The Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35: 1-10; Psalm 146: 4-9; James 5: 7-10; Matthew 11: 2-11
THE REV. JAMES M. L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
John the Baptist is in prison. He was arrested for speaking out against the marriage of Herod to a woman named Herodias. What was so scandalous about this marriage? Herodias was formerly married to one of Herod’s brothers, so Herod was marrying his sister-in-law, which John the Baptist declared publicly was immoral. Was it any of John the Baptist’s business to speak out about this marriage in the first place? Maybe, maybe not – I just imagine that if John were alive today, in the midst of all our celebrity divorces and affairs that he would have by now thrown in the towel about speaking out on such things. Nevertheless, the consequence of John the Baptist’s proclamation was his imprisonment.
And now in prison, John the Baptist hears rumors trickling in about all these amazing things happening outside his prison cell. The deaf hear, the blind see, the hungry are fed, and John begins to wonder is this is the work of the young Jewish rabbi Jesus, whom he baptized in the Jordan River years before he now found himself in a prison cell. So he sends someone out to inquire, do some research, and figure out what exactly is going on. One of John’s disciples goes and asks Jesus the question “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus says to John’s disciple, “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.”
Well that sounds pretty good! People are getting healed; Jesus is doing a lot of great work. That is a reason to rejoice! That’s why we have this pink candle on our Advent wreath, it is part of an ancient tradition that today, the third Sunday of Advent is a day characterized by joy. That’s what all the pink is for – levity – to rejoice and be glad. That all is fine – except while everyone was busy rejoicing at all the good work Jesus was doing, John the Baptist was locked in a dirty prison cell for having the courage to speak out against the corrupt abuse of power, and the price he ended up paying for it was his life! Jesus may have healed many, he freed many people, but John the Baptist wasn’t one. Or was he?
Two weeks ago I was at Memorial Hospital to visit a young woman named Amanda. Amanda was in the hospital because she was pregnant with a boy. While still weeks away from delivery, Amanda was hospitalized because of intense abdominal pain, which rightfully concerned her. So she did the right thing, and ended up being looked over by the doctors. The doctors discovered the cause of her pain – which was that the placenta had separated from the wall of the uterus. Apparently there is no explanation for why this occurs, but it does.
The baby boy had maybe fifteen minutes to live once the placenta separated, and the doctors were unable to resuscitate the infant child. And so Amanda found herself at the hospital to deliver a child she would never know, a child who would never gaze at his mother’s face. I knew all this as I was walking to her room down a hospital hallway when a man – a father-to-be, saw me, and I was wearing priest clothes, and he said – “are you here today to bless a baby?” And I paused and looked at him, and was silent for a moment, and said, “Yes, I am here to bless a child.” He smiled and walked away, and I walked into the room and saw Amanda, who less than twenty-four hours ago delivered her still-born son, August Ash, into the world. Four pounds, fourteen ounces. Seventeen inches.
I don’t know how to describe the experience of being in that room other than to say it was holy, it was sad, it was beautiful, and it was honest. We prayed together, and we were silent. We blessed August, together. And I am humbled that on December 20, we will have a memorial service for this beautiful child of God at St. Andrew’s. At the same time I was struck by the conflict that in the season of Advent, we expectantly await for the birth of the Christ child, and in the hospital room, the reality of a mother waiting for her child to be born, only hers would be a child she would never see grow.
Is Advent about the faithful Baptizer alone in a prison cell, hearing of all the good happening outside prison walls? What does Advent have to say to the mother of an innocent child that never breathed or opened his eyes?
We don’t like to talk about that in church because it’s uncomfortable. We are a culture that denies death and avoids pain and suffering as much as we can. We stick pink candles on Advent Wreaths to remind us to “rejoice” because if we can fake doing that – then maybe we can get through another holiday season.
Everyone wants a peaceful manger, with a starry night sky, and three kings approaching on camels. But not many are interested in thinking about John the Baptist in prison, or about a stillborn child during Advent. But that’s reality. And Advent is not about shirking reality, it is about befriending the reality of our lives. It stares us straight in the face and challenges us to answer the question of where is God for the lonely prisoner and for the mother burying her newborn son? What color candle do they get?
I will stand here and say, perhaps audaciously, perhaps foolishly, perhaps for no good reason at all, but I will say it because I know it is true, and it is this: God is the prisoner. God is the child born without life. That’s the miracle of Advent: God appears in the most unexpected places, and when God shows up, everything changes. That is why in the midst of life and death, we rejoice, because God is a part of it all, a part of you and me. God is the prisoner and God is stillborn, and in being both, redeems them, in God’s time. AMEN.