On the third Sunday of Advent, we learn why the Advent candles are traditionally three purple and one rose colored candles. It goes back to the tradition when Latin was the predominant language of the Church. On this particular Sunday, the service would begin with the words: “Rejoice (gaudete) in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice.” In the midst of Advent’s call to a penitential frame of mind and devotion, the Church would give itself time on this Gaudete Sunday to celebrate anticipatory joy. The rose candle is a beacon in the midst of Advent’s more downbeat practices, calling the people to ready themselves for the coming season of joy.
So why do the gospel lessons for Advent this year include Matthew 11:2-11 where John the Baptist is forlorn, in jail, and away from the giddy crowds watching Jesus who is off in the midst of his ministry with his parables and healings and sly ways of infuriating his religious opponents? Why should we hear something so dreadful: a prophet broken, feeling discredited, off in a lonely place, awaiting a certain fate? This is not a joyful image.
The only words John seems able to muster are ones formed by his discouragement: “Jesus, are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3).
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” I imagine we’ve all had that moment where God seems so distant, or that moment when God seems so detached, or that moment when God seems so absent. John’s question comes out of a place of searing honesty. Is there really a point to this? Belief is easy when life is lively, but when pain, suffering, marginalization, or death loom, the believer is tested in ways that crumble the quick and easy answers and the questions pile up.
The response Jesus sends back is not the most expected. “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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:4-6).
In this response, Jesus offers a glimpse of the gospel being brought to bear on the world. It is not the conventional answer hoped for in certain understandings of the Messiah’s coming prevalent in that day. People thought the Messiah would bring about a political and military upheaval which would restore Israel. Even after his resurrection, Jesus contends with his disciples’ hope for something great to happen. Instead of dominance and power, Jesus gives them the call to go out in his name and share his word.
Now here in Matthew 11, we get a foretaste of what this gospel story is about. We learn that God has indeed come, and the Messiah is about the work of God. The ways that the story plays out might not have perfect endings as we would want for ourselves, yet in the end, the gospel story points to an ending that shall surpass the old story of “life and death.” The gospel plays out in a world well acquainted with the jailhouse blues, yet the Resurrection beckons with a different song, soaring above our longings and our loathing, above our angst in life and our cries in the night.
In this hope, we recall the words of the late Rev. Dr. Gardner Taylor, long considered the dean of African American preachers. Taylor recalls the difficult days he spent with the family of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr. In late June 1974, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta was in the midst of worship when gunshots rang out. A gunman aimed for King, Sr., yet it was Mrs. King, the church organist, who was killed in the gunfire.
As Gardner Taylor and other colleagues came from around the nation to support the King family, Taylor relates the way the Ebenezer Church members pulled together with its singing hymns of faith, led by the choir who had been in the midst of the tragedy just a few days before. The church resonated with hymns of faith, sung in full knowledge of their loss, yet giving testimony to the beliefs that helped them make sense out of yet another tragedy in their congregation’s life. That same week, Taylor was a visitor to the King family home. He recalls:
Midst the tall Georgia pine trees, in the King family home, touched with the strange stillness of death, I sat with Martin King, Sr., on Tuesday evening. He bit his lips and said, “They killed Martin, [my other son] A.D. is dead, and now they’ve killed Bunch [his wife’s nickname]. He stopped awhile. Then he said, clutching my hand, “A.D.’s third son came to me the other day, and he is going to preach.” Then he looked at me and said, “They won’t be able to kill us off.” (Gardner Taylor, Fifty Years of Timeless Treasures, Words of Gardner Taylor, vol. VI, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2002, p. 95).
The Rev Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.