Sunday of Advent(A):
Isa 35.1-6, 10; James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul Hospital
and Church of the Incarnation
Parched lands can wait on an abundant flowering; deserts can wait to rejoice—shouting joy, exulting in bloom. Those who cannot see, wait to see. Those who cannot hear, wait to hear. The lame wait to leap and the mute wait to sing. If your heart is frightened, anxious; if you fret because you cannot wait: “Be strong, fear not! Here is your God…He comes to save you.” But first, you must wait. And you must wait with the rest of us…
I made the mistake of going to WalMart on a Saturday. Walking into the store, I was immediately confronted by my mistake. Wall to wall people. I sucked up my frustration and more or less bullied my way in. The aisles were packed with people and carts. Families buzzing around baskets of goodies for Christmas. An older couple slowly pushing an empty cart. College students on cell phones loudly cursing and laughing. I heard spoken Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Hindi, English, and Teenager. The building throbbed with the pain of crowded impatience. And I must confess, I brought no joy to the suffering herd. Rather, I threw in with the rest of the cattle and MOO’ed and shoved my way in to get my way out. Leaving, I felt oily and smelled of sulphur.
“Be patient,” James writes, “until the coming of the Lord.” The farmer can wait for the fruit of his labor, receiving in due time the harvest promised by his hopeful sowing of spring seed. The early rains will come early. And the late rains will come late. As always. Being patient with what will come, the farmer waits and receives. Therefore, James writes, “You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.” Isaiah prophesies the healing of the blind, the deaf, the mute, and the lame at the coming of the Lord. They wait in affliction for their wholeness. The farmer waits with his need; his annual labor of joyful hope—planting seed, tending crops, harvesting the fruit. Can we wait on what has been promised to us?
I’m getting better. Yesterday in traffic, I only wished twice that my 1995 Honda Accord came equipped with phasers and photon torpedoes. Today will be hard though. The Cowboys play at Texas stadium (just two blocks from the priory). Here my dream vehicle morphs into a 40 ton stone loader with a sweeping steel wedge on the front. I’ll save the phasers for the boneheads who jump the light and block the intersection! Then my impatience reminds me of the woman at WalMart who juggled her many purchases, a baby, and her purse while trying (unsuccessfully) to use the self-service checkout station—apparently the friend she was talking to on her cell was no help at all. Then there were the fourteen Boy Scouts in line at my favorite fast food place. The creeping internet service of Starbuck’s WiFi. The hours it takes for my friends in Europe to respond to an email. The Fred Flintstone copying machine in campus ministry—I swear there must be a literate squirrel in there, pen and paper in paw. And then I think, “You must be patient!” And then I think things that I can’t share with you, and then I remember the Psalm: “the Lord thwarts the ways of the wicked; He shall reign forever!”
John the Baptist, waiting in prison, heard about the ministry of Jesus and sent his disciples to ask Jesus a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Do we hear a bit of impatience in this question? Is John getting anxious? Surely, John the Baptist, the herald of the Father’s Christ, knows that Jesus is the one to come! Why this question then? Notice how Jesus answers: “Go and tell John what you hear and see…” John, knowing that Jesus is who he says he is, sends his own disciples to Jesus so that Jesus can make them preachers of his Good News. Go and tell what you hear and see. That’s what preachers do. And notice what Jesus highlights as the content of their witness: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are clean, the deaf hear, the dead live, and the good news of God’s mercy is preached to the poor. In other words, the wrecked world of sin is righted and the righteous reign of God is at hand. Preach that and take no offense!
Jesus then turns to the crowd remaining and extols John as his herald, as the one-who-comes-before. Lifting him up as his messenger, Jesus quotes Isaiah, “he will prepare your way before you.” No 40 ton stone loaders with steel wedges will be necessary. Hold your phaser fire. Unload the photon torpedoes. John has come and baptized with water for repentance. Christ has come and baptizes (even now!) with fire and Spirit for eternal life. John preached in the desert and baptized in the Jordan. Jesus asks the crowd, “What did you go out to the desert to see?” The things of the desert? A prince or king? “To see a prophet?” Yes, of course, you went into the desert to see a prophet! But why? We must be prepared to hear and see the Word. We must be told that the Word of God is coming. We must be reminded that he is among us already. We wait for his coming. And we rejoice because he is here! Be strong, fear not! Here is your God…he comes to save you.
Impatience is a vicious habit, a routine way of butting your head against the inevitability of having to move through space and time toward a goal that has already been reached. If Christ is fully God and fully Man, then it must be the case that we, all of humanity, that we have arrived at our redeemed destination. But we experience life here as an anxious separation, that worried gap between what we know is our perfection and what we know our sinful selves to be: broken, unfulfilled, and driven by a hazardous annoyance to be done with it. Impatience is our blindness, our deafness, our disability. Impatience is the public profession of our doubt in the providence of God, an abject failure to trust that every second is a moment graced by God to bring us back to Him. We feel that gap so intensely because our desire, our longing and hunger to be with God is greater than any product WalMart has for sale, greater than any merchandise Amazon.com might offer at a discount. But the emptiness in us can be vast, night-black, suffocating. Patience then is nothing more than our living prayer of gratitude, our lived lives of praise for the God of promises fulfilled.
Can we wait on what has been promised to us? The bone-crushing pressure of final papers, exams, travel home, plans for next year, holiday shopping, cooking, visiting, family feuds, parental expectations, sibling rivalries, disappointments, anger; the stifling hurts of long histories, money problems, failed marriages, successful friends; a looming horizon and no where to go, no one to see—these are not the promises made to you. Nor were you promised reprieve from them. You are promised, we are all promised that no matter what may come, our Lord is already here and nothing made can stand against him. And so, we rejoice! If cannot rejoice or will not rejoice, then let me ask you: what did you come here to see? Why are you here if not to have your hands strengthen, your back straightened, your head cleared, and your heart filled?
Be strong, fear not! Here is your God!