Isaiah 35.1-10; James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11
O Lord Jesus Christ, who at your first coming sent your
messenger to prepare the way before you: grant that the ministers
and stewards of your mysteries may likewise so prepare and make
ready your way by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the
wisdom of the just, that at your second coming to judge the world
we may be found an acceptable people in your sight; for you are
alive and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
IF THE First Sunday of Advent was about walking in the Lord's
paths, and the Second Sunday was about running the race set before
us, then the Third Sunday comes as something of a jolt. The
readings take us into a world where we are not determinants of our
actions, but have to learn to wait.
James introduces the farmer who has to be patient with his
precious crop. Watering, weeding, and fertilising it, yes; digging
it up to see what is happening, no. Rain, beyond his control, will
come in due season.
The lesson that James draws from this? To be patient, we must
strengthen our hearts, knowing that waiting is not wasted time.
Then James strings together some seemingly disjointed thoughts: not
grumbling, being judged, enduring suffering, and speaking in the
name of the Lord. There is a sermon about patience waiting to be
unpacked in these verses.
The Gospel is also about patience, but approached from a
different angle. Last week, we heard St John the Baptist in full
flow, unafraid to call religious leaders a brood of vipers. Now we
find him in prison for crossing Herod, voicing his doubts. He was
learning patience the hard way because, for someone used to the
wide open spaces, solitude, and freedom of the wilderness, being
shackled in a dungeon must have been dreadful.
Having proclaimed Jesus as the One who is to come, he was
hearing reports of what Jesus was doing. He needed to hear from
Jesus himself whether he really was the Messiah, or whether he,
John, had based his life on a ghastly mistake. Jesus's response is
fascinating. Refusing to answer "yes" or "no", he challenged John
by sending his disciples back with stories of what they saw and
Jesus couched his reply using the language of Isaiah's vision,
which we hear this week, and of Isaiah 61.1, where there is the
significant addition of the proclamation of liberty for the
captives and release to the prisoners. By adding "And blessed is he
who takes no offence at me" to the end of this litany of salvation,
Jesus's implicit challenge to John was: "You hear of me doing the
things the Messiah will do, but I have not mentioned release for
prisoners, and I have not secured your release. Do you nevertheless
believe that I am the one who is to come?"
Could John, forced to do nothing in uncongenial surroundings,
learn the farmer's patience of which James wrote? Having sown the
seed when he was a free man, he had to wait in prison while it
grew. Can we, facing whatever feels like unanswered prayer, learn
Perversely, Jesus waited until John's disciples left before
affirming John's vocation and ministry before the crowds. John
never heard those words that would have been greatly comforting to
him. Instead, he heard only the challenge to believe, despite
Jesus's not doing, for him, the very thing that the Messiah was
supposed to do.
If we live faithfully, much of our ministry involves sowing
seeds, whose fruit we never see. This is a particular ministry of
cathedrals with anonymous visitors, but it is also true of the
smallest parish church, and of each of us personally. We have to
learn to wait patiently for the gospel to bear fruit.
At Durham Cathedral, we encourage ourselves by collecting the
stories we hear of the fruit of seeds sown years earlier. I think,
for example, of the chaplain who met someone who had once prayed in
the cathedral for the gift of a baby, when, apparently, conception
was not possible. The family was in the cathedral to celebrate that
prayed-for child's graduation from the university. Their comment?
"We are here to say thank you to God."
What is the key phrase in this week's readings? "Strengthen"
must be a strong contender. It is hard, but possible, to piece
together the bigger picture when our own circumstances seem to
challenge the faithfulness of God. Then we can strengthen ourselves
and one another - whether it is hands, knees (Isaiah), or hearts
(James) that are failing. Advent is about learning to wait