Go and tell John what you hear and see
December 11, 2016
The Rev. Martin Deppe
For a long time Cub fan, after an interminable Advent of waiting, the question for the last several months has been: Is this the year? Is this the end of our waiting? Is this the team? Yes, indeed!
But, back to the world of hum drum reality and the Advent question before us this morning. John the Baptist is in prison, having upset Herod Antipas the tetrarch, son of Herod the Great who had tried to eliminate the Holy Child in Bethlehem years earlier, and failed. Now his son, Herod Antipas, has been confronted face to face by this locust-eating prophet, accusing him of adultery and no doubt other serious sins of his regime.
The pay-back is that John is now behind bars and his ministry along the Jordan has been halted. John is concerned that the call to repentance be continued, that the people be warned that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. John has already baptized one Jesus of Nazareth, and has heard through the grape vine that this Nazarene is proclaiming a similar message, so he decides to check this out.
From his prison cell, John sneaks a message to Jesus: "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?" This is a key Advent question. It is addressed in the world of darkness, in the world before Christ, a world in despair, poverty, hopelessness and fear, a world waiting for something good. Evil is has run amok. Decency is flogged. Truth is turned inside out. Anything and everything is normal.
In the words of the poet, W. H. Auden, penned in 1944:
Darkness and snow descend on all personality...
The prophet's lantern is out and gone the boundary stone...
The evil and armed draw near;
The weather smells of their hate
And the houses smell of our fear...
As the evil and armed draw near.
A fugal chorus intones:
Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The seventh is the Kingdom of Popular Soul...
When he says, You are happy, we laugh;...
When he says, It is true, everyone believes it;
When he says, It is false, no one believes it;
When he says, This is good, this is loved;
When he says, That is bad, that is hated.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him."
The narrator continues:
These are stirring times for the editors of newspapers:
History is in the making; Mankind is on the march.
The longest aqueduct in the world is already
And into this world, then or now, the question is posed: "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?"
For us today, we need to address this question of "Are you the one?" to -
The powers that be, city, state and the president-elect team. Can City Hall make our streets safe? Will the State of Illinois pay its bills? Will the new team in DC serve the general welfare of all the people?
We need to ask 'are you the one' of Facebook and Twitter, where news is passed on instantly, whether it is verifiable or rumor, whether true or fake. How does this relate to the Scriptural promise that the truth will make us free?
We might even ask 'are you the one' of self-driving cars?
We should ask 'are you the one' of Santa Claus, and the fun side of the holy days?
We should ask 'are you the one' of the entire package of weeks-long consumer-driven Christmas extravaganza?
We need to ask 'are you the one' of ourselves. In this selfie obsessed time dare we presume that we can redeem ourselves?
To each and every one of these scenarios the answer is Not a chance! No way! Negative! The answer comes to us here today from Jesus himself, in his message sent back to the prison:
"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."
Our Lord is saying, 'in the midst of these deeds you will observe the one who has come. In the midst of healed bodies, liberating good news and resurrected lives, there you will find me. ......
It might be on the street, in a boardroom, bedroom, brothel, factory, an office, a homeless shelter, any place of pain, distress or brokenness. Whenever and wherever these deeds of mercy are performed, and especially for the poor, they have been done to me.' That is Christ's total identification, his incarnation and penetration of our messy world. "The Word became flesh and lived among us."
How does that translate into our situation today? How do we express a "radical esteem for the Incarnation," in the words of William Stringfellow, that John Baptist-like Episcopalian layman, lawyer, and colleague of mine back in the 1960s and 70s? Bill Stringfellow wrote,
"A Christian is not distinguished by his (or her) political views, or moral decisions, or habitual conduct, or personal piety, or least of all by his churchly activities. A Christian is distinguished by his radical esteem for the Incarnation."2
For the God who gives mercy to those who fear him, who scatters the proud in the fantasies of their hearts, who brings down the powerful and lifts the lowly, who fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty-handed. How do we engage, how do we esteem this Incarnate God, this one who has pitched a tent among us?
Would Christ not be standing beside the 5 year old Muslim boy in Charlotte, NC, who has been allegedly bullied and harassed by his classmates and teacher since classes began in September at his Elementary School? The boy has been routinely singled out and required to carry a heavy backpack, throughout the day causing major back pain, and the teacher has called him "bad Muslim boy" on multiple occasions.
Then on Nov. 16th, after the election incidentally, the teacher reportedly grabbed the boy by the neck and began choking him, before another teacher separated them and consoled the boy who was crying and extremely shaken." School officials are investigating and the boy has not returned to the school since the choking incident.
Would Christ not be standing beside that boy? If Christ is standing there, if we esteem the Incarnation, should we not also be standing with that boy and all boys and girls and all adults as well who face discrimination, and slurs and even deportation?
Would Christ not be standing with the Danny Davis family and all the other families in Chicago who have and are losing children to unending gun violence. Did we not stand there in our "Crosswalk" a few years ago? Christ is surely in the midst of this daily horror in our town.
Would Christ not be standing with the Standing Rock protesters, Native Americans and supporters who are defending in the Kingian spirit of non-violence their sacred land and their source of fresh life-giving water in North Dakota, against attack dogs, and water cannon and other weapons of the powers that be?
La Donna Brave Bull Allard has said, this pipeline "erases our footprint in the world, it erases us as a people." Clearly, this helps explain why the Standing Rock event has become the largest gathering of indigenous nations in modern American history. Is this not part of the moral arc of history bending toward justice? Ought we not consider standing with them in prayer, in solidarity, and even in presence?
Would Christ not be standing with the frightened and targeted owners of a small pizzeria in Washington, DC which is the object of fake news accusing it of harboring a child porn ring led by one of the presidential candidates, and leading to shots fired by a believing conspiratorialist! Ought we not stand up to fake news wherever we see it on behalf of verifiable facts and unassailable truths.
And especially now, when the winning presidential candidate told complete lies 74% of the time and the voters said we do not care. In the words of the Poet, "When he (Caesar) says, "It is true, everyone believes it."
Let us remember that a contemporary prophet, standing on the steps of the Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, cried out, and I paraphrase, that "However difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, truth crushed to earth will rise again, because no lie can live forever. You shall reap what you sow." Are we prepared to speak truth, live the truth and defend the truth that alone sets us free?
Finally, Jesus of Nazareth was an infant refugee in Egypt. Would not Christ today accompany refugees as they flee relentless bombing, hunger, landmines, persecution, rape and even execution? Will we stand with Christ welcoming them to our own shores?
Go and tell John what you hear and see. Indeed, we are seeing and hearing numerous situations that need us, that cry out for us who hold a "radical esteem for the Incarnation," to stand with our Christ against any evil, and attempt to overcome such evil with good.
The Advent question, are you the one, is answered by the one who comes into our midst, who stands beside us, who beckons us to follow him into the center of our darkened world and to join Him in lighting the way, resisting evil, announcing good news, and living with a spirit of faith, hope and love for all people. Go and tell John. Amen.
1 Wystan Hugh Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (1944)”
2 William Stringfellow, “A Private and Public Faith”