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Readings: 3rd Sunday of Advent

06 December 2013


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 heard.

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 similar patience?

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 strongly.



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