Here is your God! (Advent 3A)

Go and tell John what you hear and what you 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.

Sunday 15 December 2019 | The Rev’d Clare Barrie

Isa 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matt 11:2-11

On this third Sunday in Advent, we again meet John the Baptist, one of the great characters of Advent, the one who prepared the way for Christ. John, languishing in prison, is quite reasonably questioning what he’s heard about Jesus. ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 

John, like everyone, knew all the old traditions about a messiah who would come and save God’s people, and he’d recognized Jesus (even before they were born, so the story goes…). John had baptized Jesus as God’s annointed, the Christ; but obviously that sense of ‘saving’ that John was expecting – political and military liberation – didn’t match what he was now hearing about Jesus. Perhaps either frustrated or confused, he sends some of his own disciples to find out out what’s going on. 

And Jesus sends John’s followers back to him with these words: Go and tell John what you hear and what you 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. There are unmistakable echoes here of the words of Isaiah the prophet, hundreds of years older: 

Here is your God ….God will come and save you.

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.

This is a kind of manifesto: Jesus is saying to John, Here is your God – the life of God Isaiah promised long ago is at work through me.

But whichever way we hear these words of Jesus today, we are inclined to want to wriggle away and evade them, or find some way to dismiss them. The blind helped to see? Sick people healed? Cripples walking? The dead raised? The poor have good news? We want to explain the events away – it was all simply the power of psychosomatic suggestion – or explain the story away as a miracle tale foisted on an illiterate, primitive population too eager to believe. Amazing how the word ‘miracle’ can sound so disparaging. We are far more sophisticated, and we know better. 

But bear with me a little, as I try to suspend our knowing sophistication… Because we only know how to hear Jesus’ words from our own place in the world, our point of view – what academics like to call our ‘social location.’ Our social location is like a pair of glasses through which we see and understand everything, and it’s always there. So, for example, I always understand what I hear and see as a Gen X, Western, well educated, socially privileged, straight, white/Pakeha woman. Most of you would share in most of those categories, and each of them shapes the way we understand our world. 

In other words, none of us sees the world from a neutral point of view.  And we all carry a kind of blindness and deafness to the world views of persons who are different to ourselves. 

And as a young, Western, well educated, socially privileged, straight, white woman, when I hear Jesus’ words and try to imagine being blind or diseased or poor, I can only understand those things through my particular ‘pair of glasses…’ so I automatically go into problem-solving mode, imagining what I would do to fix that situation for myself. 

Because in my world view, it would be easy and natural for me to access reliable information, health care, and a welfare system, and I have every right to do so. Most importantly, my sense of self/identity remains fundamentally secure when I imagine those conditions –  of course, I’ll find them inconvenient or painful, but they’re unlikely to destroy my sense of identity or my soul – I just need to get on with the fixing.

But this is not so in all parts of our society, and certainly not in the days of Jesus and John. There was a very strong assumption in Jesus’ culture that any sickness was impure or unclean; it was a result of sin. You’ll remember the crowds’ automatic response to the blind man – ‘well, so who was the sinner, him or his parents?’ 

And to be poor was not a simple lack of economic resources; in a communal society such as first C Palestine, the poor were those who couldn’t maintain their inherited status and honour, their sense of belonging. 

All these interwoven states of being were deeply soul-destroying – all these conditions – to be blind, to be lame, a leper, or deaf, or poor – meant that a person was not simply physically limited but rather, untouchable, an outcast, rejected by their community, their society, their God. No place to belong, no welcome, no life, no hope. Above all, they were unclean, excluded from God’s beloved. 

So when Jesus sends word back to John to tell him 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, whatever might have happened physically was a means to a greater healing, a greater restoration. All these people who were outcast were now welcomed back into the community – God loved them, they were reconciled. 

It’s hard for us to understand the magnitude of this healing, because with our ‘glasses’ of relative privilege on, we mostly understand illness and other struggles as medical/physical conditions, rather than moral, spiritual, social conditions. They are things that happen to us, rather than being us… Jesus extended God’s love and healing on all these levels, to so many people judged not good enough by the religious and social elite of his day. 

Jesus restored people’s deep sense of identity; he restored their sense of belonging. This is the great reversal, the great restoration that Isaiah sang of: 

“then the lame shall leap like a deer, 

and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. 

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, 

and streams in the desert.”

At different times in history, so many different groups have been cast out, excluded, by society and, sadly, by the church. We have too easily believed that we have the right to keep ‘different’ people away from God and from ourselves. The church has done this at different times to women, to divorced people, gay people, persons of disability and different ethnicity and social standing. Sadly the list could go on. Instead of offering the restoration and healing of Jesus – the place of deep belonging and respect – we find ourselves participating in or being complacent about the rejection, or judgment or dehumanisation of people who are other than ourselves.

So here in Auckland, late in 2019, what we would say to the followers of John the Baptist, should they come questioning if we are the Christ? Are we the ones? Or should they look elsewhere? 

The strange figure of John the Baptist is as painful and confronting today as he was so many centuries ago. But in this season of Advent, he is the one who prepares our hearts for the birth of Christ – the reality of Christ. Who do I find difficult to welcome? Who are the outcasts in my world today, in need of love and restoration? More pointedly, who are the people I quietly believe are not good enough for God? 

Are they persons of intellectual or physical disability? Beneficiaries? Immigrants? People with mental health issues, or recovering addicts? The illiterate? The elderly, or the young? Those in the long daily queues outside our City Mission?

Because we are Christ’s body in the world, we are entrusted with extending not ‘tolerance’ but God’s love, God’s welcome, God’s restoration. This season of Advent is preparing us for the celebration of Jesus’ birth – the incarnation – the greatest statement of God’s love for humanity – all humanity, not just the parts of it that are like us.  And to paraphrase the 13th C German mystic Meister Eckhart, ‘What good is it that Christ was born 2000 years ago if he is not born now in your heart?’

So as our Advent journey continues, I pray that each of us can let the questions of John the Baptist settle into our hearts, and prepare there a space for pondering our own lives, our deep assumptions about those Christ would have us welcome, and our need for the healing of our own blindness and deafness to those who are not like ourselves.

I pray that we can be set free to live out the vision of Isaiah, the vision that is Christ’s and Christ’s-in-us, a vision in which every human being has a place in the love and goodness of God

“Here is your God ….God will come and save you.

…..then the lame shall leap like a deer, 

and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. 

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, 

and streams in the desert.”