I spent this past weekend at one of the holiest places in Georgia doing holy work and eating some of the best bacon and fried chicken ever to be cooked!
I spent two days at Honey Creek. As a member of the Commission on Ministry. Along with the Standing Committee, we interview folks who are discerning a call to serve God and the church as an ordained minister: either as a priest or a deacon. It is the CoM’s objective to listen, question and help discern with these individuals, their calls. Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes the answer is no. And sometimes the answer is not yet.
I have served on the Commission for the last 5 years, being appointed by Bishop Benhase and continuing to serve at the pleasure of Bishop Logue. Typically, we sit around a long table all 8 to 10 of us and interview each aspirant, those aspiring to become postulants for holy orders. We ask them soft fluffy questions. And then lead up to the rather tough questions that require them to articulate their call to serve God. These times are holy, those who walk into that room share some of the most intimate details of their lives, their vulnerability is required to allow those who are walking this journey with them to help discern one of the most powerful and meaningful decisions they will make: to clarify and submit to this call.
This weekend, though, we tried a new method to this old process. We set a weekend to meet the aspirants on the holy ground of Honey Creek, to eat our meals together, to pray and worship together, and to spend time not so much in interviews but in discussions.
We were looking for the clear signs that these individuals not only have a call but also exemplify the gifts that each order requires. Often these signs are glaringly obvious. Other times, they are a bit more obtuse and need to be teased out from the corners of the person’s life stories.
It is human nature to ask for clear signs that we are making the right decisions. Just as John the Baptist in our gospel reading from Matthew is asking for signs that he is the Messiah. “Are you the one who is to come?” he asks. “Or are we to wait for another?” It may seem strange that he asks these questions. However, he is expecting one kind of savior, one that comes as a warrior king to save Israel. Yet, what he sees is someone quite different.
Jesus of course sends back his answer through his disciples: “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)
In other words, look at these signs, and then you tell me?
A week ago, the gospel from Matthew chapter 3 told of John the Baptist’s high hopes as he hyped about the Messiah, whose Coming he was to prepare. He explained to the crowd who went to listen to him in the wilderness of Judea: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and 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.”
It is possible that this expectation of the Messiah emboldened John in his preaching. He was notably fearless in confronting the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them a “brood of vipers,” and calling out Herod for divorcing his wife and marrying his sister-in-law. It was because of this that Herod had him arrested and put behind bars. But perhaps John did not mind going to prison because he was expecting that once Jesus had settled into his role as the Messiah, he would make everything right. He would make quick work of their Roman enemies and rescue him from prison.
After many months of waiting in prison, it has become evident that Jesus did not live up to all the hype that John heaped upon him. When he heard what Jesus had been doing: healing the sick, casting out demons and teaching people that the meek and the persecuted are blessed, telling them to turn the other cheek and to love not just neighbors but enemies, he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask if he is the one who is to come, or should they look for another. It has become disappointingly clear that John’s expectation of Jesus did not pan out.
Like John, we have expectations of God and may have experienced being disappointed by God – some of us more regularly than others. Many of us believe God to be invincible and powerful and expect that God would use his divine powers to heal the sick, solve world hunger, wipe out injustice and racism, stop all wars and reward our faithfulness with material and spiritual blessings. Like John the Baptist, we wish Jesus, our Savior, would not act like us finite, ordinary humans, but rather be more like Captain America or Superwoman or any of the many Marvel heroes and heroes.
But Jesus is not this kind of savior. He did not come with military might or wealth. His way of saving the world is through soft power – sacrificial and loving service. It is no wonder that when one looks at the religious landscape, at conservative, liberal, progressive, religious right, or via media Christians, John’s question seemed to have become the reality as people reject the Jesus of the gospels and look for another version of the Messiah that fits their lifestyle and ideology.
This Advent, as we get ready to welcome Christ anew, we are given another opportunity to get it right. For although Jesus did not give an easy and clear answer to John, he gives him some concrete hints about what he’s up to: “Go and tell John what you hear and see… the signs that I am doing are out there for everyone to see!
These words of Jesus recall the words of the prophet Isaiah in today’s lectionary. These words describe what will happen when the Messiah comes. It was not a popular image associated with most of the Jews’ expectation of the Messiah at that time and yet there it is, hidden in plain sight.
In other words, Jesus tells John that the work of God is not bombastic or earth-shattering as John and many of us imagine it to be. John expected that Jesus would come with an ax to cut down the trees that are not bearing fruit, separate the wheat and store it in the barn and burn the chaff. Instead of this, Jesus tells him to break free from his narrow expectation that has figuratively imprisoned him, to see beyond the destructive and angry God that he expected the Messiah to be, and open up to the God who heals, who teaches to transform people, who desires not the death of sinners but that all might repent, who shows love, mercy, and compassion. In short, the gospel invites us to open our eyes and our ears to the handprints of God in the hidden, non-traditional, and unpopular, amid our anguish, disappointments, and doubts.
Then, perhaps, when we begin to see God in these “hidden” places, we can be a sign to the world that what Jesus said is true. We can be Jesus’ answer to John’s question. We can be the blind whose eyes were opened, the lame whose legs can walk again, the lepers who have been cleansed, the deaf whose ears have started hearing, the dead who have been raised, and the poor who have received good news. The Good news of God’s healing and hope for us all.
There was a billboard sign on Bobby Jones Expressway about 10 years ago that read, “Don’t make me come down there. Signed by God.”
While I thought this was funny, it really is a bit sad that so many thinks of God’s return as a threat. Something to fear. I, however, see His coming not as a threat but as a promise.
On this Gaudete Sunday, as we wait and prepare, we are also called to rejoice. The coming of the Messiah and the Gospel of Jesus Christ are the Good News the angel will speak of when appearing to the shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:10) This brings us hope even amid our struggles so that when the Christ child arrives at the manger, we can rejoice and sing with gusto, “Joy to the world! The Lord is come.” For now, we pray, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”