It’s a great joy to be here this morning as we honor the State
of South Dakota and to ask God’s blessing upon that state all her
As I thought about being here today, I could not help but think back
to where I was on the Third Sunday of Advent one year ago. Then while
feelings were strong and controversy raged over certain actions of the
General Convention of the Episcopal Church, a situation that sadly
continues in many parts of our Communion, I visited a parish in our
diocese where the organist took great issue with my votes at the
Convention. For the opening hymn he had gone to the 1940 Hymnal and
produced copies of a hymn for all to sing as I came down the center
aisle, “Turn back, O man, foreswear thy foolish ways.”
I’m grateful for your much warmer welcome this morning. I really
am delighted and honored to be here.
As we move through the season of Advent in scripture and hymnody we
are bombarded and blessed with rich imagery and themes of hope,
expectation, repentance, apocalyptic visions of the last days, the
prophetic ministry of John the Baptist, and preparation for
Christ’s coming, at any time unannounced, like a thief in the
night, in the end to judge the living and the dead, and as the child of
Bethlehem, the Incarnation of God, the one who comes into our lives and
into our world.
Today’s gospel continues the story of John the Baptist. John is
now in prison for his denunciation of Herod for his immoral relationship
with Herodias, his brother’s wife.
John wonders in his prison cell whether or not Jesus is indeed the
Messiah John awaited and foretold. So John sends some of his disciples
to ask Jesus openly and directly, “Are you the one who is to come,
or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus does not answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but
rather points to what he is doing, his mission, God’s mission in
the world. “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
I sometimes wonder when people in our country look to the Church
which claims to be the living body of Christ on earth, what they see and
hear today. They may see struggling mainline denominations, battling for
market share in a dwindling demographic of potential members. They may
see a Church called into being to proclaim God’s unconditional
love for everyone, erecting boundaries and designing barriers to keep
people out, or in their place.
They may see a Church divided by race and class. They may see a
Church which has lost its passion for justice, truth-telling and peace,
a Church which provides therapeutic balm to cover gaping wounds of
injustice and oppression.
They may see a Church which was formed in opposition to Empire, a
Church whose members suffered persecution and death for proclaiming that
Jesus, rather than Caesar, is Lord; they may see the Church blessing the
Empire’s deeds, wars and rule.
They may see a Church focused inwardly upon its own life, fighting
fierce battles over issues of gender and sexual orientation, rather then
accepting the rich diversity of people God has called and focusing with
a laser-like concentration on God’s mission in the world. The
Church does not exist for itself, but for the world.
A Church that is weak, divided, demoralized, and not attending to
mission is not a faithful representation of Jesus Christ and is
incapable of making the kind of impact needed so desperately in our
UNICEF, the United National Children’s Fund, released a report
this past week with the alarming findings that more than a billion
children, which is more than half the children in the world, suffer
extreme deprivation because of war, HIV/AIDS and/or poverty. Nearly half
the 3.6 million people killed in wars since 1990 have been children.
Children are increasingly victims of warfare, sometimes as specific
targets. In Northern Uganda, rebels called the Lord’s Army, have
abducted countless children forcing them to be warriors and human
shields. In Congo children have been systematically raped as a weapon of
war. In Iraq, while school enrollment has risen, so has child
malnutrition. HIV and AIDS are destroying millions of childhoods, with
two million children infected worldwide and the number of children
orphaned by AIDS increasing from 11.5 million to 15 million from 2001 to
2003. As a nation we can find all the money we need to fight a war but
we can’t find the resources fully to fund our promised battle
against AIDS, a weapon of mass destruction beyond our imaginations.
Poverty places children under threat, with hunger, inadequate,
overcrowded housing, and lack of educational opportunities, especially
for girls. More than 29,000 children die every day mostly from
preventable causes. If a clean glass of water could cure AIDS, a huge
percentage of those suffering from the disease would still die from it.
Poverty pushes more than two million children into the sex industry,
with over half of them being trafficked (New York Times article
by Celia W. Dugger, week of December 5, 2004).
And all this is not just a problem for other countries. One out of
four girls and one out of five boys in the United States have suffered
sexual abuse (Article by Barbara Hughes in the recent issue of
Sewanee Theological Review).
This is our world as it is today. This is the context in which we
have been called to serve and to bear witness to the good news of Jesus
Christ. This is our world as we anticipate the birth of the baby Jesus.
God comes to us as a baby child, how do we respond?
It’s easy at Christmas to become very sentimental about
Jesus’ birth. We easily put aside the realities of first century
Palestine, a brutal occupying force, poverty, oppression, Herod’s
slaughter of the innocents. We look and we rejoice at seeing the Christ
child in the manger, God in human flesh. But today can we not also see
God in the face of a homeless child, or of a starving child, or of a
child dying with AIDS?
Many churches are trying to make our world a better, healthier, more
joyful place for children, but we have a long way to go. This mission
will require even greater spiritual, political, philanthropic and
educational work to make a real impact, to change children’s
This morning’s passage from Isaiah holds before us a vision of
restored people and lands based upon the saving power of God. It is a
vision of waters breaking forth in the wilderness, blossoms in the
desert, of rejoicing and singing, of blind eyes opened, of the ears of
the deaf unstopped, of the lame leaping like deer and the tongues of the
speechless singing for joy. The prophet envisions a super highway, the
Holy Way, to bring God’s people home to Mt. Zion, where,
reconciled to God, they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and
sighing shall flee away.
What a grand vision to hold before us, to sustain our hope in this
Advent season of so much suffering, division, poverty, war and distress.
Can we believe that this is God’s world and that God intends only
good for all God’s children? Can we believe that God has called us
through our baptism to be Christ’s body and to carry on the
mission which Jesus began in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy?
If so, then we must heed the prophet’s injunction to
“strengthen our weak hands, to make firm our feeble knees, and to
say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God!”
The Epistle of James also calls upon us to strengthen our hearts, for
the coming of the Lord is near. The writer of the epistle cautions
patience. Just as a farmer must be patient for the rains to come and
produce the precious crop, we must be patient for God to act. But first,
of course, the farmer has cleared the land, prepared the soil, and
scattered the seed. To be patient does not mean to wait for God to do
our work for us.
Today’s readings show us a Jesus with the power to heal and to
bless. And the power of that healing and blessing is none other than the
power of God, the power which created and sustains the universe. With so
much poverty, disease, environmental degradation, warfare and abuse, how
we need that power to heal, reshape, and reconcile our world and our own
expectations and behaviors. Jesus’ work is not to make us feel
good to help us to accept the status quo and what is unacceptable, nor
is it to sanctify our prejudices and opinions. His job is to bind earth
and heaven together, setting loose a flow of divine and creative power
which reshapes us and all of creation in God’s image.
Or as our Orthodox friends say, “Let creation cast off all
things old, beholding you the Creator made a child. For through your
birth you shape all things afresh, making them new once more and leading
them back to their first beauty” (adapted from The Festal
With John the Baptist we look to Jesus and to Christ’s budy and
we ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for
What do we hear and see? Where lives are being changed, where hope is
kept alive, where healing of bodies and relationships is occurring,
where the struggle for justice and peace is engaged, where children are
loved and respected and can play and learn in safety—there we
observe God’s power at work in our world. There we are to join
with others in the mission for the coming reign of God.