St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Anticipation & Joy”
Collect: Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, 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. 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.’
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Waiting can take so long. Ask any child this time of year. Will Christmas ever come? For those of us who know the rest of the story, we know that it will come, and we will have Joy. It is the struggle with Anticipation and Expectations that are the frustration and toil in the waiting.
Those of us of a certain age, even have an image. Heinz Ketchup bottle tilted, the singular voice of Carly Simon sliding into the words… “An-tic-i-pat-ion. An-tic-i-pa-a-tion, it’s making you wait…” Now in the sales world they had a master stroke. Spin a negative into a positive. Take a complaint, and say, “We meant to do that.” A slow pour ketchup? Only a product as thick and rich would take so long to pour. It is worth the wait.
But I did not come up here today to talk about Ketchup or Carly Simon. Today is Guadete Sunday. The Sunday we focus on the Joy that the waiting is almost over.
I love this time of year. I love the music. I love the buzz and stir, the excitement is palpable. It seems like everyone is on the same page, we all got the memo. We have much to be thankful for, much to give joy for…
First and foremost the coming of Jesus. Hallelujah! But we have added so much more.
- Light against the darkening skies.
It is a festive season and all the best gets lumped in.
People do not think twice about santa hats or silly sweaters, and people laugh with them, not at them. We enjoy rather than point fingers.
Our canticle that we read, the Canticle of Mary, proclaims the Joy and Hope and Faith of her, a young teen probably whose faith was greater than the fear of possible judgment, scorn, or even death for shaming her family. She declares the greatness and goodness of God.
Some days faith is easy. We have strong feelings and can shout Hallelujah! We know without a doubt that God is God and God is good. God rules from heaven and all's right with the world! She said:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.From this day all generations will call me blessed:the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.He has mercy on those who fear himin every generation.This season is a resounding bell of faith. Faith that the shortening days will lengthen. Faith that the darkening moods with lighten. Faith that the wrong shall fail, and the right prevail.
Today’s collect calls us to the strengthened and renewed faith. Let nothing stand in our way of coming to God. Jesus opens the door, and allows us in. We prayed in our Collect for the day:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord...
I think that is why candles and light are so inextricably bound to this time of year. Light is the symbol of what we are feeling.
Every few years our family goes down to Busch Gardens for Christmastown to see the supposed millions upon millions of lights. We always make sure, despite the cold, to take the Skyride. Swinging in the wind, the gondolas on the cables going from country to country allow us to get a scope on the millions and millions of lights shining. It is a bit overwhelming, but oh so beautiful.
This year we went on the way back from the beach so we could spend the day with my mom. This year was rainy. But a few years ago I remember it was a cold, cold night. I should have had an extra layer on, but I didn’t. At the end of the night, we got in line for our traditional Skyride to end our day. In France, there was no line, we got right on. But at the transfer station in Germany we had to get off and get back on. There was already quite the line there. We waited about 10 minutes, not too long, when the ride suddenly stopped. It just stopped. The employees kept announcing to those way up above the ground to stay in their seats and not worry. It was only a temporary delay.
I was quite glad we were still in the station, not up on the cable out in the wind. What was a fun and enjoyable cap on the evening could have become a long and cold pause on the joy if we had been stuck up there. After 10 or 12 minutes, the ride got going again, and we jumped on not thinking about it.
I think of the people stuck in the skyride cars, alone, in the dark, waiting. It’s an amusement park. This was supposed to be fun, right? But in the cold and dark they sat alone swinging, seeing the lights far below and far away, and here they were apart. Trying to get to the joy, but something is holding them back. What a perfect metaphor for Advent. Between stations. Christ the King on one end, Christmas on the other, and here we are dangling. We see the lights around, but we are not there yet. We wait. We know the Joy is to be, and in the Anticipation and Expectation we wait. Our Joy is that the cold and wind is almost over and soon we will arrive at our destination, with Joy.
Whenever I mention Joy, I try to remind myself that Joy and Happiness are not the same. There can be Happiness in Joy, but there can be Joy in Sorrow as well.
I was reminded of that this week when I was preparing for a funeral. The final words I say in the midst of the funeral rite are powerful and starkly juxtaposed with the feelings of most of the people there. A dramatic irony jumps out. Standing about the grave I say these words:
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return."All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Happiness comes from the events around us. Joy comes from that deep abiding Hope that is within us, no matter the outward situation. Henri Nouwen described the difference: Joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death - can take that love away.”
I think of John in the cell, almost sure never to come out. Alone with his thoughts, with his worries. Surrounded by his call, obsessed with the pull of God to “Prepare the way of the Lord!” We can tell by his worries how focused he was on what he felt God had created him to do. 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?”
Was he worried for no reason? Was he sinning in his doubts? No. No. No. He was fulfilling his call, driven by it. What I see in John’s doubts are the Accuser at work, going after what we care about most to drive us away from God. That is how the Devil works. Always has. Always will.
From Eve’s Temptation, to Job’s Trials, to Jonah’s Doubts, to Jesus’ Temptation, we repeatedly see the Accuser, our Enemy, driving us by taking that which we love and are committed to and twisting it. The same is true for you and me. Manipulation has been the same since time immemorial.
And when we see John in prison, awaiting death, the worries and accusations fly. “You wasted the gifts God gave you! You backed the wrong horse! You are a pathetic waste! You ruined God’s plans for the Messiah!”
And so he was led to ask, “Jesus, are you the One? Or are we to expect another?” John, in his joyful anticipation of the Hope he had hung all his life on, the square he had put all his chips on, the expectation of all the hopes and fears of all the years, he wanted a little assurance. Like the people in the gondola, he was dangling in the dark.
Now Jesus being Jesus, calls John back to the faith Jesus knew he had. And Jesus being Jesus does not give him a yes or a no. Where’s the faith in that. But Jesus being Jesus quotes Isaiah, a passage of prophecy that both he and John knew so well. Isaiah 35 and Isaiah 61 are put together by this biblical scholar and given to another. This is not a yes or no. It is a “Heck Yeah!”
Jesus is telling John that the prophecies of old are here, reality, being fulfilled. Jesus is saying the proof is in the pudding. Here have a taste!
What Jesus is saying to John is for John to have Hope. Jesus is saying to John to have Joy. And we can, too.
And that is the message Jesus is giving us as well. We still wait. We still have doubts. we dangle in the dark in the cold. We still anticipate. The Accuser still drives us to distraction, twisting our loves, upturning our lives. We still need Joy. And yearly remind ourselves that the God of Power and Might, the God who made heaven and earth, the God who made you and me, chose to come and give us the message himself.
And what would God in the form of a babe have us hear?