The desert shall blossom – Third Sunday in Advent 2010

 

John the Baptist is in prison; and is having doubts about Jesus. “Are you the one who was to come, or should we wait for another?” Presumably Jesus is not living up to John’s expectations. John is in prison for speaking out against the immoral behaviour of Herod, who has married his brother’s former wife. John is a prophet who “boldly rebukes vice”; but Jesus perhaps takes a different tone? He reserves his outspoken criticism for the apparently godly, and befriends tax-collectors and sinners. Then again, if he is Messiah, surely he will not leave John to suffer innocently in prison? will not Messiah see justice done and save the righteous? Most of all, I suspect John would like what we so often long for, a clear definite proof that God is indeed in charge and that he vindicates our ideas and beliefs and righteousness.

Jesus sends back a two-part answer. “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.”  Is not this God in action, fulfilling the ancient prophecies, causing barren and blighted lives to rejoice and blossom?

“And blessed is everyone who takes no offence at me.” If I am not precisely what you expected, don’t let that prevent you from seeing what is really going on. There will be nothing more explicit than this: the blossoming of human lives, one by one. Thus and only thus does God’s kingdom come; and for each there is a choice, whether to recognise it or not; whether to accept it or not; whether or not to allow ourselves to be transformed by the opening of our blind eyes and the unstopping of our deaf ears so that we may see and hear and welcome the good news that Jesus brings.

In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist says of Jesus, “He must increase and I must decrease”. If we are to recognise God in action in Christ, we need to get out of our own light. The shadow of our expectations, of our desire to be proved right, prevents us from seeing and receiving what God offers. Pride, and the unwillingness to be vulnerable, to admit to frailty, to acknowledge ignorance or error – these things close the eyes and block the ears and harden the heart. When we will not say “I do not know”, or “I got it wrong”, or “perhaps my way is not the best way”, “maybe I could learn something from you” – then we are well on the way to becoming desert. There is a very good reason why God comes among us as a baby – vulnerable and ignorant, needy and dependent on others. Without that sort of emptiness, without that humility, we cannot be filled with blessing.

One of the classic Advent texts, from Isaiah 45:8, reads: “Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness. Let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation.” The image is of the cloudburst, of the drenching rain that makes the dry land fruitful, covering the desert bareness with green leaves and bright flowers.

Can we in some way pray that God’s Spirit will drench our barren pride and selfishness so that we may become fruitful for good? And if we say, “I have no need of God’s grace” – well, that is sure proof of hardness of heart. As we come to the altar this morning, let us set aside the self-righteousness that deadens, and humbly present our neediness in order to receive God’s blessing.

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