent two years of treatment. She was brave in her suffering, fierce in her love, and dedicated in faith. She prayed ardently (and made me pray ardently as well), but she wasn’t one to look for a miracle or expect some wonder drug. Towards the end, she didn’t really need someone to tell her that it’s unclear if she would prevail. What she was looking for, at least towards the end, was the energy to be part of Christmas, one more time – to be with her family, to make the cookies, trim the tree and light the hibiscus bush, and to make the crèche, just one more time, out of the Lincoln Logs. We hadn’t had Lincoln Logs for many years but we found some. That’s what she was looking for.
Jane’s son was somewhere – hopefully. He was certainly not in a safe place. He was an addict who had just left one night. She had heard from him or about him a few times in the ten years since; but, she didn’t know where he was right now. Her first choice would be to have him home with her again; she’s said so much before. But she’d settle for him being somewhere safe. She is so very scared for him. And so she’s looking for some way to believe that something not so very dangerous might fall into place. That’s what she’s looking for.
Raymond just doesn’t have a lot of work to do and is looking to keep his family secure. Giorgio is a little different than his friends and is just looking to be accepted. Betsy lives alone and doesn’t get out much, and she’s looking for a friend. Janet had a fight with her daughter and they don’t talk anymore, and all she wants is reconciliation.
At Christmas, so much of what we lay before the manger are hopes we have for even the smallest taste of redemption or the smallest sip from the cup of blessing.
A way to bring up something hard to say without getting shut down. The courage to pursue a dream that’s been on our heart for ages–the courage even just to try. The heart to seek forgiveness for what we’ve done or the heart to forgive another and find a way forward together… somehow.
Is what we really want so different than a world in which “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?” I don’t know about you, but I think that’s exactly what we want.
What we want is the very world that becoming aware of the presence of God reveals. What we want is the very world that John the Baptist had been looking for his whole life long. Christmas and its responsibilities can make us crazy – maybe even crazier than Crazy Eddie. In all our preparations, let’s not forget what Jesus was asking the crowd: What is it that you’re looking for? What is the healing that you need? What forgiveness do you seek? What is the hope that you are looking for? Whatever they may be, may you find them unwrapped and waiting in Bethlehem, calling you to give tidings of great joy.
Oh, and maybe this Christmas you can give a sign for someone else – maybe the sign that they have been looking for! Maybe you could be the hand of healing or the voice of reconciliation. Maybe you know someone who needs a friend or companion, or maybe you know someone who just needs a helping hand. Maybe you know someone who needs a little courage or a little joy. Maybe you know someone who needs to witness a little hope! You can be that sign – that witness in their lives, with even the smallest act of kindness, generosity, friendliness, and love. What’s the gift behind the gifts you give this year? What’s the hope behind the giving?
Thomas Merton, the Kentucky monk and writer who died 51 years ago, is remembered in the calendar of Holy Women, Holy Men on December 10, the anniversary of his death. He wrote a prayer while sitting in a toolshed in Nelson County, Kentucky.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude