Advent 3 A: John’s Blue Christmas
Dear Partner in Preaching,
It’s quite a change, isn’t it? I mean, last Sunday’s gospel reading all but brimmed over with John the Baptist’s confidence and his clear and compelling call for repentance. Yet John’s tune changes markedly in the reading we will be preaching this Sunday. Now, sitting alone in a dark and dank cell, John questions his earlier confidence and perhaps his very mission and identity, and so sends a disciple to go and ask Jesus a poignant, even heartbreaking question: are you really the one who is to come, or should we look for another?
The movement from last week’s reading to this one is both unexpected and a little confusing – in just seven days we’ve jumped several chapters ahead in Matthew’s Gospel, months forward in the narrative he shares, and from a sure and certain confidence to skepticism, if not to outright heartache. Yet it makes a certain sense, when you think about it. Fire and brimstone confidence turned to uncertainty and despair. Anticipation to disappointment. Hope to desperation. This move is not unfamiliar to us. We regularly charge ahead with our dreams and plans, marching forward with optimism about the future, only to be arrested and caught up short, whether by cancer, or loss of employment, or the death of a loved one, or the loss of a relationship, or any of a thousand other things that cause us suddenly to stumble and lose our confidence and question our faith.
This is all the harder at this time of year, of course, when the manufactured cheeriness of the season seems to belittle our challenges or even make us feel inadequate because of our struggles. Which is why this passage may be just the thing we need on the third Sunday in Advent, the day marked in some traditions with the “candle of joy.” Because it introduces a little reality in our progress toward Bethlehem, which is simply that even while we anticipate the birth of the Christ child, give thanks for that gift, and believe that his death and resurrection promises new and eternal life, yet still things can be quite difficult in the meantime. And so a picture of John the Baptist sharing his doubts can reassure and remind us that doubt is not the opposite of faith and that those who believe that the Christian life is one seamless march forward from success to success, or even from less faith to more, haven’t been paying attention.
Indeed, Christian faith knows better because it is patterned on the biblical. Which means that this week, Dear Partner, may be just the time to remind our people that God in Jesus came not as the victorious conqueror that many then – and perhaps some now – wished he would. Rather, Jesus, Matthew confesses, came and comes as Emmanuel, God with us, the one who does not eliminate all our troubles but accompanies us through them; the one who holds onto us when the world feels like it’s falling apart; the one who enters into our suffering and struggle and so reminds us that we are not alone; and the one who promises to bring us through all things even and ultimately through death to new life.
John’s Gospel – often appointed as the reading for Christmas day – is no different, as John similarly does not say that Jesus, the Word made flesh and light of the world, vanquishes the darkness but rather shines on in the midst of it, and the darkness can neither comprehend nor conquer such light. And so on this Third Sunday of Advent we stand with Christians of all time and ages, waiting between the first advent of Jesus in the flesh of a human child and his second advent in glory to heal all hurts, right all wrongs, wipe every tear from the eye, and bring peace to the nations.
But waiting can be hard. And the collision of the festive, even joyful nature of the season and the experience of personal loss or fear some of our folks will be feeling can be quite painful. To address this, some congregations have begun hosting a “Blue Christmas,” a celebration of Christ’s incarnation and birth a little ahead of December 25 designed particularly for those who are dealing with loss, disappointment, grief, or depression. (I’ll put some links to resources below.) Even if you don’t offer such a service, this Sunday’s reading can provide an opportunity to make space in the sermon, hymns, and/or prayers to let our folks know that they are not unfaithful in their doubt or grief, as even someone as bold as John the Baptist had his own “blue Christmas.” Just as importantly, it offers an opportunity to remind them and all of us that the God we know in Jesus – Emmanuel! – not only understands our pain and loss but accompanies us during these times.
Waiting is hard, but is indeed a part of the Christian life. We do not only wait during this Advent season, however, we also prepare. Anticipating Christ’s return, we act to get ready for it. And here I want to be clear – I don’t mean a private preparation about “getting right with the Lord.” Rather, I mean that because we believe Christ is coming to bring healing, peace, justice, and hope, we act now to make our congregations and communities, our country and world more healthy, more peaceful, more just, and more hopeful. That is, because we believe Christ is coming in time we work now for the kind of world we believe God desires us to inhabit, knowing that whatever setbacks or disappointments we experience are fleeting, as when Christ comes again God – and this world – will be all in all.
John’s question to Jesus, we quickly realize, isn’t simply a question, it’s also a plea for understanding and reassurance. Similarly, Jesus’ answer to look to his deeds of mercy isn’t only an answer to John’s question, but also a call to action, a call not just to John but also to all of us. It is a call that both reminds us of God’s promises of healing and peace and empowers us to work for them in the meantime. And so we gather this Sunday, Dear Partner, to make bold to offer our prayers for healing and comfort and peace and justice not only confident that God will answer those prayers but also eager to have God answer them, in part, through us.
So perhaps this Sunday our invitation to our people is to come, along with John, bringing our deep concerns and prayers, but then also to go out again to work, struggle, and care, offering through our words and deeds the healing and peace that comes from the God we know in Jesus. If so, then perhaps we may close this service praying the age-old prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus” or singing that most honest of Advent hymns, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” However you shape this Sunday’s service and sermon, Dear Partner, know that I am grateful for how you give yourself to the care of your people and proclamation of the Gospel.
Yours in Christ,
A few “Blue Christmas” resources I’ve come across, some of which have other resources embedded in them. You may know of others and want to share via the comments.
Post image: John the Baptist pushed into prison and sitting, dejectedly, behind bars; Alsace, 4th quarter of the 12th century. London, British Library MS.