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Third Sunday of Advent

God’s grace and peace be with all of you.

It’s December, and George has just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His doctors say he has a year to live. George shares his news with the Bible study group at his church, and someone says to him, “Don’t worry. God has a plan.”

It’s December, and a fire has broken out in the Jones’ house. The family—husband, wife, two kids, and the dog—all get out of the house safe, but their home is destroyed. Everything they own is gone. A friend sends them a card that says, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”

It’s December, and a widow named Elaine is missing her husband. Even though he died a decade ago, her grief seems to come back every year around the holidays. Elaine decides not to attend the Christmas party she was invited to. She tells the host that she’s not feeling very festive. The host replies, “Why are you still sad? It’s Christmas, you have so much to be thankful for, you should be happy!”

It’s December, and everywhere Jess goes, she sees Christmas: the music playing on the radio, the lights and wreaths on every home, the decorations in every store and public space. At her church, the big Nativity display has been set up in the sanctuary. Only Jess isn’t feeling the joy and anticipation of the season. She suffered a miscarriage in the fall, and every image of baby Jesus just reminds her what she has lost.

It’s December, and an innocent man named John is in prison. He protested against the people in power, and they arrested him for it. Before long, John will actually be executed for the crime of speaking truth to power. But before that, from his jail cell, he asks a desperate, plaintive question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

John the Baptist had prepared the way of the Lord. He baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, saw the heavens open and the Spirit descending, heard the voice of God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

But now John is in prison. He is no longer the Elijah-like figure, preaching and baptizing in the wilderness. He criticized King Herod, and Herod threw him in jail. John has lost his freedom, lost the crowds, lost his voice, and soon will lose even his life. And even though he knows exactly who Jesus is, he still asks: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Are you the one, or are we to wait for another? Jesus, tell me, do we have to keep waiting?

John’s question is heartbreaking. This is not an academic exercise for him. John doesn’t have much time left. “Jesus, are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? Because I can’t keep waiting forever. If you’re the one we’ve waited for, the Messiah, the Son of God, maybe now would be a good time to shake things up? Maybe now would be a good time to get rid of corrupt rulers like Herod, to establish peace and justice, to set the imprisoned free?”

John sends his messengers to ask, “Jesus, are you the one?” And Jesus answers, “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.”

On the one hand, this is undoubtedly an impressive resumé. If you’re wondering whether Jesus is the promised Messiah, then miracles like these are pretty convincing proof.

But on the other hand, this might have felt to John like those empty platitudes we so often say to people who are struggling. When people are grieving, lonely, depressed, it does no good to tell them “God has a plan” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” And if I were John, when Jesus says, “Look, the sick are being healed, the poor have good news brought to them,” I would probably respond, “Yeah, that’s great, Jesus, but I’m still in prison. I’m still about to be executed. Your nice words aren’t what I need.

Jesus, are you the one who is to come? Or do we have to keep waiting, keep suffering, keep dying, until something finally changes?

This time of year, the holidays, are a time of festivities and family and friendship, a time of light and joyful music. But for many of us, the “festive” season is anything but. We struggle with health problems, bad news, depression and loneliness. We feel the weight of grief, whether that grief is fresh or has been with us for years. We find ourselves in a world that tells us to be happy and bright, when we are feeling sad, tired, dim.

With John, we cry out, “Are you the one who is to come?!” With John, we wonder, “How long do we have to keep waiting?” With John, we beg, “God, please, do something.”

When we feel the sadness and loneliness of this season, we don’t want lights and carols and shallow cheerfulness. We don’t need comfortable platitudes. Because no amount of “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” will actually help us to handle what the world has thrown at us.

What can we do when this time of year is full of darkness, not light? When we feel grief, not joy? When we experience isolation, not fellowship?

I offer you two things. First, the solidarity of John the Baptist. None of us is the first to ask, “How long, O Lord?” We find in John the Baptist someone who can accompany us in our struggles. John the Baptist gives voice to our deepest yearning, wondering questions: “Are you the one who is to come, Jesus?”

When Christmastime doesn’t seem joyful, know that you have company in John the Baptist and in all those who have suffered and struggled before. Know that you are not only allowed to question and doubt, but that even great prophets like John voiced these same questions and doubts. When we are fearful, grieving, or lonely, when we cry out to God in desperation and longing, we are in good company. John the Baptist is there with us.

Second, I offer you the Good News. Not the easy, comfortable platitudes we so often hear, but the Good News of Jesus Christ. In Christ, we encounter God in human form, flesh and blood, real, concrete. The Good News Jesus brings is just as real, just as embodied, just as concrete.

Jesus says, “The sick are healed, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus didn’t come just to pat people on the shoulder and say, “Don’t worry, God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Jesus came to save people, in very immediate, direct ways. Jesus brought healing, life, salvation—and Jesus still brings these things today.

We don’t place our hope in a Savior we can’t see or touch, we’re not waiting on a salvation we won’t experience until the sweet by-and-by. Our hope is in Jesus, and the Good News Jesus brings comes to us in the here and now. It comes to us right where we are, in the midst of our suffering, our grief, our loneliness.

Yes, Jesus is the one who is to come. No, you don’t have to wait for another. Jesus is here, now. Salvation has come, now. You are not alone. You don’t have to keep waiting, desperately hoping, trying to hang on. There is real, tangible Good News for you here and now.

I want to turn your attention for a moment to our responsive reading this morning. Instead of coming from the book of Psalms, we read from the gospel of Luke. It is Mary’s song of praise, known by its Latin title, “Magnificat.” Mary sings this song when she arrives at the home of her relative, Elizabeth. According to Luke’s gospel, Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist, the prophet who will prepare the way of the Lord. The moment Mary arrives, Elizabeth feels John “leap” in her womb, and she knows that Mary is pregnant with the Messiah.

I’m highlighting this reading not just because it’s a beautiful, powerful passage, but also because it is an example of the kind of Good News I’m talking about.

Mary sings a joyful song of praise to God. Being young, unmarried, and pregnant, living under an occupying empire, Mary doesn’t say, “When God closes a door, he opens a window” or some other platitude. She’s not offering vague promises for the future; she’s talking about what God is already doing. Mary declares boldly: “God has looked with favor on me… the Mighty One has done great things for me.”

Mary’s song tells us who God is. God is merciful and strong. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God remembers those who are suffering—the lonely, the sick, the oppressed, the desperate.

At the times when we, like John the Baptist, are desperately waiting for signs of God’s presence, we can turn to the Good News Mary declared. When it feels exhausting to keep searching, the Good News comes to you: you don’t have to wait, you don’t have to summon the energy to go out and find it. The Good News has been brought to you. The angel Gabriel brought the Good News to Mary, John in the womb announced the Good News to his mother, Mary boldly declares the Good News to all.

The Good News has been brought to us. Jesus is the one the world has waited for, and we don’t have to wait any more. Amen.

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