10 December 2022

A sermon outline with USPG for
Advent III, 11 December 2022

Patrick Comerford

The Third Sunday of Advent
11 December 2022

Matthew 11: 2-11 (NRSVA):

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4 Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

7 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? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 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.”

11 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.’

The Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally associated with Saint John the Baptist. The third, pink candle on the Advent Wreath on the Third Sunday of Advent, is a reminder of Saint John the Baptist.

We already meet Saint John the Baptist by the banks of the River Jordan in the Gospel reading on the previous Sunday, the Second Sunday of Advent (Matthew 3: 1- 12, 4 December 2022).

Do you remember how John is taken aback when he first meets Christ? He comes across full of confidence and certainty. He announces the coming of Christ with great hope and expectation, bursting with energy. Yet, when Christ comes to him to be baptised, is there even a hint that John is a little reluctant to baptise him?

Have you ever wondered why John does not know who Jesus is? After all, not only has he baptised him and hailed him, he is also his cousin. Considering how close to one another their mothers Mary and Elizabeth have been in life, why would John now not know who Jesus is?

Is this not the same John who leapt with joy in his mother’s womb when he realised he was in the presence of the unborn Christ (see Luke 1: 44)?

Have you ever wondered why John was not one of the disciples?

We move on quite a bit by the Third Sunday of Advent. It is a week later in the lectionary readings, but many months after Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan. Saint John the Baptist has preached himself hoarse about looking forward to one who is more powerful than he is. However, since then Jesus has not been wielding power in the way John may have hoped for or may have been expecting.

Now, as John waits in prison, about to lose his head, perhaps he wonders whether he made a mistake in thinking Jesus is the Messiah. Perhaps he is feeling discouraged and doubtful as he sends messengers to ask Jesus: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

The simple answer for Christ might have been: ‘Yes.’

Instead, however, Christ points Saint John, the messengers and the crowd to the signs of the Kingdom. Echoing the Prophet Isaiah, he points out that the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are healed, the dead are raised and the poor receive good news.

These are not mere claims, but incontrovertible proof. Yet, apparently, there are some who take offence at Christ. Perhaps even Saint John the Baptist has been disappointed because his expectations of the Messiah are not being fulfilled by Christ. He is hardly the king of the coming kingdom – after all, he is not ‘dressed in soft robes’. The term ‘soft robes,’ used twice in verse 8, has resonances of self-indulgence.

Is this what gives rise to Saint John’s doubts?

Is Jesus the one John the Baptist has been expecting?

When Saint John’s disciples return and tell him what Christ has told them, does Saint John conclude that Jesus is not the Messiah he has been waiting for?

Does John think he has been waiting for the wrong kind of Messiah?

How often have you waited expectantly – for Christmas, for a Christmas present, for a new job, for a major family milestone, for the move to a new home – only to face the realisation that your expectation has been unfulfilled? Another pair of socks? The wrong job with low pay, high expectations and bad conditions? The family milestone overturned by a family crisis? The new home has horrid neighbours?

Picture Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, lonely and empty by the side of the road, waiting forever for Godot who never arrives.

Picture Eleanor Rigby in the lyrics of the Beatles, waiting alone at the window, alone among the lonely people.

Picture Saint John the Baptist, waiting in prison where he has been sent by Herod the Great.
Now he is tired. He has grown discouraged. He is questioning. He is like us. He jumps to hope with power and aggressiveness. But later, when he is dispirited, he has questions, and he has doubts. Is Jesus really the Christ he is looking for?

What happened to the John the Baptist who said Jesus would chop down fruitless trees and throw chaff into the fire?

Has Jesus spent his ministry throwing chaff into the fire?

No, it seems not. And so Saint John sends his own disciples, to ask: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?’

Has Jesus come in a way that John does not expect? Should he and his disciples look for another?

Christ refers to the signs of the Kingdom in Isaiah. Saint John is ‘more than a prophet’, for he heralds the dawn of the final era of history and he announces the coming of the Kingdom. Now Christ validates John’s ministry as a true prophet, quoting a prophecy from Malachi in verse 10, and then equating John’s ministry with the returned Elijah.

Christ criticises the people who went out to see John the Baptist in the wilderness with the wrong expectations. What they actually saw was greater than they could ever imagine. Yet even John, great as he is, only points the way to an even greater reality. Now the fulfilment of this promise is beginning to be worked out and to be seen.

When we are disappointed, when our expectations of the coming Kingdom are dashed, is it because we are not looking for the signs of the Kingdom that are all around us?

The gift of Christ is precious, but does it always meet our expectations?

Are we prepared to look around and notice new places where Jesus is working and living? If you were told: ‘Go and tell John what you see and hear,’ where would you say you see and hear Christ at work today?

I am not blind, lame, leprous, deaf, poor, downtrodden, dead … surely? Am I?

Christ comes in humility for the humble. He comes for those who do not have it all worked out for themselves. These, he tells John’s messengers, of his Advent, of the coming Kingdom of Justice and Mercy.

We have an opportunity to echo that yes this Advent.

As a sign, as a symbol, of how we can join in that ‘Yes,’ USPG and the Church of North India says ‘Yes’ to the people who are being helped through this year’s Advent and Christmas appeal.

The people who cross borders, who face a dangerous ‘No’ along the way, who face violence and the dangers of human trafficking, who find themselves in the wilderness or are imprisoned in their present circumstances and living conditions, are finding comfort in the words and actions of those who are working in this project through the Diocese of Durgapur and USPG.

This is one way we can share our hope for, our belief in , the coming Christ and the coming Christmas this Advent. In saying supporting to this work, we became signs of our faith, or hope, in the promises of the coming kingdom and the promises of Christ’s coming in Advent.

This sermon outline for the Third Sunday of Advent, 11 December 2022, was prepared for USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) and the ‘Journey to Freedom’ appeal in Advent 2022

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