3rd Sunday Advent
3rd Sunday Advent 3.22 “Here If You Need Me…” Is. 35:1-10, Matt. 11:2-15
There is a verse in our OT reading, vs. 8 of Isaiah 35, that sheds light on our somewhat cryptic Gospel reading. The verse reads: “And a highway shall be there [in the desert blooming like a rose] and it shall be called a way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall be for those walk the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.”
When the historic one year lectionary from the middle ages was overhauled by all the catholic churches in the 1960’s (churches that follow the apostolic liturgy, believe the word/sacraments are divine means of grace, and confess the 3 ecumenical creeds as the only authoritative, universal, catholic creeds which we’d never dream of rewriting to suite modern tastes) we went to a 3 year lectionary using Matthew in year A (which in the 1 year lectionary was 80% of the Gospel readings), Mark year B, Luke year C, and John sprinkled much more frequently in each year.
The old 1 year lectionary didn’t have a fixed set of OT readings. So OT reading were set for each Sunday, and the idea is that something in the OT reading ties in closely to the Gospel reading, while the Epistle touches on tangential themes. I’m pretty sure today’s intended tie-in was Jesus telling John (in answer to the question if Jesus really is the Coming One?) see!: the blind receive sight, lame walk, lepers are cleansed, deaf hear, and the dead are raised—the very things we see happening in vs. 5-6 of our OT reading.
But I think there’s a stronger tie-in: vs. 8 with the highway of holiness. This is a surprising verse to most modern Christian sensibilities. Moderns usually think that God sends witnesses, preachers, teachers who lay out correct information about God (and Jesus) which then we then must carefully ponder, decide whether we believe it or not, and then (if we do) we begin to walk the way of Christian discipleship, enlightened by useful information.
But, vs. 8 of Isaiah 35 shatters this comfortable, modern, rationalist, Pelagian heresy that has swamped Christendom. The highway through the blooming desert to Zion, the holy city, is not walked by people who formerly were fools, senseless, but now—by useful information about God—are enlightened, having decided to change our minds and follow Jesus.
NO! Isaiah says: even though a FOOL, he shall not go astray, walking this way. We’re still fools, only now for Christ’s sake! This changes everything, as Luther points out in Bondage of the Will (which we will be reading on Wed. evenings in the new year). It is not the case that someone shares persuasive information about God and Jesus with us and then we change our minds, and cease our folly. Nope; the only change is the nature of our folly!
Now we’re fools for love, fools for Xt, simply by being put on the holy road by God himself, who just grabs us by the scruff of the neck (by his will and quite against our natural volition!) and makes us walk this way, marveling at the desert turning back into Eden’s garden as we go…
To put it bluntly: we do not become holy first, by considering divine information, processing it rationally, deciding to accept it, and then changing our walk and way accordingly. NO! First, God puts us on the way that leads heavenward (foolish and sinful though we be) and simply being on the road to heaven makes us holy.
It’s exactly how Jesus healed the 10 lepers. They came to him, begging mercy, not really expecting anything, and Jesus says, “Hey, go show yourselves to the priests in Jerusalem and see what they say.” And, as they went, they were healed. It was walking the way Jesus put them on that healed them. They didn’t first, process the right information about Jesus, decide it was true, and help their own healing. Nope! Simply going the way Jesus said is what did it. And only 1 of the 10 seems to have noticed (on the road!) the healing had happened, and changed course back to worship Jesus as the true High Priest who alone can declare us sinners clean.
“Fake it till you make it” would be another way to put it. You don’t have to have any right ideas about the way or where it goes or how holiness works. Faith is simply the NON-REJECTION of Jesus’ word, not turning away when he jams you down on a deserted road. Just… follow him, as he says, OK? And long before you get to heaven, you’ll already be high, heavenly, holy; truly fit to dwell with the Almighty and worship him in splendor of holiness.
What does this have to do with John the Baptist in our Gospel? Everything! I would say…
Have you ever had a massive project that you alone have been tasked to accomplish, and a friend says, “Hey; I’m here if you need me…” volunteering to help? It sounds, at first, like a generous offer. Yet it can contain a putdown. “You’re not up to this task all alone. Can’t understand why the boss would assign a job that requires such tact and diplomacy to you!?” ‘I’m here if you need me’ can mean: “When you come to your senses and realize you can’t do this by yourself and admit you need my help, then I’ll come and help.”
It’s also a way of saying “I’m not here for you, not on your side, unless you give me something important and meaningful to do so that I can express myself and use my gifts and follow my heart like a good Disney princess.” It’s condescending—that means talking down to you 😉
Many have thought John was losing his faith because Jesus didn’t bust him out of prison. I think John’s having a Disney Princess moment, here (because that makes most sense of Jesus’ last line about how John is greatest of all born of women, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he; and we’ll get to that in a sec…;-)
I think John’s (perhaps unwittingly) saying “I’m here if you need me” in that condescending way we parsed above. John’s thinking Jesus surely needs the help of the prophets and apostles to turn a sinful world around. John seems to think: first, we are convinced of the truth of Christianity, and only then do we become disciples; when, in fact: we become disciples by baptism and the word and worship of Jesus that puts us on the way before we have any idea what it is or where IT leads, or have changed our minds or conduct ourselves, at all…
All we need is to be fools for Xt—not stopping Jesus putting our feet on the desert way—going without understanding. Jesus commands us to take the less traveled by road to heaven, a steep and difficult little mountain trail; and simply going that way by his will (against our own natural volition), will, like the leper, cleanse us by simply being on the way, before we even realize it.
What we call “help” Jesus calls perpetrating violence against heaven. When we stop storming the gates…
when we realize Jesus doesn’t need a thing from us, that indeed we cannot do anything to change our minds, hearts, or lives, or cleanse our sins, that Jesus must do it all, 100% and we are merely passive receivers, dumb donkeys he rides and turns his way, we are offended, like John. Jimmy’s starting to get a little upset!
But when Jimmy knows he’s least, lost, last, Jimmie’s great; Jimmie’ll go, wherever, however Jesus says, storm troop no more, just another fool Jesus takes pity on and saves all by himself, by grace alone. Just so, Jesus is here, for you, now; putting your feet on heaven’s highway, in his holy Name. Amen.