We have only two weeks left until Christmas, only two weeks remaining on this Advent journey of seeking the Christ Child. And it's time for the seeking to produce glimpses of God With Us. So Isaiah announces, "Here is your God, who will come and rescue you!" and he accompanies the announcement with signs: a shoot growing from the stump of Jesse; a Holy Way that is safe for all travelers; a young woman giving birth to a son. Signs that say, "Here is God! Here is God's Way! Don't be afraid, here comes God's Chosen One!"
It's time for the Advent excitement to start bubbling up. We should be like kids poking through hallway closets for glimpses of Christmas presents -- that's the sort of joy and eager anticipation that we should be feeling at this point in Advent. "He's almost here! Ooo, it's almost time! Look, I think I saw a glimpse of Emmanuel!"
But we've become a little skeptical about seeing Jesus, a little hesitant about announcing our sightings of God's work -- and not without reason! The world is full of people and signs saying, "There's God! There's Jesus!" and so many religious leaders saying, "This is the way! No, this is the way!" and a whole lot of righteous folks saying, "Watch me, see how I follow Jesus! I'm as good as God!" ...until all of the God-sightings and all of the Jesus-announcements become a whirlwind of noise and bad theology, and we prefer to draw within and let faith just be a quiet thing that we keep to ourselves.
So we appreciate John the Baptist's question from amidst the whirlwind of voices and powers in his time: "Are you the one, or should we watch for someone else?" (Matthew 11:3) No dancing around it. No pretense that he doesn't harbor doubts. No apologies for crying out to God when despair overwhelms him in the prison cell. Just the straight-forward question: "Are you it? Are you the foundation of our hopes?"
For John the Baptist, this isn't a theoretical question; this is a matter of life or death. (You might remember that John is jailed because he critiques the affairs of the royal family, and ultimately he is killed by beheading due to the fits and fighting within King Herod's family.) John has staked his reputation and his way of life on the task of announcing "Here comes the Chosen One!", and before he dies, John wants the reassurance that he's right, that this man Jesus is in fact a sighting of God's presence in a corrupt and chaotic world.
"Are you the one? Or should we keep watching? Is this the right sign to lead us closer to God? Is this Jesus over here? Is that Jesus over there? Is that Jesus within the walls of a sanctuary? Is Jesus there in the marbled hallways of Congress? Which signs are the right ones? Are you it, Jesus?"
And Jesus, never one to give a simple answer, says, "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." (Matthew 11:4-5) At first reading, it seems that Jesus gives John -- and gives us -- still more signs to follow, which isn't very reassuring for John who is in prison or for us as we are inundated with signs and proclamations.
But Jesus doesn't say, "Wait for more signs." He says, "Look and see the life and the healing happening around me. This is how you know that I am the One: where I am, there is life!"
Where Jesus is, there is life -- full, whole, healed and reconciled life! Blindness falls away and there is sight. Leprosy and isolation are cleansed and there is community. Ears are opened and tongues released and death overturned and poverty relieved and the good news is louder than the news of suffering.
How do we know that Jesus is here ... or here ... or here? Where Jesus is, there is life! Where there is life, there is God With Us!
When Isaiah 35 and Matthew 11 talk about the lame walking, the mute singing, and the desert blooming, I often hear these events as miracles, as extra-ordinary and unlikely events. But Jesus and Isaiah don't say, "The Advent of God means that the impossible will happen." They say, "The Advent, the Coming of God With Us means that the fullest life possible will happen!"
The fullest of life --
ready hands and strong feet to support one another along the journey;
a desert in full bloom, a spring of water overflowing;
and a wide highway, the Holy Way, where all people walk safely
and no traveler is called 'unclean' or discouraged from the path;
the fullest life possible will show you that here is God!
in place of suffering, there is God!
Where there is reconciliation
in place of faction, there is God!
Where there is a song of praise
in place of despair and lament, there is God!
Where there is a wellspring of care
in place of a desert of abandonment, there is God!
Are you searching for God With Us, watching for Emmanuel's Advent? Look! See the places where life blooms, and know that Jesus is there.
Be glad! Get excited! Already we are catching glimpses of God With Us in the fullness of life! Amen and amen.
Adapted from my 12/12/10 sermon, "Here He Is!", at Grace United Church of Christ (Lancaster PA) based on Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11.