by Linda McMillan
Gaudete, everybody! This is that special Sunday in Advent when we lift our heads up out of the Advent darkness and begin to have some hope that our little candles, bravely flickering in the dark, might give way to a roaring fire of the holy wonder.
Gaudete means rejoice, it’s Latin. It refers to the third Sunday of Advent. You’ll notice that the candle which we light on the Advent wreath today is a lighter shade of purple. Gaudete also refers to a medieval hymn, and you might hear a variation of it in your service today. No doubt, the worship team at your parish will have put together a lovely service. Almost everyone loves Gaudete; The music is good, the mood is lighter, Christmas is almost here!
Your preacher, though, may have had a hard time finding much to rejoice about in the gospel lesson. Listen carefully to the readers and you will see that everything seem pretty good — There’s a highway in the desert, God gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger, and the coming of the Lord is near. And then, in Matthew, we have John the Baptist. John is in prison and wondering about the meaning of his life. It’s sort of bleak, and I don’t mean in that poetic bleak mid-winter sense.
We expect that the stories in the gospels will have a good ending. Gospel means “good news,” after all. But, John’s story doesn’t have a good ending. In fact, as far as we can see, it’s a tragic. John did not know whether or not he had been right about Jesus, nor did he understand the revolutionary ministry that he had had..
John is one of those rare “hinge” characters. Like a broach, he holds together the fabric of history from the past and the fabric from the unseen future. It’s all clear to us now, in the 21st century. But, it’s doubtful that John saw himself that way. Like us, he could’t see into the future. He didn’t know that he’d changed the world.
The Bible doesn’t give us much information about John. We don’t know, for example, if his parents lived to see him go off into the wilderness. We don’t know if he had friends or teachers who fretted over him, discouraged him, or disowned him. The Bible takes us from his miraculous birth, to the very highest points of his career, and then to his imprisonment and death. There aren’t a lot of details. We are missing the stories.
Outside the Bible writers, many have speculated. The opera, Salome by Richard Strauss, even imagines that Salome — Herod’s daughter-in-law, not even named in the Bible — was in love with John. In Hérodiade, Jules Massenet’s oft overlooked opera on the same subject, Salome actually succeeds in seducing John in the final scene. Visual artists have gotten in on the act too with almost every kind of sculpture, painting, and ecclesiastical furnishing imaginable. And, unlike most saints and martyrs, when you see an image of John The Baptist there’s usually little doubt about who it is. John, often pointing toward the coming Christ, disheveled in his camel-hair clothes, maybe even a little mad, stands out from the rest.
Maybe it is because we know so little of his life that stories, some of them pure speculation, have risen up around him. After all, it’s our stories that make us who we are, and we want stories about John.
In today’s reading, we join John in prison. He has had a remarkable career, as prophet career paths go. He attracted great crowds, including religious leaders. Without a teleprompter or speech writer, he stuck to his message of repentance. He even baptized the messiah! Despite the way things were turning out, being in prison and about to die, John should have been able to look back over his career and know that he’d done well. Yet, he seems to have been plagued with doubts.
In the beginning, of course, there were no doubts. One of the things that the Bible does tell us is that John was able to recognize Jesus even before either was born or had been seen. It is not surprising, then, that later, when he could be seen , John would recognize Jesus again standing on the bank of the Jordan River. Again, John knew he was in the presence of the messiah. There was no doubt about it.
In the darkness of his prison, though, doubts had crept in. Jesus had not made a highway in the desert, after all. There was no justice, people were still hungry, and the coming of the Lord… Well, something was not right. We want to think that John The Baptist, and Jesus, and all those other Bible people were all on the same page, that they basically agreed with one another about the important things. But clearly, there were differences. One wonders how two people, both obviously blessed and led by the holy spirit, could come to such radically different ideas about the kingdom of God. Yet, John had expected something altogether different, and in this passage, we can see that towards the end of his life he began to have doubts about who Jesus was and whether or not there was a coming kingdom. He was in prison, after all. The old authorities were still cruelly in place. In the darkness of prison, John was suddenly not so sure about Jesus.
I think it was in a moment of desperation that John said to some of his followers, “Look, go and find him. Find my cousin and just ask him what’s going on.” In other words, find out if my life has meant anything or if it’s all been for nothing.
Jesus, of course, almost never gives a direct answer. The man who urged plain speaking saying, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no,” is rarely plain-spoken himself. When John’s followers found him, Jesus didn’t give a direct answer, he didn’t say, “Sure, it’s me. I’m the one.” Instead, he said, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard.” In other words, “Tell him my stories.“
This is a hinge moment for John, our hinge man. See, he has been right about the message. Jesus is here… repent… the kingdom of God is here among us now! John was right. Jesus didn’t deny that at all, but he invited John — just as he invites us now — to get to know him through his stories. “Tell John who I really am.” Having the right answers is not the same thing as really knowing Jesus.
In just two short weeks these stories will take us to an animal stall near Bethlehem and to a manger filled with hay for animals. In that manger, in the straw, God will show us who he really is… Like John, like many of us, God will be born vulnerable, tender, at the mercy of the world.
The church year ends with Christ The King hanging on a cross, and it begins by looking forward to God here in the manger. “This is who I really am,” God says. What does that mean for our ideas of kingdom? Is the almighty reign of God any different if God is a baby, on a cross, not all-powerful? What if God needs us? What then?
These questions of uncertainty throw the lightness of Gaudete into a different light. It is still night. For all we may know, questions remain. The darkness is thick. It is almost never in certainty that we grow towards God. We are more likely to learn who God really is, who we really are, and what the stories really mean for us in the world today if we come to them in the night, with doubting, and questions.
Light another candle.
Listen to the stories of God.
Listen to your own heart.
Be like the farmer who waits for his precious crop from the earth. Spring will come.
Linda McMillan lives in Yangzhong, China.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Isaiah 35:8… And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way.
Psalm 146:6… [The God of Jacob] Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.
James 5:8… You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.
John’s parents were old when he was born so it is likely that they did not know of their son’s career path.
Matthew 5:37… Let your words be yes, yes or no, no.