Against the data

Sermon for the third Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11

John the Baptist had been so sure—so very sure—that he had read the signs of the times accurately. He’d walked away from mainstream society, donned the clothing of a prophet of old, and gone out into the wilderness to proclaim his tough-edged message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” “‘I baptize you with water for repentance,” he’d said to the crowds who’d come out to hear him speak,  “but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matt 3:11-12)

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John was so sure that history was perched on a hinge that was just about to turn; that the long-promised Messiah was about to arrive, and set all things right. And while that “setting right” would be vindication for those whose lives had born “fruit worthy of repentance,” it would be judgment for the unrepentant. Chaff burned in an unquenchable fire is how John imagined the justice-making work of the coming Messiah. And you certainly don’t want to be chaff…

And John had been so very sure that Jesus of Nazareth was the coming one; the messiah who would take his winnowing fork in hand and do that work of setting things aright. John had been so very, very sure…

When he was first arrested by Herod for speaking publically against the king’s corruption, John quite probably thought that his arrest was another sign of the closeness of the critical moment. Surely the imprisonment of the Messiah’s herald was yet another indication that the hinge of history was about to turn. But solitary confinement in a dank prison cell has a way of undermining a person’s confidence, and John began to wonder if he’d been wrong in saying that Jesus was the one. He knew that people were following Jesus—early on, two of John’s own disciples had joined the Jesus movement—but he was also aware that many of Jesus’ followers— including several in his inner circle of twelve—were not exactly the sort who would be able to stand up to the demands of a coming judgment. And what of those women who always seemed to be close by?

And John had lived such an austere life, marked by fasting and discipline. Word was that Jesus and his company didn’t observe any fasts, and the rumour mill was even suggesting he had a pretty strong taste for food and drink. “A glutton and a drunkard,” they’d said; “a friend of tax-collectors and sinners.”  (Matt 11:19) Even if that was just gossip, was there a kernel of truth in it? As the hours in that jail cell turned into days and then weeks, John’s certainty seems to have weakened, until finally he sent some of his own disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John wants to hold firm, but he needs to know…

“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.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’” Just as John the Baptist had invoked the language of the prophets of old, so too does Jesus. What is it we heard read this evening from the prophet Isaiah? “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” (Isaiah 35:5-6) Again and again in Isaiah such images are offered as a sign of God’s presence in the midst of the people, and sometimes they come at the most unlikely of moments.

As Barbara Lundblad rather bluntly says in her comments on this passage of Isaiah, “This text shouldn’t be here.” Or at least it shouldn’t be here if we are a people whose imaginations have failed, and who can no longer see past the immediate. You see, these words from Isaiah 35—which begin “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom,” and include imagery of waters breaking forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert”—follow directly on a passage filled with horrific images of ecological disaster: “The streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch… Thorns shall grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its fortresses.” (Isaiah 34:9, 13) Chapter 34 of Isaiah reflected only the tensions of war, violence, and collapse… and then in Chapter 35 the new song begins.

The new song begins, but of course this shouldn’t surprise a people whose imagination has not yet collapsed under the weight of the merely rational, for as Walter Bruggemann insists, “Israel’s doxologies”—Israel’s songs of praise— “are characteristically against the data.”

It is not only Israel’s doxologies that are against the data; Jesus, too, occupies that place. From the beginning of his story—in fact, from the moment Mary answers the angel by saying “May it be done as you have said”—right through to its still awaited culmination in the fullness of time, Jesus is consistently against the data. Jesus calls his people to look beyond despair and hopelessness—to name it truthfully, but not be broken by it—and to do things so seemingly inconsequential as share food with a hungry person, provide some warm winter gear to someone who has none, make room for the stranger even if the stranger makes us uncomfortable, or keep company with someone who is lonely and whose imagination has begun to crumble under the weight of despair. Will those small actions “against the data” change the world? Probably not. But will they incarnate something profoundly true about the nature of messiah-ship? The nature of God’s intention for the world? The very character of God? In a word, yes.

After John’s disciples have turned to go back and tell him what Jesus has said, he looks at those gathered around and asks them, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” And answering his own question he says that they’d gone out to see a prophet. “Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’” While John’s expectations might not have come true in the way he’d expected, and for all that he might have been second-guessing his own words, John was essentially right in having pointed to Jesus.

And then Jesus adds, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet”—and this is an extraordinary yet—“the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” For all of John’s greatness, for all that he not only saw the truth but dared to speak it as best he could, the deeper “greatness” of the kingdom of heaven means that the world’s last and least and lost—the very ones who were drawn so powerfully to Jesus—will no longer sit on the bottom rung of society’s ladder. And that’s because in the economy of this kingdom that Messiah Jesus has come to inaugurate, there is no such ladder. There is instead sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, good news for the poor, and life for the dead.

It is, from beginning to end, “against the data,” but it is our core proclamation and so we need to sing it and speak it and dream it and sometimes weep for it until it all is brought home in that day when “the desert shall finally rejoice and blossom.”

It is our imaginative, bold, even irrational hope, proclaimed “against the data,” on this, the third Sunday of Advent.

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